A couple of Mondays ago, on a whim, I decided to take a vacation day. I had to bring my cat to the vet in the morning, which meant a 30-minute walk each way to the neighborhood bordering mine. All together I didn’t expect the excursion—the walk, the appointment itself—to take more than an hour and a half, but it was the excuse I needed to make myself take a day off.
I knew I had nine days' worth of vacation saved up, and I could recognize that I was burned out by work, but I couldn’t bring myself to face the prospect of more unstructured time. Though I still look forward to weekends under quarantine, they’ve taken on a different quality—that is, the quality of there being nothing different about them. On Saturdays and Sundays I do the same activities I do on days I have work, except because I’m not working I can easily exhaust the possibilities for a day before 4 pm. But this wouldn’t happen on my vacation day, I thought, because it will be vacation.
When I got home from the vet, I picked up one of the few books in my apartment I hadn’t read yet, and skimmed a few pages before realizing it was a terribly depressing book, about a girl whose dad locks her out of the house after she bikes 20 miles home from her French boarding school to visit. I abandoned the book and tried to take a nap, but I couldn’t fall asleep. I made a few moves in my Words with Friends games, scrolled through my phone for an hour, stared at the wall for another two, and then it was time for dinner. It felt like any other day.
I had done something wrong, certainly, but was there anything I could do differently to have a more relaxing, more restorative quarantine vacation day?
“It’s really important to set the stage and to prepare the environment,” said Doreen Dodgen-Magee, an author and psychologist who studies the way technology shapes us. “One thing I would seriously think about is how to delineate some time away from screens.”
Dodgen-Magee said our constant screen time is part of the reason why those of us who are working from home might be more exhausted by our jobs lately, and wanting to take a day off in the first place. Whereas before, we at least had a commute separating the “bad screen” from the “good screen,” as a popular meme goes, now it’s all “bad.” The laptop we use to Zoom with our coworkers is the same one we use to Zoom with our friends, and marking the end of the workday might mean little more than closing one tab and opening another. This to say nothing of people who are working from home while caring for small children, for whom the already paper-thin boundary of “work” and “life” has been obliterated.
“When work creeps into what would normally be our time off, we can start feeling time-famished—like we're starving for time—and that alone can make us feel less happy,” Laurie Santos, a psychology professor at Yale University, told me. Her class, “Psychology and the Good Life,” is considered to be the most popular course in the history of the university.
“I think another issue is that we don’t often turn to the best leisure when we’re stressed,” Santos continued. “We often pick things that have an easy start-up cost (e.g., scrolling through social media, scanning Netflix) rather than something a bit more challenging that gives us a sense of what scientists call ‘flow.’”
“Flow” describes a mental state in which you’re totally absorbed in what you’re doing. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the Hungarian-American psychologist who coined the term in the 1990s, said that when a person achieves this state, “the ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.” It’s a time when we “feel our best and perform our best.” Afterward, we feel refreshed and reinvigorated.
Deciding to simply “unplug,” be it for an hour or a whole day, is only the first step to finding a flow state. To abstain from screens for any meaningful amount of time, we have to have something more exciting and absorbing in mind to take their place, Dodgen-Magee said. Before the coronavirus pandemic, that might have meant going to see a new museum show and taking yourself out for a nice meal during a staycation, or sunbathing and sightseeing while away on a trip. These activities may be off the table for now, but some basic principles apply, according to Dodgen-Magee: Vacation is about having sensory experiences we don’t usually have in our day-to-day lives, and if we engage our senses we can approximate the feeling of being on vacation, even under quarantine.
Dodgen-Magee said some new scents, scenes, and tastes are key: Light some candles, and put up something new on the wall, like a poster, or a roll of paper to draw or write on. Have some special groceries ready to go so you can enjoy a snack or dish you’ve never tried before, or order takeout from a new restaurant, or one you haven’t dined at since going into quarantine. If you’re someone who likes to pamper yourself, she suggested giving yourself a manicure or imitating a massage with a foam roller. If you usually use vacation for leisurely reading, set aside a would-be beach or plane read for your time off.
Vacation is about having sensory experiences we don’t usually have in our day-to-day lives, and if we engage our senses we can approximate the feeling of being on vacation, even under quarantine.
Sandi Mann, a psychology professor at the University of Lancashire who studies how the workplace affects our emotions, said a big part of enjoying vacation time under quarantine involves adjusting our expectations. We may not be able to get the same level of sensory experience we would from a typical vacation, but we can find a way to enjoy the forms of stimulation we have at our disposal.
“It’s about looking for the beauty in the mundane and finding the joy in everyday life without needing high levels of stimulation—rediscovering the sunsets, leaves, the bird songs, and leaving our expectations behind,” Mann said. She recommended looking at the weather forecast ahead of time and picking a day or two when it will be nice enough outside to take a walk along a different route, or to a neighborhood you don’t usually visit.
Some people who, like me, have the immense privilege of still being able to take paid time off during the pandemic have done a better job at making the most of it. Netta Bob, who works as a recruiter for a cloud hosting company, recently used a vacation day to have some alone time apart from her wife Anna, with whom she otherwise spends all of her free time under quarantine. She left Anna to her work and spent the day in a different part of the house, went for a midday run, and watched a show she said Anna wouldn't have been interested in watching with her (a re-run of the Great British Bake-Off). “She would be like, ‘Why are you watching this?’” Bob told me.
Though it involved some screen time, Dodgen-Magee approved of Bob’s day off when I described it to her: Bob had established a separate space to do an activity she wouldn’t otherwise do were she not on vacation.
My coworker Shayla Love, who took vacation while I was writing this piece—and therefore had no way of knowing what my sources would say until she got back to work—fared better than me as well. Crucially, she set aside two books specifically for her vacation time: Before the Coffee Gets Cold and Dept. of Speculation, the latter of which I can say for sure is very good and would be a pleasant vacation read. “I picked these because they were both ones I wanted to read, but both have simple and clear writing styles, so I wasn't trying to work through something dense or complicated,” she told me. She’d also bought some art supplies in advance of her time off, and spent a few hours painting with watercolors and acrylics; plus she finally decided to get into TikTok.
Above all, a successful quarantine vacation requires planning. Luckily, that’s also one of the best parts: Research shows that anticipating a future vacation can itself make us happier. Until my next day off, I’ll be imagining sitting in a sunny, uncrowded spot in the park, reading a really excellent book.
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