At their best, vacations offer a true getaway, a mindful respite from the daily grind. But all too often—regardless of how perfect the sunsets and beach looked on Snapchat and Insta—we come back hungover, bloated, and more exhausted than when we started. That is, of course, presuming we manage to make them happen at all; according to the Project: Time Off initiative, about 52 percent of Americans leave a total of 705 million vacation days on the table each year.
Do vacation right, and you’ll feel less stressed, tired, and dissatisfied, and more happy and energized when you return, research shows. “The people who get a true break and are really getting away have much better benefits when it comes to their health and happiness,” says Katie Denis, chief of research and strategy for Project: Time Off. Here’s how you can make your holiday work in your favor instead of wearing you down.
Overflowing inboxes and fear of being replaced rank among the top reasons for not scheduling vacations in the first place, Project: Time Off finds. Both can keep a cloud over your head even on the sunniest Caribbean island.
To reduce them, schedule far enough in advance to clear your calendar and coordinate backup, Denis says. Pick a time that’s free of conflicts—say, the week when a colleague who could cover for you is getting married, or just before a big deadline. If at all possible, book your trip so you get back on a weekend, or take an extra vacation day to give yourself time to regroup before immediately heading back to the office, says Adia Gooden, a licensed clinical psychologist in Chicago.
Inform your company early
Work on getting your projects wrapped up or transitioned and make a solid plan for who’s covering what while you’re away. Then start talking up your trip, Denis says. “If you're talking about how much you’re looking forward to it and how excited you are and everybody knows you’re going," she says, "who in their right mind is going to ask you to do some work while you’re there?”
Pick the right spot
If you can help it, take something more ambitious than a staycation. Project: Time Off found 76 percent of those who use most or all of their vacation days for travel report being happy with how they spent their time off, compared to 48 percent of those who mostly stay home. To be fair, Project: Time Off is linked to the US Travel Association, but other research backs the idea, too. In a recent German study, middle managers who spent four nights in a hotel outside their usual environment felt less stressed and better recovered when they returned than those who merely stuck around the house for the same amount of time.
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The most restorative locales likely depend on your personality. Reza Niam, a former engineer turned personal trainer and wellness expert who founded wellbeing retreat company Purescapes, prefers sites with water, mountains, and plenty of ways to actively explore them, from cycling to swimming to running. Research shows what’s most important is finding a place that fascinates you—where you feel intrigued and inspired, but not so far out of your comfort zone you’re confused and stressed out by getting there or getting around.
Instead of aiming to check as many destinations and activities off your list as possible, ask: “How do I want to experience this place?” Think about what will truly allow you to take in the sights you most want to see, Gooden says.
For example, on a recent trip to Europe, Gooden—a planner by nature—limited herself to one or two scheduled stops per day. She had some backup options if she felt more ambitious, but didn’t put any pressure on herself to hit them. She also made a point of walking between sites when she could, so she wasn’t rushed and also saw things she wouldn’t have otherwise encountered—like the time she left early for dinner and wound up strolling along the Tiber River in Rome.
“Appreciate that some of these things that happen unexpectedly can be the most wonderful things that you do, more exciting than the things that you planned,” she says. “I think leaving room for wonder and excitement and surprise is helpful.” Hold this same attitude if something you planned goes awry, she suggests. It’s okay to admit you’re bummed if the restaurant lost your reservation or the museum is closed on Mondays, but after a few minutes of moping, refocus on what you can enjoy instead.
Practice healthy(ish) habits
Eat as many whole, fresh, local foods as you can and drink lots of water—Niam suggests taking a filtration bottle to avoid contaminants in tap. Exercise also helps, but that doesn’t mean holing yourself up in the hotel gym doing squats. Instead, get out and explore your surroundings on foot or by bike, kayak, or stand-up paddleboard, he says.
As hard as it may be, try and take it easy on the booze. “It’s one thing to have a glass of wine with a meal, but it’s another thing to get up in the morning and drink all day,” Niam says. Not only does alcohol stress and dehydrate you, it disrupts your sleep, a pretty critical part of feeling restored. Put a priority on getting some solid shuteye—a Dutch study found people who slept more and better on vacation saw greater improvements in their health and well-being.
That said, don't be obsessive about any of this. It may enhance the mood to sample the local fried specialty, savor a scoop or two of gelato, or spend a late night getting a cocktail in an underground speakeasy bar. If you even stay 60 percent healthy and 40 percent indulgent—or 50/50—you’ll be ahead of most people, Niam says.
Plug or unplug—just decide
Some people do better when they steer clear of work and email completely; others have jobs that require at least periodic check-ins or personalities that make them more stressed if they’re completely out of contact, Denis says. If you think you fall into the latter category, examine this a little bit: “We get into a place where we feel like the world is going to stop when we’re not there,” Gooden says. “Sometimes that’s true, but I think a lot of times there’s this sort of weird martyr thing that happens where we want to be so needed that we always have to be on our emails.”
If after introspection you choose to stay semi-tethered, at least try to plan it for a set period of time each day. Not only does that keep you in the moment the rest of the time, it also sets clear expectations and a good example for people back at the office (especially helpful if you’re managing people, who’ll get the wrong message if you’re in constant contact from your cruise ship, Denis says).
Setting boundaries helps for personal technology use, too. You could spend hours trying to find the perfect filter for that sunset photo, but you’re never going to do it justice, Gooden says. And if you post it right away, tallying likes can take you out of the current moment. Instead, give yourself a few minutes to document the scene or take a selfie, and then put your phone away. If you’re abroad, consider opting out of the international data plan—that way, you’ll have to wait for wifi to upload photos or check your DMs.
Using social media sparingly has the added perk of not inviting FOMO along on your trip. During her European trip, Gooden’s friends went to a music festival together, an adventure she’d loved to have joined. Instead of constantly seeing the photos and regretting the timing, she was able to let go and enjoy where she was instead—in Italy.
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