How To Make Your Next Vacation Count

When we picture our next break from work, we think we’ll spend our time unplugged and slowly refreshing from our day-to-day. But sometimes, the stress of missing work or planning the perfect itinerary can leave us more stressed than when we started. Sometimes we need a vacation from our vacation.

In fact, studies show that having a stressful trip is worse than not taking one at all. So the question is: What are we doing wrong? And how did we get to a point where vacation is so stressful, anyway? 

The United States is the only advanced, developed country in the world that does not have legally mandated paid vacations— a stark contrast to its European peers where workers get 20 to 30 or more paid days off a year. Among U.S. workers who are offered paid leave, the average vacation taken is only about 9 days a year. That means that we’re spending less than 4 percent of our total annual working hours on vacation.

That puts a lot of pressure on those breaks to really deliver, which is probably why we tend to use vacations as both personal reward and recovery periods. For many of us, that means planning adventure-oriented vacations, where we travel great distances, create jam-packed itineraries, or occasionally engage in some sort of intense physical challenge. The result is often a vacation that is wildly fun, but not at all restful.

So how can we retool our approach to vacations to ensure we emerge refreshed, rather than just re-stressed? We combed through the research to source key tips on the most important factors.

That means that we’re spending less than 4 percent of our total annual working hours on vacation.

Take a vacation every 3-6 months.

According to a recent study from Radboud University in the Netherlands, the ideal amount of vacation time to achieve lasting results is 21 days, and you need a minimum of 8 full days off before you even begin to retain recovery effects. For most of us, a three-week vacation sounds great but is hardly realistic. And, in fact, taking one, long vacation a year isn’t healthy either. The study suggests that if you can’t take 3 or more weeks off every 6 to 8 months, it’s better to take multiple, shorter breaks throughout the year. Other studies have shown that the anticipation alone can help alleviate stress beforehand, so book in advance when you can.

Make a flexible itinerary a priority.

The same study from Radboud University found that effective vacations give you the choice and freedom to choose what you want to do. That means two things: Try to avoid structuring your vacation around an unbreakable schedule, and plan on going somewhere that has multiple options to pick from depending on the weather, your level of energy, or your budget.

Incorporate physical activity, but keep it easy.

Research has shown that the longest lasting recovery effects are achieved through activities that are not strenuous or stressful; activities like swimming, snorkeling, golf, or walking can yield positive payoffs for weeks afterwards.

As energy expert Tony Schwartz advises, “The most basic aim of a vacation ought to be restoration – physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually. For me, that usually means not trying to do much. For you, it may mean travel and adventure, some form of physical challenge, an opportunity to learn something new or some blend of all three. The key is to choose something you find truly renewing. At a minimum, that usually requires ‘changing channels’ – not doing whatever you have been doing.” 

Try to avoid structuring your vacation around an unbreakable schedule.

Don’t ignore the impact of jet lag.

Wherever you choose to go, remember that the journey there can add stress, too. Researchers at Erasmus University in Rotterdam found that long-haul air travel can cause major stress hikes, especially in the form of jet lag, which eats into your recovery time for up to three days once you’ve landed. 

A number of studies have identified the main causes of jet lag, as well as some tools you can use to fight it: Don’t drink caffeine or alcohol before or during the flight. If you’re switching time zones, eat at a normal meal time for the zone you’re flying into, even if you’re not hungry. When planning your journey, keep in mind that it’s easier to fly west than east, as it’s closer to your natural rhythms to go to bed later (when it’s still dark out) rather than earlier (when it’s light). If you’re only staying for three days or less though, stick to your schedule from back home.

Keep your work at a comfortable distance.

Leaving your work behind allows you to get into a different perspective and mindset that may make way for new ideas. And while most of us are booking the vacation to get away from work in the first place, for some people that can cause even more stress. In short, how much you should disconnect from email and other work communication is a matter of personal preference and comfort.

Scott Belsky, Head of Behance, found that cutting off work completely was ultimately unrealistic. “The truth is that the burdens of leadership don’t take vacation, and the best way to enjoy yourself is to surrender to the need to check in, with restraint,” he said.

On a recent vacation, he decided to dedicate forty-five minutes in the morning and in the evening. “With the forty-five minute check-ins, I was able to make sure I wasn’t a bottleneck for anyone on my team, and I was able to let myself rest knowing that everything was okay. Nothing distracts you more on vacation than not knowing that all is okay at home.”

