How to Make a Good Vacation Great

Photo by [Guy Kawasaki]( from [Pexels]( by Guy Kawasaki from Pexels

Use research to optimize your vacation and recharge batteries

More than five thousand adult subjects stepped up in 1948 to take part in what’s known as the Framingham Heart Study. The ongoing cardiovascular study is now on its fourth generation of participants. More than 3,000 peer-reviewed scientific papers have emerged from the findings of the study.

It helps calculate the 10-year cardiovascular risk score of a person using the Framingham Risk Score method. As a part of their study, they followed women over a 20-year period and found that those who did not take a vacation were at a higher risk of heart disease than others.

With the plentitude of research available on vacation and recovery, the insight is not surprising. We all know this — not taking frequent breaks can lead to burnout, emotional exhaustion, relationship problems, and even suicidal tendencies.

In short, it makes your life hell.

While this may be enough to get you packing for your next trip, don’t rush.


The answer is not that simple. Taking a vacation, as it turns out, can be a rejuvenating experience or a rather colorless, meaningless one.

Four Steps to an Amazing Vacation

Sabine Sonnentag, Jessica de Bloom, Sabine Geurts, and Toon W. Taris have been looking at the science behind vacationing for the past twenty years.

Just like we need to balance our macronutrients in our meals, we need the four essential nutrients that Sonnentag and her team discovered:

  1. Relaxation

  2. Control

  3. Mastery Experience

  4. Detachment

Some are obvious, some not so much. Let’s look at why Sonnentag’s team considers them as the must-haves of our vacations.

The Simple Yet Unusual Truth About Relaxation

“Sometimes we just need to put down our phones, close our eyes, and take a few deep breaths. Ideas are often in flight patterns around our brains, just waiting for clearance to land.”― Sam Harrison

Don’t be deluded. It’s not about having sex in the hotel room, watching TV, and numbing yourself with room service.

Their research describes relaxation as, “a state of low activation and increased positive affect.”

Hiking, for example, can be a great form of relaxation. You’re physically active but not too active to make give you thirst pangs. Boating, sight-seeing, roaming around the city, etc are the types of activities that we’re getting at.

It’s easy to neglect this insight owing to its simplicity. My family did it for a long time.

I get my A-type, overachiever personality from my mother. And so it’s no surprise that our vacations were more tiring than our workdays. There was a constant urge to visit every spot in the city. We usually had three to four days to complete the trip and move back since no one could afford a week off from work.

The only time I could relax was on the plane where no one could tell me to look out the window or walk around a monument. You see, my idea for a vacation was sitting in the hotel room, going for a swim and relaxing in the bathtub.

But in retrospect, both our opinions would have been wrong.

We always collapsed from exhaustion at the end of our elaborate sight-seeing. But we also would’ve been bored to death, if we just sat beside the pool and drank cocktails.

It’s crucial to maintain a balance between the two.

Being a Control Freak Is Fine

“Because to take away a man’s freedom of choice, even his freedom to make the wrong choice, is to manipulate him as though he were a puppet and not a person.”― Madeline L’Engle

Humans have a deep need for control. Just ask someone who’s bedridden. The worst part about it is not the pain, but the feeling of powerlessness.

My grandmother lives alone and broke a bone in her forearm a couple of months back. When I asked her how she was doing, she never mentioned the pain she was going through — only about how she’s having trouble cooking food and taking care of herself in general.

In other words, she’d lost control over her life. Neighbors were cooking food for her, and she could no longer go on long walks. That’s what makes life miserable — not being able to do the things you want to do.

Everyone hates weekends where they’ve to get their car fixed, get groceries, and file their taxes. Then on Sunday night, we wonder why the weekend seemed too short.

The weekend, and life in general, is long if you know how to use it.

And so having a sense of control on your break can be quite restorative. Especially if you’re someone in a tight corporate job with little control over your days.

Making your own plans and spending your time as you please gives you the feeling of having your shit together.

Chase Mastery — Even When You’re off Work

“The future belongs to those who learn more skills and combine them in creative ways.”― Robert Greene

Out of the four, it’s the most interesting aspect of a vacation.

Most people struggle with urgent tasks throughout the day which paralyzes their ability to master a specific skill. A typical corporate environment is the last place conducive to mastery experiences. It’s more about office politics, meetings, and endless interruptions.

That is why you need to have such experiences outside your job.

Engaging in hobbies that you’re good at makes you feel better because well, you’re good at it! Even though in a completely unrelated field, it still helps you chase mastery and the satisfaction of putting in a good day’s work.

Turns out it’s pretty effective. It worked out for the Enigma codebreakers in England’s Bletchley Park (BP). BP often recruited codebreakers who were national-level chess champions. Chess, in addition to providing the mental skills required for cryptoanalysis, also helped the workers chase mastery in their free time.

If chess seems more like a nerd’s way to relax, pick your sport and go with it.

Winston Churchill’s loved painting as a way to relax. So much so that he wrote a book on it — Painting as a Pastime. While his work had nothing to do with painting, the feeling of being good at it was enough to help him recharge.

It’s also in line with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s philosophy of chasing Flow. These mastery and flow experiences recharge our batteries with the right brain chemicals which may be difficult to get in your daily life.

Moreover, the same strategy works if you’re looking for a relaxing weekend ahead. Love basketball? Then spend one hour every Saturday morning training for it. Over time, it can become one of your serious hobbies that lets you “take off the steam” and release stress when you need it.

Get off the Beaten Track

“Each person deserves a day where no problems are being confronted, no solutions are searched for. Each of us needs to withdraw from the careers which will not withdraw from us.” — Maya Angelou

Ever grumped at a missed call from your manager on a Sunday?

One call, message or an email is enough to get you thinking about the work problems you gladly left on Friday night. It steals your awareness from the present moment and ruins your vacation plans no matter how exciting they are. When you think about the work piled up for you on your return, it’s hard to enjoy what’s in front of you.

The only way to get out of it is to detach. To maintain psychological distance.

Don’t take work calls, don’t check email casually and turn off notifications. There’s nothing you can do about it. If something bad happens, it happens. By obsessing over it, you reduce your chances of recovery and affect your performance in the long run.

By detaching, you increase your chances of returning to work challenges with a fresh, still mind.

Have an honest conversation about your boundaries with your colleagues. And if it doesn’t really matter, they’ll understand anyway — if you don’t pick, people usually stop calling unless it’s an emergency.

The stillness that comes from taking a break is too precious to throw away. Hold on to it.

Closing Thoughts

What we think makes vacations and weekends great is extraneous. The length of the vacation, the extravagance, the weather, and the place itself are all inconsequential.

What matters is you relax, have control, chase mastery, and can finally avoid the thought of work.

To test the waters yourself, plan your next weekend to include the four factors mentioned above.

Pick a hobby you like, get good at it, and get as far away from work as possible. It’s as simple as that.

This isn’t only for people who have the time to take long vacations. The principles work whether it’s a weekend or a world tour. Get started today to reap the rewards tomorrow.

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Written on August 24, 2020