Working Smarter

What to Unpack Before Your Vacation

Posted by Joe Robinson


PACKING IS such sweet sorrow. As much as we want to get out of town on the long-awaited vacation, we just can’t leave it all behind. We always bring more than we need—shirts, shoes, and, especially, a stowaway that guarantees we won’t really get away, even if we go someplace else: the performance mindset.

The work mind is essential for getting things done on the job and providing achievement, but a vacation is something you don’t want to get done. The purpose of it is not an outcome or result. It’s an experience to fully immerse in. When we let the performance mindset run things on holiday, we wind up doing the vacation as if it was a job—racking up sites seen and restaurants ticked off, racing through the trip like items on the to-do list.


To enjoy and actually participate in the act of your vacation, you need a skill-set apart from your work identity, because the work mind doesn’t know how to play. It only knows outcomes, performance, external metrics. The experience of life and vacations require a different approach, participation for its own sake, which is an intrinsic goal.

Ask for no payoff, and you get a big internal one from your vacation, in the form of gratified core psychological needs such as autonomy and competence. Unlike external goals, which provide a quick bump in happiness and then fade, intrinsic goals—such as fun, enjoyment, learning, challenge, social connection—stick with us by boosting our sense of choice, effectiveness, and our social animal mandate and inform our memories with the positive events that tell us that we like our life.

So before we leave on vacation, we need to focus on unpacking a bunch of stuff first, such as the constellation of behaviors that comes with the work mind. That starts by understanding that there is value in stepping back beyond recharging brains and bodies. It requires a revaluation of time outside the office as something essential to our appointment with life. Time to live is the point of the work and is worthy in and of itself, isn't it?

You need to understand why it’s important for you to disengage from work and engage in activities that bring pleasure and happiness, not for hedonistic or materialistic reasons, but for genuine satisfaction, “I value my time,’ or ‘I’m going to do something I really enjoy,’ or ‘I’m going to be with people.’”

We need to approach the vacation as if it is one of the most important things in our world—because it is. It's your life, calling. It's essential to work-life balance and stress management, something we learn about in my work-life and stress management training programs. And it's the free-est you are going to be all year to discover, relax, and enjoy your world.

So let’s get off to the right start by making sure to check the unpacking list below before you put a single sock in the luggage.


Results Metric. It’s not about how many sites you tally on your vacation. The key to the internal rewards the science says are there for us on holiday is leaving the productivity drill sergeant at home. The whole point of the trip is the journey, not rushing through attractions to get home as soon as possible.

Stress and the Thinking about Work That Drives It. Vacations cut the risk of heart attack in men by 30% and in women who take more than one vacation a year by 50%. They do this by cutting off the source of stress and allowing our bodies and minds to repair and recuperate. The key to work recovery, as the academics call it, is psychological detachment from thoughts of work. Rumination drives the stress response, spinning a constant replay of false beliefs into what appear to be real ones. Vacations shut off that broken record—if we’re not checking work email and phone calls, that is. If you can’t resist checking in, find a vacation destination without wifi. The other thing about stress is that it suppresses the play equipment in your brain. Not much fun in store when your brain is stuck on fight-or-flight. Leave work at work.

Guilt. You worked hard for this vacation and deserve it. If you can’t enjoy yourself when you are not producing because it makes you feel guilty, you need to ask what’s wrong with this picture. What is the purpose of the work? To work? Or is it to enable what researchers say is the key goal we all have on this planet—to feel like we are writing our own script. The great psychologist Erik Erikson, who studied the life stages, says one of our central questions at the end of our days is going to be, Was it a good time? What will your answer be? 

Closedmindedness and Judging. Vacation and travel help us break out of ruts of cynicism, negativity and habitual behavior—if we are open to the change. Be receptive to new experiences and leave the critic, of yourself as well as others, at home. Stop comparing and go with what your brain neurons want more than anything else—novelty and challenge.

The Control Freak. To get the most out of your vacation, you have to give up the wheel and excess steering of events. Figure out what you want to do, but in a way that lets you roll with it and improvise too. Allow yourself the freedom to enjoy whatever happens. The best travel experiences are often the ones we didn’t plan or predict and the people we had no idea we were going to meet in places we didn't know we were going to wind up.

The To-Do List. Leave behind the pressure to accomplish an agenda, or the trip won't be successful. That’s the work mode you are trying to take a respite from. If you don’t want to do anything one morning, stay in bed and enjoy that rare pleasure. It’s your time, and you can do anything you want with it. You want to find a good balance of participant elements and carefree hours that you can use as you like. The goal should be fulfilling time, not filling time. 

The Adult Bias Against Play. Play is recognized as a critical component of health and growth in kids, but we have the idea that it’s beneath us solemn grownups because it’s nonproductive, and, therefore, frivolous. Yet play is one of the best stress buffers there is. It increases positive emotions, which crowd out the negative. Play is the ultimate intrinsic goal. It’s 100% about the experience and not the outcome. It roots us in the moment of our experience, and that means we can transcend the anxieties of the other two tenses and enjoy ourselves and the people we’re having fun with. Vacations are great opportunities to try new activities, things we haven’t done before. Play helps us grow. No matter what is happening in other parts of your life, play can help you develop new skills and offer a new form of self-expression that helps us move forward.

After unpacking your bags before you take off, you are going to feel much lighter. And happier. You won’t have a battery of judgments and to-do’s in the way of your enjoyment. You will have a wide open mandate to immerse yourself in the joy of living for its own sake and set yourself up for the right answer to Erikson’s question about whether you had a good time on this planet: OH, YEAH!