Another tip is to make your “out of office” email reply say that you’re coming back one day later than you actually are. That way you have a day to cull, organize, and reply at your own leisure without feeling overwhelmed on your first day back.

Take it one step farther and break old habits.

For the overachievers, who want to return not only recovered but a step ahead in personal progress, vacations are a prime time to form new habits or break old ones. A new environment means a clean slate of all the cues that trigger ingrained habits, and that means room for you to form new ones. Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, explained why in an interview with NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross: “If you want to quit smoking, you should stop smoking while you’re on a vacation — because all your old cues and all your old rewards aren’t there anymore. So you have this ability to form a new pattern and hopefully be able to carry it over into your life.”

How about you?  

What tools do you use to get the most out of your time off?

More insights on: Energy / Fatigue

Sasha VanHoven

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Sasha is the Associate Editor of 99U. You can watch her tweet here.
load comments (17)
  • Lorenzo Parioli

    Very interesting, thank you.

  • Coach-Dave McGhee

    Most of my clients struggle with taking time off, and at being off when they do schedule a vacation. I plan on sharing some of these tips with them, particular the 45-minute checks. Good stuff.

    • Sasha

      A lot of people struggle with guilt about being away or worried it will make it look like they’re not as devoted as others. You can’t do your best work when you’re not at your best either, though. Workers who take more vacations do better work long-term.

  • Max

    Great article.

    Flexible scheduling during your vacation is very important. I’ve been on vacations were every minute was planned, and others were only the flights were a sure thing. Now I have more balance; I write a few things that I’d like to do, and leave plenty of room to stop and chat with the locals or take a detour for a photo. Works like a charm.

    • Sasha

      Agreed! You never want to be stressed about whether you doing enough fun things done in one day or not; defeats the whole purpose.

  • Aaron Morton

    I definitely notice the impact on my clients when they have not had a holiday in a while. And then i definitely notice the impact of when they return!

    The Confidence Lounge

  • Kimberly

    Great article.

    I took a little “mini-vacation” in July, the first one I’ve taken in years, and even now, more than 6 weeks later, all I have to do is look at the pictures from that trip, and almost instantly I feel relaxed. In fact, I’m shocked by how well this works — simply recalling memories from the trip, or talking about it with the friend I went with, or looking the pics I took causes this perceptible shift in mood. Yay for that. : ) It’s a great reminder that as you mention here, even short breaks away are very beneficial.

    • Sasha

      Taking photos or having some kind of tangible memory-trigger is key! It’s amazing what you can forget so quickly and how it all comes rushing back, like you said, with such instant effect.

      • Kimberly

        For sure, & love the way you put that — “tangible memory trigger.” : )

  • growthguided

    Travel causes heightening of the senses and increase of adrenal function!

    The body has to remove this extra stress waste which takes time and energy that disrupts the status quo!

    Thanks for the great post!

  • Joe Nicklo

    My last vacation was a weekend trip to NYC (where I’m from) and it was incredibly stressful. Next vacation is going to be somewhere that I can jump in a pool, get some sun and relax for a full week.

  • Jim

    I must be the only one who can not afford vacation.

  • Paul Jarvis

    WAIT JUST ONE SECOND: what’s a vacation??

    • Sasha

      Well dear, when a department of labor loves an accumulated number of hours, and they’re in a committed relationship of employment, they have a baby vacation between 5 – 10 days and 9 allowances.

  • @StorytellerBill

    What we leave behind when we go on vacation is key to our enjoyment of them. But so too is what we bring back from vacation in terms of insights on how we might want to refine the way we live and work. A good vacation has these small epiphanies sprinkled throughout them that serve as the best souvenirs, as long as we don’t ignore them on our return. I got one such souvenir on a recent vacation after breaking my neck in six places on the first day of it.

    Thanks for the great article Sasha and powerful tips!

  • Chad R. Allen

    Great piece! Thanks!!

  • Joel Orbon

    Wonderful article. Planning your vacation is necessary but always bear in mind to be flexible for some alterations thereafter. Taking photos is one that you must not forget everytime you travel. These are memories captured. And I have another advice for those travelers out there. Try this all natural supplement that reduces stress while traveling, JetLagFX

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