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How to make vacation mindset last all year long

June 10, 2022 - 14 min read

woman with vacation mindset working on hammock

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How much do U.S. workers need a vacation?

What does vacation do to your brain?

Vacation brain vs. vacation mindset

How do you give your brain a vacation?

How to vacation without causing more stress

With the holidays fast approaching, many of us have vacation on the brain. But despite the well-known benefits of taking breaks, many of us struggle to disconnect from work. 

But vacation brain and developing a vacation mindset can benefit our mental health and overall well-being long after we’ve returned to our regular schedule.

Why wait for the holidays to roll around to get the many mental health benefits of time off? Here’s why you should embrace a vacation mindset all year long, and how to build daily practices into your work and life for long-lasting results.

How much do U.S. workers need a vacation?

More than half of employees end the year with unused time off.

This ends up costing employers in more ways than one, such as higher disengagement, turnover, and much more. Beyond the business impact, there are also harmful health effects for individuals. Chronic stress and workaholism lead to burnout.

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Luckily, progressive employers are leading a cultural tidal change around taking a vacation. Many are implementing policies that encourage people to use PTO so they can tend to their well-being. Some organizations also offer employees mental health days. And it’s for good reason: people who take at least one vacation report better health than those who don’t.

These workplace culture changes are important because the human brain is not designed to work all the time. It needs time for mental maintenance, which includes rest, recharging, and reflection necessary to operate at our best.

That means you have to intentionally put practices in place to engage your mind in new and different ways. When you do, you not only feel rejuvenated, but it also gets your creative juices flowing. You feel more energized and engaged on a daily basis.

What does vacation do to your brain?

People who take at least one vacation report better health than those who don’t. And why is that? What is the magic of vacation brain and how does it impact the way your brain functions?

When we encounter new experiences, ranging from smells to foods to places, our brain is stimulated in a different way. This activity can theoretically adjust the way we think. It adds new information to our brain’s library of experiences, allowing us to draw on and intuit new ideas.

All of this new information we’re faced with while on vacation then boosts our creativity. We can make new connections that, had we not encountered these new stimuli, we might not be able to make.

Keeping your brain stimulated with new experiences can also help prevent cognitive decay over time.

Then there is the rest component. Your brain needs to experience different kinds of rest for optimal health. This can range from reading to exercising. Essentially, taking a break from the activity you spend most of your time doing can be considered restful for your brain.

Benefits of taking a vacation

Taking a break from everyday life has a variety of benefits. It can help your overall wellness and well-being in the following ways:

Vacation brain vs. vacation mindset

Think back to your favorite vacation or trip. What made it so special? It’s likely you felt like you had mental white space, which allowed you to think clearly. Maybe it included lots of fun or deeply delightful activities. This sense of ease, engagement, and enjoyment is vacation mindset at its finest.

Mindfulness expert Leo Babuta describes vacation mindset this way:

“Vacation mind…is just present in the current moment. Time is less important, enjoying yourself is the priority.”

So what does it look like when you apply vacation mind to work? You let go of the anxiety. You aren’t worried about getting it all done or doing the right thing right now, or all the things you have to do later. You are immersed in enjoying whatever you’ve chosen to do right now.

family walking down street on vacation

How do you give your brain a vacation?

Why should this optimal state of well-being only be reserved for our time out of the office? Vacation mindset is something that can be cultivated and it can have a positive effect on both personal and workplace relationships.

Here are some simple practices to help you incorporate elements of mindfulness, calm, and energy into your regular work life to help make every day feel a little more like a vacation.

Take regular breaks

Have you ever noticed that you tend to have your best ideas in the shower? Or maybe you’ve finally (and surprisingly) made a big breakthrough on a problem after a few days off. That’s because when you allow your mind to wander, your brain gets busy making new associations and connections. These come to the forefront as creative insights and innovative solutions.

While we spend most of our work day in logical thinking, analyzing, calculating, and strategizing, we’d do well to engage the brain’s diffuse mode more often. The diffuse mode is that daydreamy, relaxed state that happens when we allow ourselves to take a break.

There are many ways to tap into the diffuse mode regularly, including with mindfulness practices like meditation and self-reflection. Another practical way of accessing it taking regular breaks throughout the day and engaging in another activity like drawing.

