• Get over yourself: Your workplace will not implode if you’re not there. Please don’t make me prove it to you using math. And the fact that it can keep running in your absence doesn’t mean you’ll return to a pink slip.
• Don’t prepare for your own death: Before I go on vacation, even for a week, I prepare as though I’m headed to the coroner. I empty the inbox, clean the piles on the desk, put away all the laundry, dust.
On the face of it I’m just getting my personal effects in order so that, presuming I survive my vacation, I also spend it worry-free, liberated to enjoy things to the fullest. But in the process, experts say, I am also significantly raising the stakes for my impending trip.
And raising expectations, some research shows, can have great costs. It builds dopamine, for one thing, which can lead to happy feelings. But if expectations aren’t met — if the pool is a bit subpar, say — dopamine levels fall.
“This feeling is not pleasant,” said David Rock, director of the NeuroLeadership Institute. “It feels a lot like pain.”
Rock, who uses principles of brain science to consult with organizations about management and leadership, advises keeping those expectations in check.
“Not getting what you expect,” he said, “can create a funk that lasts for days.”
• Channel the three-day weekend: Sometimes with breaks, less can feel like more. Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Columbus Day (whenever that is) can seem more relaxing than a full week’s vacation. Why? It helps that on national holidays we are often getting a free day along with a lot of other people we work with. Less guilt. Less anxiety. But we also tend not to prepare for three days off with the same manic intensity as we do when preparing for a week off.
So before you leave, tie up whatever loose ends you can. But no double knots. Your mantra: it’s not a week’s vacation, it’s a series of two three-day weekends, plus a bonus day.
• Stop flirting with work: Jonathan Schooler, a psychology professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, offered a cautionary tale. A recent family trip to Norway intended for relaxation became an exercise in frustration instead because he thought he could fit in a little work along the way. He’d take out his laptop, fiddle, not get much done or just think about the work he’d promised himself he’d do. But he didn’t do it. And he never fully relaxed either.
Of all people, he said, he should know better. Really. His research has shown that creativity incubates when people let their minds wander or do only mildly engaging mental tasks. People sense it might be true, he said, but in a wired world we often only pay lip service to the idea that we need to disconnect.
“Part of the problem is that we don’t really believe in the value of incubation and the value of mind wandering,” he said, adding with a laugh, “I’m still ruining vacations by taking work with me, trying to get stuff done.”
He thinks people do this for two reasons: we persuade ourselves that we can’t afford to do otherwise, and we actually believe we can be productive in these spurts on vacation.
In reality, he believes, working during a break doesn’t just interfere with your vacation; it can also prevent you from filling your creative tank before your return.
• Don’t worry about re-entry: “Who wants to come back from vacation to 1,000 emails?” asked Sylvia Allegretto, an economist at the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at the University of California at Berkeley.
No one wants to feel so buried that they’d wish they’d stayed home.
Allegretto has not always loved her solution to this problem: keeping up with email on vacation, not wanting to fall behind. She feels as though she’s never fully relaxed.
Something good happened, though, on a recent trip home to visit her family in rural Pennsylvania. She found herself in a nail salon, getting a pedicure in the middle of the day, surrounded by old friends, drinking a beer.
“It’s how life used to be,” she said.
After that, she got lost in her hometown, a place both new and familiar. She stopped checking email, partly because the town has poor cellphone reception. She really relaxed. She returned to hundreds of emails, but not only did she survive, so did her vacation.
Mine will, too, presuming you all follow me on Facebook and “like” my poolside updates. Does anyone know what goes with barbecued cod?