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, last spring. Not an act of premeditation so much as passion. I got so jacked up. 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? I checked my phone to see if anyone missed me on Facebook. Nope.
I had hoped to return home at peace. Instead I was exhausted, defeated and irritable.
What had I done?
With another break looming, I went seeking professional help. Is there a way to get the most out of a vacation? Or at least not to ruin it? Can one avoid the seven-day trap: three days impatient to be relaxed already, two days actually being relaxed, and then two final days of dread before going back to work?
And can any of this be supported by actual science?
As it turns out, yes. The secret to not killing your vacation revolves around understanding not just your motives, but also your brain and the role it plays in undoing your precious time off.
And so, after a series of conversations with those who seem to understand my brain better than I do — neuroscientists, behavior experts and even business executives — I have a few answers. Herewith, the last Vacation Mental Prep List You’ll Ever Need (made with actual bits of brain science).
• Start now: Picture a sedan tearing down the autobahn, its engine redlining. The driver slams the brakes. The car skids, spins, slams into guardrails and finally stops. This is your brain starting a vacation. 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, the associate director 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, at some point in each day, 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. If you are addicted not to the refresh button on your device but to intensity itself, try stepping away from that, too. Take a walk, or put your feet up on your desk and close your eyes for 10 minutes. Best yet, experts say, practice some kind of exercise or meditation designed to slow the mind.
Seppala has seen its effects. She’s been working with veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, helping them disconnect from the intensity and trauma of war. They use a simple exercise: deep breathing. Even after a few breaths there was a drop in the veterans’ “startle response.” They were less hyped up.
If the vets can come down with some basic breathing, we can, too. And the sooner we start and the more regularly we practice, the better.