How to get the most out of your next vacation

Bathing suit

Before your next vacation, ask yourself if this headline from The Onion sounds a little too familiar: “Man Returns To Work After Vacation With Fresh, Reenergized Hatred For Job.”

While it’s satire, there may be no better way to sum up how taking time off can defeat its own purpose. But, believe it or not, it doesn’t have to be this way.

As it turns out, there’s actually a science to the act of vacationing. It’s more than just picking a place to go, packing a bag, and wondering if you accidentally left the milk out once you leave the house. To best enjoy your future relaxation and to combat the post-vacation blues, we’ve assembled this handy guide to help you make the most of a break, whether it’s a staycation, a short trip, or a far-flung adventure.

First things first…take the plunge

One tragedy of our collective tendencies is that many neglect to prioritize the vacation days we’re entitled to — time we could use to explore, recharge, and relax. According to a 2014 report by the U.S. Travel Association, 41 percent of Americans let at least some of their precious days of paid leave go to waste. Last year, another study estimated that workers in the U.S. squandered over 658 million days of vacation in 2015.

Taking time off is a crucial part of reducing stress, avoiding burnout, and staying creative; embrace that it’s important, banish the guilt, and step away for a few days.

Revel in the planning

You can increase the joy of a vacation, break, respite, sabbatical, or time off beyond the actual days off. In 2010, Dutch researchers who studied the links between vacations and happiness found that the act of planning a trip itself considerably boosted happiness before the time off even begins.

So do knock out as much of the logistical planning as you can before the fun begins. But also, take time to think about the experiences you truly want to have, ask friends for advice on what to do, read up on the possibilities, and then let the anticipation build. If planning ahead isn’t your thing (we’re talking to you Ad Libbers), here are some advantages to vacationing in the moment.

Don’t overdo it

What trip to Chicago would be complete without three hot dogs, two deep-dish pizzas, a Chicago Cubs game, a visit to the Art Institute, a boat ride on Lake Michigan, a bar crawl in Wrigleyville, a trek to the top of the Willis Tower, a long stroll through Millennium Park, a bike ride down the Lakefront Trail, a jazz session at the Green Mill, and a picnic in Lincoln Park? If this sounds like an itinerary for a weekend in the Windy City, pour yourself a glass of pop and consider your priorities.

While checking every single thing off a destination wish list is alluring, it may not boost your long-term happiness. Researchers have also found that the happy afterglow of a vacation tends to last longer (up to two weeks) when participants focus on creating a “very relaxing” vacation. In other words, if science is telling you to relax, you probably should in between your outings.

Take breaks from your normal patterns…

If you’re a chronic social-media user, texter, sports junkie, or amateur weightlifter, incorporating your obsessions into vacation time may diminish the sense that you’re actually taking a break.

Invite yourself to press pause on the things you’d normally do. Instead, embrace the opportunity for different experiences and perhaps take some time to reflect on whether your habits are worth holding onto. If so, your routine will feel fresh when you come back to it. But if you find that your habits feel stale, you can work to make changes when you get back. Either way, it’s a win-win.

…but also find new joy in what you already like

Of course, a vacation doesn’t mean you should swear off what you love. If reading the newspaper or running in the morning is part of a lifestyle that anchors you, don’t avoid doing them just because you’re not on your regular schedule.
But do consider trying out a different running route. Or try reading the paper somewhere you haven’t been before. Whether you’re in San Diego or the Starbucks down the street, switching things up animates the brain by causing it to seek out new neural connections, which stimulate creativity. Changing your routine even just temporarily will help you see your life, the world, and your work differently when you finally get back to business.

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