By Rebecca Zucker
Partner, Next Step Partners
Originally published by Harvard Business Review.
Many of us have had our summer vacation plans cancelled due to the pandemic. Perhaps you planned to visit family or take your annual beach vacation. Or maybe you were scheduled to celebrate a milestone with big trip — a food and wine tour of France or an African safari. Whatever your thwarted plans entailed, you might be thinking of skipping a vacation altogether. And given that productivity has been hampered for many of us over the last few months, it’s easy to think, “I should keep working, so I can get more done,” or “What’s the point? I can’t really go anywhere.”
Don’t give in to this limited thinking. Several studies indicate that performance nose-dives when we work for extended periods without a break. In addition, the benefits of taking a vacation are clear: It results in improved productivity, lower stress and better overall mental health. It also spurs greater creativity — for example, Lin-Manuel Miranda conceived of Hamilton while on vacation.
Research on elite athletes shows that rest is what enables them to perform at peak levels, and the same is true for us. Taking a vacation allows us to come back feeling refreshed and recharged, with renewed focus. Some companies are even requiring employees to take time off. Vacations may even help your personal bottom line: Research shows that those who take more than 10 days of vacation are 30% more likely to receive a raise, and those who take regular vacations have greater job satisfaction.
While your plans will likely look different than before, below are some guidelines to help you reap the benefits of vacation, wherever you go.
Vacation doesn’t need to entail extensive travel. The fun of it is going somewhere that is different from your daily life. This may be a short drive from home, an extended road trip, or an excursion to the other side of town. One friend rented a beach house for her family 10 miles from her home. A team member rented an RV with her family and drove to the mountains with another family. (Each family had their own RV and got tested for Covid-19 before leaving.) Another colleague took a solo weekend a few hours outside his city at an Airbnb to read and reflect. Another team member planned gourmet food excursions in her own city, seeking out the best versions of her favorite foods in different neighborhoods across town.
While a spontaneous getaway can be exciting, research shows that the stress of poorly planned vacations can eliminate the positive benefits of time off. In particular, planning a month ahead and focusing on the details in advance versus figuring things out while on vacation has been shown to result in a better vacation experience with more positive outcomes. Planning ahead also gives us something to look forward to — something that Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, says not only makes us feel good, but also adds an “atmosphere of growth” to our lives and makes us optimistic. Even if you’re only going across town, you can still identify which days you’re going to take off and plan what you’re going to do in advance.
The ideal vacation is different for each of us. What is your idea of recreation? What allows you to recharge? What nourishes you? For some, it’s soaking up the sun by the water. For others, it’s a creative pursuit, exploring a new location, trying new cuisine or engaging in an adventure sport. Knowing this will help inform potential destinations and activities. You might not be able to take that cooking class in Provence, but you can still go to the countryside, have a gourmet experience, and cook Provençal cuisine.
Research shows that spending time in nature benefits us both mentally and physically. Moreover, these benefits are reaped whether you are in a national park or an urban park, and with as little as two hours in nature per week. Whether you’re traveling or staying home, build in time outdoors as part of your vacation, whether it’s taking a morning walk, skipping stones on a lake, watching the waves crash at the beach or picnicking in a small park. Being outside also provides open space and more social distancing (aside from the occasional crowded monuments or visitor centers).
A 2017 Glassdoor study showed that two-thirds of Americans work on vacation. Doing so has been found to negatively affect intrinsic motivation and causes us to enjoy our work less. Unplugging from work is a big part of what makes vacation feel like vacation. It’s down time for our brains from the barrage of cognitive demands that come with our jobs. It creates the space for creativity to emerge and allows us to be fully present with our families or travel partners. My colleague who went on the RV trip sans laptop and cell reception felt liberated and like she was able to truly slow down and reset. She let clients know in advance she’d be unavailable during that time. My friend who rented the beach house brought games, puzzles, a good book, and some wine and relished being able to disconnect from work. To be sure, disconnecting can feel difficult — many people fear missed opportunities or the back-to-work email dread. Identify a colleague who can answer questions while you’re away and indicate this as well as how you’ll be following up (if at all) in your out-of-office message.
Vacations are also great opportunities to create lasting, positive memories. Several studies show that recalling happy memories can head off stress, anxiety, and depression — something that is much needed in our busy lives and even more so in current times. Since it’s easy to capture the most enjoyable moments of our vacations with a smartphone, go ahead and record singing around the campfire while eating s’mores. Take pictures of the scenic views, your picnic spread, the fish your teenager caught, or the thousand-piece puzzle your family put together. You’ll enjoy revisiting these memories in the months and years to come.
As easy as it might be to keep on working and skip a vacation, don’t. Following the suggestions above can provide you with an experience that leaves you refreshed and re-energized, and you don’t have to go very far to do it. So, get packing and go. You’ll be glad you did.