If you set your expectations too high for, say, a Hawaiian getaway, you might arrive home in a funk, according to research.
Cindy Yamanaka, MCT
Learn to enjoy your vacation
- Article by: MATT RICHTEL
- New York Times
- July 7, 2012 - 3:09 PM
I'm heading into another vacation, and I'm nervous. I don't want to kill again.
I pretty much did in my last break, this past March. Not an act of premeditation so much as passion. Seven days in Hawaii. It was going to be the best vacation I'd ever had. And then it started. Somehow my wife and I had failed to anticipate the effects of a time-zone change on our two toddlers. Then there was the rain. I took refuge in my phone, checking the weather, reading the news. I wondered why I wasn't relaxed. The pool was too cold. How much were we paying for this? The trip left me exhausted, defeated and irritable.
With another break looming, I sought professional help. And so, after a series of conversations with experts, here is the last Vacation Mental Prep List You'll Ever Need (with actual bits of brain science).
People are working at historic intensity, ever-connected and consumed by work. So it's not surprising that even though your body might be comfortably prone on a beach towel, your brain is still scrolling through to-do lists back home. In fact it is unrealistic, experts say, to expect your thoughts to stop on a dime.
Which is why, said Emma Seppala of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University, letting go is something "you have to practice on a daily basis." This, she and others say, entails being deliberate about shifting out of work mode and keeping the eternal to-do list at bay. It can mean turning off your phone an hour before bedtime, or not looking at it first thing in the morning. Best yet, experts say, practice some kind of exercise or meditation designed to slow the mind.
LEAVE YOUR CONTEXT AT HOME
Phones and computers fundamentally encourage, even demand, a constant cycle of stimulation and response. And responding to a ping, researchers say, delivers a "dopamine squirt" -- a little burst of adrenaline. The brain gets used to this stimulation and craves it. Some people can hit the off button and be done with it. Others can't, and shouldn't necessarily have to. (That, researchers say, can provoke stress in its own right.) But to the extent that you can, make a point to change your relationship with your device. Maybe refuse to tote it around all day. See your gadget for what it is -- a copper wire straight into the life you're trying to escape.
ENDURE THE BOREDOM
There you are, at the lake house, and instead of enjoying the breeze off the water you are obsessing about a dinner party you just arranged. What grain goes best with barbecued cod?! This is your brain scanning for stimulus. What to do?
First, fight through the withdrawal from the constant need to be doing something. To help your brain along, researchers suggest plunging into an absorbing but low-stakes activity -- hiking, snorkeling. Novel tasks help tug our brains out of their ruts. Second, if you are up to a slightly higher level of difficulty, just observe your brain as it moves from thing to thing. Make a sport of watching it bounce from one thing to the next, a pinball slowly -- you hope -- losing momentum.
GET OVER YOURSELF
Your workplace will not implode if you're not there. And the fact that it can keep running in your absence doesn't mean you'll return to a pink slip.
DON'T PREPARE FOR DEATH
Before I go on vacation, I prepare as though I'm headed to the coroner. I empty the inbox, clean the piles on the desk, put away all the laundry, dust. In the process, experts say, I am significantly raising the stakes for my impending trip.
And raising expectations, some research shows, can have great costs. It builds dopamine, for one thing, which can lead to happy feelings. But if expectations aren't met -- if the pool is a bit subpar, say -- dopamine levels fall. David Rock, director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, advises keeping expectations in check. "Not getting what you expect," he said, "can create a funk that lasts for days."
CHANNEL THE 3-DAY WEEKEND
Sometimes with breaks, less can feel like more. Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Columbus Day can seem more relaxing than a full week's vacation. Why? It helps that on national holidays we often get a free day off along with people we work with. Less guilt. Less anxiety. But we also tend not to prepare for three days off with the same manic intensity as we do when preparing for a week off.
STOP FLIRTING WITH WORK
Jonathan Schooler, a psychology professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, offered a cautionary tale. A recent family trip to Norway intended for relaxation became an exercise in frustration instead because he thought he could fit in a little work along the way. He'd take out his laptop, not get much done or just think about the work he'd promised himself he'd do. But he didn't do it. And he never fully relaxed, either.
Of all people, he said, he should know better. His research has shown that creativity incubates when people let their minds wander or do only mildly engaging mental tasks. Working during a break doesn't just interfere with your vacation; it can also prevent you from fully filling your creative tank before your return.
DON'T WORRY ABOUT RE-ENTRY
"Who wants to come back from vacation to 1,000 e-mails?" asked Sylvia Allegretto, an economist at the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at the University of California at Berkeley.
Allegretto has not always loved her solution to this problem: keeping up with e-mail on vacation. She feels as though she's never fully relaxed.
But something good happened on a trip home to visit her family in rural Pennsylvania. She stopped checking e-mail, partly because the town has poor cell reception. She really relaxed. She returned to hundreds of e-mails, but not only did she survive, so did her vacation.
© 2013 Star Tribune