Channel your playful side

As adults, we often fall into the proverbial “all work and no play” trap. And yes, it does make life very dull. Vacations have a way of reigniting that childlike sense of fun in us and it’s worth bringing a little of that playful energy back into the workplace. Why? Play is extremely important for well-being. It reduces stress and even helps foster a greater sense of collaboration.

An easy way of fitting more playfulness into your day is by smiling every time you walk through a doorway. It sounds silly, but it’s a powerful way to gamify your day that releases “feel good” neurochemicals.

Work toward the life you want

Seth Godin once said, “Instead of wondering when your next vacation is, maybe you should set up a life you don’t need to escape.” It’s a reminder to be present and stop putting happiness on hold.

How about your ideal workday – what would it look like? What would you spend your time doing? Answering questions like this helps you get in touch with your values and strengths. When you’re connected to your values, you can embrace a fuller life and more meaningful work.

Embrace new experiences

The COVID-19 pandemic put a damper on travel. But new experiences exist everywhere. Trying a new sport or picking up a paintbrush for the first time as an adult may not sound adventurous, but they could be new to you.

Look for simple activities, places, and foods to try to keep your brain stimulated in new ways.

Try a digital detox

Stepping away from the computer is one challenge. Putting the phone away is quite another. But it can be highly beneficial to unplug completely and try a digital detox.

If that’s too much for you, try turning off your notifications and steer clear of social media. These might seem like small disturbances, but they greatly impact your thought patterns. So try decreasing your device usage to give your brain a vacation from home.

Take care of your body

This might sound more like a chore than a vacation, but eating nutritious meals and getting enough sleep is crucial for mental health. So adjusting your lifestyle both on and off of vacation can boost your overall well-being and support a vacation mindset year-round.

friends on a roadtrip enjoying vacation brain

How to vacation without causing more stress

Sometimes, planning a trip can be more stressful than carrying on. Booking flights, accommodations, and rental cars alone can send you into a spin. Or maybe you’re afraid of flying – now is not the time to face your fears.

Here are 5 ways to take a vacation while reducing your stress levels:

1. Stay local

If even the thought of planning a big excursion has you stressing out, consider staying at a hotel or renting a place a few towns over. The lack of travel time will cut down on travel anxieties. And staying somewhere slightly familiar can be reassuring if you’re hesitant to venture too far.

2. Keep it short

Just two to four extra days of rest can do wonders for your brain health. Allowing yourself to unplug and let go of your regular responsibilities for a short time can be very rejuvenating. This short break also means that you can request fewer vacation days from work. So if you’re already worried about catching up or find it hard to step away, a short break can help.

3. Travel comfortably

If you do get anxious flying, then you do not have to fly. You can take a road trip instead. Check out some national parks or cities you’ve been thinking about. This time is about giving your nervous system a break. So make sure that you’re making choices that make you feel good.

4. Plan ahead

There are few things worse than scrambling to pack or find a place to stay for a vacation. Try giving yourself a healthy runway of time to plan and prepare. This will save you some stress leading up to your vacation. Let your co-workers know that you will be taking some time off. If you are an individual contributor, the additional preparation before you take time off can help you catch up when you return.

If you’re opting for a staycation, you can still plan ahead. Get your grocery shopping and laundry out of the way. A little structure can take the pressure off. Decide where you’re going to eat or have ideas for what you want to do with your time before your first day off.

5. Ask for help

If you find yourself in charge of planning an entire family trip on your own, try asking a partner, friend or family member to help. They may have traveled there before or have some tips to make your vacation even more enjoyable. If they’re going on the trip with you, you can rest assured that they will enjoy the plans you make since they’ll be part of the process.

Harnessing the power of vacation brain and mindset

You don't have to take a cross-country trip to access vacation brain. But taking time away from work and everyday stressors is crucial for optimal well-being. Try the strategies listed above to set yourself up in a vacation mindset from the beach or your desk.

If you need more help managing stress and burnout, reach out to BetterUp®. Our trained coaches can help you find solutions that fit your lifestyle and priorities.

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Published June 10, 2022

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