Step 1: Actually book a vacation!
Americans forfeit more than 400 million paid vacation days each year, according to Cait DeBaun, spokeswoman for Project: Time Off, an organization working to change the way the U.S. workforce thinks about vacation.
“America’s vacation problem stems from a work martyr complex among employees and a culture of silence from employers,” DeBaun says. “It’s going to take change in the workplace to create balance.”
While a real shift in the way Americans in general (and perhaps your boss in particular) think about the concept of time off may take years, you can take control of your own schedule today. Use the vacation days you have earned! It may feel uncomfortable at first, but in the long run, time off is likely to improve your performance at the office.
“Think of it as halftime in a game,” DeBaun says. “If Stephen Curry kept playing through halftime or didn’t take a breather on the bench, there’s no way he’s going to make that three-point, game-winning shot at the buzzer.”
Step 2: Give yourself ample time to prepare.
Studies have shown that anticipation of positive experiences contributes to happiness. However, a 2012 study of Dutch workers found that health and well-being decreased significantly from two weeks to one week prior to vacation. Those findings will resonate with anyone who’s ever found themselves at the office at 9 p.m. the night before vacation trying to wrap up loose ends. The study also found that the stress of getting ready for a trip was worse for women. The not-so-shocking explanation? Women still tend to do more housework, which means even more pre-vacation stress while juggling things like laundry, packing kids’ suitcases and making arrangements for pet care.
“What likely helps is to ease the travel issues by planning ahead and allowing more time to adjust, pack, etcetera,” says Jeroen Nawjin, a researcher at NHTV Breda University and one of the authors of the Dutch study.
Rather than waiting until the week before you leave to begin preparations, start getting your ducks in a row — at home and at the office — a month before you depart. That will help reduce your pre-vacation stress so you don’t spend the first few days of your trip simply decompressing from all of the hassle of getting out of town.
Step 3: Take (at least) an eight-day trip.
It’s common to go away for a week (which is definitely better than nothing!), but Jessica de Bloom, a Finnish researcher who studies the effects of vacation on workers, found that health and well-being peak on the eighth day of a getaway. So, there you have it — a scientifically proven reason to take a longer vacation!
Step 4: Keep your phone on airplane mode.
Our smartphones keep us connected to the office — from anywhere at any time. You’re not going to be able to unwind if you’re responding to emails the entire time you’re sitting by the pool. You have to put your phone on airplane mode for your flight, and DeBaun suggests leaving it that way when you arrive at your destination. Unplugging from the office will be easier if you’ve prepared in advance. DeBaun recommends taking the following steps:
- Block your vacation on your calendar and put a reminder on colleagues’ calendars.
- Set up a meeting a few days before your vacation to share the status of your current projects and discuss who will move necessary tasks forward in your absence.
- If you have external stakeholders, be sure to connect them with a team member ahead of time so there are no surprises.
- Don’t forget your out-of-office message. Be clear on the dates you will be away, when someone can anticipate a response, and who to contact in case of emergencies.
Step 5: Have a loose itinerary.
Hopping on a last-minute flight to Paris for a spontaneous getaway might sound exciting. But a 2013 study by Good Think and the Institute of Applied Positive Research found that poorly planned and stressful vacations eliminate the benefit of time away. You don’t want to schedule every second of your trip, but figuring out transportation, familiarizing yourself with your destination and creating a loose itinerary will go a long way in ensuring a rejuvenating getaway. The Good Think study found that people who reported they had negative vacations (i.e., their stress level wasn’t lower when they returned) were still figuring out trip details at the last minute or even while on vacation. Don’t make that mistake — give yourself at least a month to plan your vacation.
Step 6: Plan activities you actually enjoy.
“The results of our studies suggest that it is not so much the type of activity per se employees engage in during vacation which is important for changes in well-being,” de Bloom writes in her research. “It is rather the subjective experience associated with these activities and the degree to which an activity matches one’s preferences that makes the difference.”
Translation: Spend your vacation doing things you enjoy. It sounds obvious, but we’ve all taken trips that aren’t our top choice (a ski weekend with the in-laws, a bachelorette party in Vegas, or that camping trip your husband talked you into). It’s fine to go on those getaways, but don’t expect to come back feeling as refreshed as you would if you got to do exactly what you wanted.
Step 7: If you have to work, try to control how and when.
Not surprisingly, de Bloom found that working while on vacation limited “psychological detachment” (aka, feeling like you actually got a break). However, workers who had control over how and when they worked while on vacation fared slightly better. The takeaway? If you absolutely must work while you’re on vacation, make sure it’s on your terms. For example, you might take an hour to return calls and emails in the morning and then spend the rest of the day with your family.
Step 8: Plan a “re-entry” day.
If you return home at midnight and have to be at work the next morning, your stress level will probably rise quickly and any benefits you derived from lounging on the beach will fade just as fast. Instead, DeBaun recommends planning a “re-entry day” so that you can enjoy every last minute of vacation without the imminent return to work hanging over your head.
“By allowing yourself time, whether taking an earlier flight or an extra half day, having the time to unpack and prepare for the week ahead is a nice way to ease back in to the real world,” she says.
Step 9: Repeat several times each year!
Unfortunately, de Bloom found that improved health and well being typically only lasts for about a week after people return from vacation. The good news is that you can add a little more of that post-vacation glow to your life by taking several additional shorter trips throughout the year (can’t argue with science!).
“In addition, health and well-being do not necessarily improve during every vacation for every employee, for example due to negative incidents during holidays,” she says. “Consequently, vacationers should not put all eggs in one basket and take regular vacations instead of one long vacation only.”
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