Vacations are supposed to be the time to unplug, relax, and recharge. Ideally, when you return to work, you want to feel refreshed, rested, and more productive.
Unfortunately, life doesn’t always work out that way. You might have every intention of going on a work-free beach getaway, and despite your best pre-vacation prep, a stressful bombshell drops on your last week in the office. Maybe you lost an important client unexpectedly, or you’re told that the company might be restructuring and there are possible layoffs in the works. How do you enjoy your well-deserved time off without going into a tailspin and coming back even more stressed than when you left? Fast Company spoke to Alice Boyes, former clinical psychologist and author of The Healthy Mind Toolkit: Simple Strategies to Get Out of Your Own Way and Enjoy Your Life.
Don’t have unrealistic expectations
There’s this misconception that when we go on vacation, we should be able to “have everything squared away,” Boyes tells Fast Company. This idea, along with the trends of unplugging and digital detox, create the expectations that can be impossible to meet. Sure, you can let your colleagues and clients know that you plan to be off the grid, but they might still find your mobile number and call you for non-emergency reasons. If you’re in charge of a department at your company, it’s natural to worry about losing a major client–and you shouldn’t berate yourself for feeling that way.
Boyes also rejects the idea that a vacation is only restorative if it’s work-free, pointing out that this idea is incompatible with the realities of modern life. If the thought of not dealing with a pressing issue until after your vacation makes you anxious, for example, there’s nothing wrong with dedicating some time during your vacation to tackle it. And if you hate the thought of coming back to a mountain of work, perhaps you can schedule an hour or two every day to make progress on that work. “The more accepting you are of your reality,” Boyes said, the easier it is to make a case-by-case decision that’s right for you.
Be honest about what’s important to you
With so many Americans reporting disengagement at work, it might be strange to think that there are people out there who love their jobs and enjoy their vacations more if they did some work on vacation–rather than completely disconnect. As Thomas-Chamorro Premuzic previously wrote for Fast Company, “The expectation that you’re only doing it right when you ditch work completely . . . can cause anxiety, stress, and feelings of guilt when you get to do that.” Before you take your vacation, have a frank conversation with yourself about what would make you happier overall, rather than what everyone else tells you will make you happy.
Work aside, Boyes also stressed the importance of planning your vacation so that it’s filled with activities and outings you enjoy, rather than things you feel you should do. “Some people do things that they think they should enjoy, but don’t actually enjoy.” For example, perhaps your idea of relaxation is enjoying long dinners, and you have absolutely no interest in going to museums and monuments. Don’t make yourself go to them. Otherwise it becomes a tick box on a checklist, and you’re adding an unnecessary source of stress.
Learn to observe rumination and feelings
You can’t always help when bad feelings appear, and in those situations, the best thing to do is to apply good old mindfulness techniques. Instead of trying to push them away, observe them and see where those thoughts take you. If you start thinking about worst-case scenarios (or your thoughts are just taking you to places you really don’t want to go), Boyes suggests asking yourself, “This situation is what it is, I’ve got a choice to be happy or I’ve got a choice to be miserable.” Say you’re upset about something your coworker said last week. You can either choose to focus your energy on thinking about that, or redirect your focus to something else, like the taste of your morning coffee.
If that doesn’t work, Boyes suggests trying a cognitive technique that she calls “worst, best, realistic.” It requires you to ask yourself, What’s the worst that could happen, what’s the best that could happen, and what’s the most realistic scenario? Boyes gave an example of pitching a story to an editor and not hearing back. The worst-case scenario is that they hate it, Boyes said, the best is that they love it, have no feedback, but for whatever reason, they haven’t written back, and the most realistic scenario is that “everybody’s slammed and they’re putting it off because everybody’s busy,” Boyes tells Fast Company.
Savor the small things
If none of these methods work, Boyes suggests focusing your attention on the small things, whether it’s sitting outside and paying attention to the sounds of birds, cars, and “whatever else pops into your awareness,” or focusing on the smell and taste of your meal. This practice trains your mind to redirect your thoughts back to the present, Boyes explains.
At the end of the day, a restorative vacation is one where you understand and accept your realities, and make decisions according to those circumstances. “It might be different from one vacation to the next,” she says. “Sometimes you do need some uninterrupted time.” Other times, the stress of modern life might make unplugging more stressful than it’s worth. And that’s completely 0kay.