What Happens To Your Brain When You Work On Vacation

Even if you do just a little work on the beach, you’ll trick your brain into not remembering the trip.

What Happens To Your Brain When You Work On Vacation
[Photo: Flickr user Andrew Nash]

It’s tempting to check email and maybe even do a little bit of work on vacation, but those stolen minutes could be hurting you more than you think. A study conducted by the University of Texas and vacation rental site HomeAway found that working on your trip for just one hour a day can make you 43% more likely to have trouble remembering your vacation.


Something memorable requires two things, says University of Texas psychology professor and lead researcher on the study Art Markman (who is also a regular Fast Company contributor). “The first is engagement; it’s the energy you put into it,” he explains. “The second is distinctiveness; something out of the ordinary. The reason why you can’t remember what you had for lunch is because lunch is lunch. You do it every day.”

Working on your vacation impacts both of these factors. You’ll be busy and not as engaged, and the time won’t be distinctive because you’re still working, something you do during the rest of the year.

Why It’s So Hard To Unplug

Ironically, we often daydream of taking vacations only to find it hard to unplug when we are away. That’s because we often define ourselves by the things we’re doing, says Markman. “As a result, we find it hard to get away from our work,” he says. “We tend to take it with us everywhere, and that is facilitated by technology.”

We’re also hooked on our connection to work, says Markman. “If you think about your daily routine, you probably get up in morning, pop on your cell phone and take a look at the messages that came in overnight,” he says. “Throughout the day, you check email. We find it hard to go more than 15 minutes without checking the latest batch of messages. When we try to get away, we’ve got this technology in our pocket. It’s tempting to take a quick look, see if something happened, and then get sucked back into the cycle.”

Work can be stressful, and stress happens when there are things you want to avoid, says Markman. “When you’re on vacation, there are desirable things to pursue,” he says. “You get emotions like joy, happiness, and satisfaction that you don’t get in the workday. If you don’t get away from work, you’re just maintaining your cycle of stress.”

Limit Technology

If you must stay connected, take your phone, but leave your laptop, says Markman. “Those who use laptops on their vacation had more trouble remembering the vacation than those who only used smartphones,” he says.


Laptops are dangerous because they facilitate work. If you plan to just check email, for example, you could get engaged in the internet or a long email conversation. “The keyboard is nice,” says Markman. “It’s set up to browse the web effectively. When you make it easy to do something you do more of it.”

But your phone is different. “It’s a pain to answer long emails on a smartphone,” he says. “When it’s hard to engage in work, you think twice before diving into something big, especially when you’re supposed to be on vacation.”

Use It Properly

If you’re going to use your smartphone, it’s important to use it in moderation. We’ve all seen those people who walk around taking a video of their entire vacation, and that’s bad, says Markman. “You’re taking yourself out of the vacation,” he says. “If you’re using your phone that much, you’re not engaged with your surroundings. There is a qualitative difference between seeing something pretty and snapping a picture of it versus walking around staring at a screen.”

Instead, use your phone to take photos or look up activities you want to do on your trip. Those who took photos and selfies using their phones were 40% more likely to remember their vacations well than those who didn’t.

But stick to two hours or less per day, adds Markman. “Using your phone longer can make you 26% more likely to have trouble remembering your trip,” he says.