• Leave your context at home: Habits are formed and reinforced by our physical context. Wake up in the same bed, see the clock, plod to the shower, drive to the office. Repeat. But habits aren’t merely physical; they’re emotional, too. Your physical surroundings reinforce your state of mind, explained Russell Poldrack, a professor of neurobiology at the University of Texas.
“Habits of the mind aren’t easy to break in a few days,” he said.
Especially if you don’t change your context.
Which, it seems perhaps too obvious to point out, is why we go on vacation. But these days we are perhaps unaware of just how much of our everyday life we bring along, too. No, not the office or the commuter train, but the phone — that cubicle in your pocket.
Phones and computers fundamentally encourage, even demand, a constant cycle of stimulation and response. Click or swipe, and something happens. And responding to a ping, researchers say, delivers a “dopamine squirt” — a little burst of adrenaline. The brain gets used to this stimulation and then craves it in its absence.
Yes, 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 leave it in one place and refuse to tote it around all day. One Silicon Valley big shot told me he brings his phone but disables email. Whatever you decide, 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, lying on a chaise by the pool, a book at the ready. But instead of sitting back and reading it, you are getting up every five minutes to see whether the adventure hut is open so you can schedule your water-Pilates instruction. Or you are at the lake house, breezes coming up off the water, and instead of enjoying them you are obsessing about a dinner party you’ve just arranged. What grain goes best with barbecued cod?! This is your brain still whirring, hunting and pecking, scanning for stimulus.
“Don’t put down the phone just to get preoccupied by something else,” said Soren Gordhamer, the organizer of Wisdom 2.0, a growing movement in the San Francisco Bay Area aimed at helping people find balance in the modern world. “If you’re not careful, the same orientation you have toward your device, you’ll put toward something else.”
What to do?
First, fight through the withdrawal — not just from your device but also from the constant need to be doing something. (If you find this unpleasant, and chances are you will, it doesn’t mean that your vacation is bad or that you hate your family.)
To help your brain along, researchers have a few thoughts. First, plunge into an absorbing but low-stakes activity — hiking, snorkeling, knitting a two-piece. Novel and unfamiliar 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, hunts and pecks. Make a sport of watching it bounce from one thing to the next, a pinball slowly — you hope — losing momentum.