Tags: stress and vacations, intrinsic motivation, vacations and email, vacations and stress management, vacations and work-life balance, vacation tips, packing for vacation

The Link Between Vacations, Productivity, and Work-Life Balance

Posted by Joe Robinson

Beach guy.jpg

Humans are energy machines. We expend energy over the course of the workday and work year in our body and brains (which use up 20% of the body’s calories), and then we have to replace it, or fatigue sets in, stress and exhaustion build, and productivity plummets.

It’s a basic law of effort: Quality output requires quality input. It’s called work recovery in the scientific journals, and one of the best ways to get it is through the recuperative benefits of a vacation.


The annual vacation, which used to be a rite of summer for families in the 1960s and 1970s, has been shrinking ever since, with nearly two-thirds of Americans telling a Harris poll that they won’t be taking a vacation longer than a week. Numerous surveys show Americans giving back vacation days, 169 million days a year, according to a study conducted by Oxford Economics for the U.S. Travel Association.

There are many reasons for these trends—lean staffing, fear of layoffs, technology addiction, crisis mentality from an epidemic of false urgency and frenzy, and certainly ignorance about how our biology works, or doesn’t, when it can’t get the recovery it needs, from the cellular level to the blood glucose that gets spent in the course of staying disciplined and focused on the job. But executives shouldn’t cheer the extra days people spend on the job, since exhaustion doesn’t lead to effective work. Without recovery, employees fall prey to chronic stress, absenteeism, and burnout, the central feature of which is exhaustion.


Exhaustion is the opposite of what every manager wants: employee engagement. When employees are engaged, they are 28% more productive, according to Gallup data. Engaged employees willingly put out extra “discretionary effort.” They are so committed to the work they do, they go the extra mile. Studies have shown that the key dimensions of engagement are involvement, efficacy, and energy. Engagement takes physical and mental energy, participation. That can’t happen when someone is exhausted and burned out.

The antithesis of engagement, say researchers, is burnout. Instead of energy, the key burnout dimension is exhaustion. Instead of involvement, you get cynicism, which is described as an active disengagement from others. You get depersonalized, demotivated. Not a recipe for interacting with colleagues and customers. And, of course, there's no efficacy when someone is weary and cynical. Instead, you have the opposite: ineffectualness.

Gallup found that only 29% of American workers are engaged. That means business leaves more than $300 billion on the table in lost discretionary effort. Add to that more than $400 billion that American business loses every year due to stress-related costs, according to U. C. Irvine stress researcher, Peter Schnall, and you begin to see that having a recovery strategy like vacations—and making sure your employees take them—is critical.


The concept of the vacation was invented by companies back in the early part of the twentieth century as a productivity tool. They conducted fatigue studies and found that employees performed better after a respite. The same is true today. In one study by Alertness Solutions, reaction times went up 40% after a vacation.

Work demands build up strain and that causes a loss of energetic resources. That in turn, research by Stevan Hobfoll and Arie Shirom (“Conservation of Resources”) shows, increases stress. Time off helps build lost resources back up again. Hobfoll and Shirom called it “regathering.” They found that it takes two weeks of vacation to get the recuperative benefits to regather crashed emotional resources such as a sense of social support and mastery that go down when we’re burned out.

Vacations shut off the stressors and pressures of work. With the danger signal turned off, the stress response stops, and the body's parasympathetic system can get to work on reparative and maintenance functions. Through the process energy-drained cells get new sustenance. Vacations build positive mood, which crowds out negative experiences/thoughts and “undoes” the physical and mental effects of stress, as Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina has documented.


Since 40% of job turnover is due to stress, consider the vacation then, a proven stress buster, as an insurance policy against losing top talent and the high costs associated with replacing an employee. Some studies show that it can cost up to two times an annual salary to replace a valued salaried employee.

Charlotte Fritz and Sabine Sonnentag (2006) found that “health complaints and exhaustion significantly decreased during vacation,” and that there was a performance increase when employees got back to the job. Employees reported less effort needed to do their work.


Some companies are starting to put two and two together and are emphasizing vacations as a key component of productivity and workplace cultures that walk the talk on work-life balance. Highly successful inbound marketing firm Hubspot, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, offers unlimited vacations to its employees and mandates they take at least two weeks of it.

Another major company, Evernote, also has an unlimited vacation policy. To make sure people take time off, Evernote pays employees $1000 to take at least a week of vacation. Go Daddy offers three weeks of vacation the first year on the job.

Many of the companies leading the charge to a new understanding about the role of recovery/vacations in productivity and work-life balance policies are technology companies. They are embracing a belief that in the knowledge economy, it’s not how maxed-out your gray matter is that leads to productive results, it’s how fresh your brain is. A focused, energized brain gets the most work done the fastest. Policies that keep minds in the red zone of chronic stress and see endurance as a measure of commitment undermine productivity and fly in the face of all the data. 

There is a word on the other side of the hyphen of “work-life” balance. The life side is essential to resupply the resources needed to get the work done well—and, is, after all, the point of all the work, isn’t it?


Tags: employee engagement training, wellness, productivity and stress, employee productivity, vacation, avoiding burnout, leisure and stress, increase productivity, productivity, employee engagement, work life balance programs, stress management, cost of stress, reducing stress, stress management programs, stress and vacations, vacations and productivity,

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