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

Are You Really on Vacation If You're Checking Work Email or Calling In on Vacation?

Posted by Joe Robinson


As Americans flee their work stations in search of vacation R&R this summer, almost all will have a stowaway on board with them: a device that prevents them from actually being on vacation, their smartphone. Every email check-in with the office while on holiday insures that the psychological detachment needed to provide the restorative benefits of the vacation is harder to achieve.

Vacations may be the best work-life balance strategy there is—the best chance we have each year to fully live and reboot our health—but they can only help us if we are there mentally as well as in body. Checking work email or making business calls keeps the mind tethered to the stressors of the office.


A Trip Advisor survey of 16,000 people in 10 countries found that 77% of Americans work on their vacations, while 40% of Europeans do. I hate to point out the obvious, but maybe it’s not so obvious anymore: Vacations are supposed to be a respite from work, where you don’t do what you do the other 50 or 51 weeks a year. Remember?

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Vacations are a remarkable tool to restore health and wellness because, as studies by Dov Eden and others show, they interrupt the sources of stress—unless you keep those sources alive by checking work mail and doing business calls. Then the separation is gone and the mind is back at work, ruminating over anxieties and work issues that crowd out the experience of the vacation itself and the positive emotions key to our re-creation.

A study by Derks and Bakker found that excess phone checking while not at work interferes with work-life balance by taking time away from leisure activities that are more beneficial to mental detachment.

I saw that on display at an upscale Waikiki hotel that had an infinity pool. In the late afternoon on a gorgeous Hawaiian day, some 80% of people lounging around the pool had their heads stuck in their phones, not looking at the view of Diamond Head, the surf, nada. They could easily have been at home. Others in the pool were also hypnotized by their screens in a scene that would have inspired a great Rod Serling script.


The healing power of the vacation is remarkable. Vacations can cut the risk of heart attack in men by 30% (Gump) and in women who take more than one vacation a year by 50% (Framingham Heart Study). There’s no health food that can give you that benefit. Vacations stop burnout by regathering crashed emotional resources, such as a sense of social support and mastery (Hobfoll, Shirom).

The medication that performs these amazing feats is distance—mental and physical separation from the source of strains and pressures that drive stress. With the flow of stressful events and can’t-cope stories in the ancient brain shut off, the body can do what it is actually designed to do—repair you. The cure for the activation of stress is the rest and maintenance that comes from our own parasympathetic system. We are born to wind down. Failure to close off the flow of anxiety-activating emails and thoughts makes it harder for rehab to get under way.

Getting away from the job mentally was a lot easier before the digital era. The only way you could stick your nose into events back home was by loading up your pockets with a stash of coins and finding a pay phone booth or by running up a big bill on the room phone.

Now, of course, being at work on vacation is as easy as checking the phone. Since that is a reflex as natural as breathing these days, it’s hard for people to see the danger in it or the lack of self-discipline that has relinquished control of our minds to impulse and whim.


That’s partly because so many are addicted to devices, the byproduct of interruptions that erode impulse control. The more you check email, the more you have to check it, research shows, as your effortful control mechanism is compromised. We wind up being unable to resist impulsivity and self-interrupt our vacations by gazing into the glow of the electronic security blanket. More than a few people today have nomophobia, the fear of being without a mobile device. Are you one of them?

There are several issues keeping people tethered to devices on vacation—the addiction piece and lack of self-control, the fear of non-constant stimulation (i.e., a quiet brain), and employers who insist their employees check in on vacation. Let’s take them one at a time.


People who are addicted to their phones, as Rutgers’ Gayle Porter has demonstrated, have the same issue as substance abusers—no self-regulation or discipline to resist temptation to check messages or Facebook posts. This also means you have no ability to regulate other habits as well, whether it’s for Sara Lee or Jim Beam. The physical size of the habit-formation centers in your brain increase in size and the control and decision-making centers shrink.

A vacation can be your salvation, a way to opt out of mobile codependence and restore self-control. Why is that important? Without self-regulation, you can’t control your attention. Without attention, you can’t focus on your work or be present for your life. Without attention your mind jumps to the two other tenses that house your problems. Full attention gives you control. When you have control, you don't have stress.

You can’t experience the moment when every spare minute is filled with a reflex to grab the phone. Scientists say that defaulting to a phone every free minute prevents your brain from having any thoughts to process while you’re sleeping at night, a time when the brain connects the dots of the day and processes memories.

The solution to self-inflicted phone abuse is to impound your phone as much as possible on the trip. Lock it in a bag and only take it out for emergencies. Do not bring your work phone with you. Do not check your work email. Have clear conversations with colleagues and supervisors before leaving about what constitutes an emergency. Have them call if there’s an emergency.

Email should never be used for emergencies. As a result, there is no need for you to have to check mail for possible apocalypses while on vacation. You will know if a certain person called that you have to take this one call.

If you are an entrepreneur and there is no one to pick up the slack when you're on holiday, give clients an early heads-up to your vacation dates. Inform everyone several months out that you will be gone on these dates.  Try to take care of any issues in advance. Leave a vacation message on your autoresponder. The vast majority of clients will respect that you need time away just like everyone else. If you need to check email, set a restriction--once every two days, once a week, once a day--and don't vary from it.


The second reason for too much screen zombie action on vacation is fear, the cold, clammy anxiety of not having the phone to fill every empty moment. We have become so accustomed to being stimulated with noise and updates and positive reinforcement from our “likes” that we can’t bear the silence of quiet. We aren’t used to being alone with our thoughts. 

It turns out, though, that what we try to run away from—our own minds—by constant din operates on the same dynamic as fear. It’s the act of fleeing from fear and quiet that causes the anxiety. Standing astride the moment, not running, not stimulating, is what minds really like. Really.

Click for "The 7 Signs of Burnout"

Being absorbed in the moment is a hallmark of all optimal experience. Whether it’s cycling a country road or drinking in the awe of a spectacular vista, paying attention isn’t scary, it’s what we’re here for. It’s key to liking what you do and remembering it, studies show. How much will you remember about your vacation experience by staring at a screen? What unknown activities will you miss out on? What ideas won’t pop into your head because it’s being monopolized by a screen? What fascinating fellow travelers will you never meet because you are locked up with your headphones with the “leave me alone” sign on?

The answer to the fear issue is to let go of the need to fill every moment. Let the vacation unspool with its own rhythm to take you out of your carefully scripted choreography. That’s where the adventures are. That’s what our brain neurons want: novelty and challenge more than anything else for long-term fulfillment. Only a still mind can find the peace we’re in search of on vacation.


Sometimes it’s not your choice to check in on vacation. The company requires that employees check in on vacation. This is counterproductive. The whole point of the vacation is to get employees recharged. That’s why American companies in the early part of the 20th century began the vacation tradition. Studies showed people were much more productive when they got back from a holiday.

Studies still show that, including several by Sabine Sonnentag, who also found that health problems and exhaustion decreased significantly on vacation. This is one of the reasons why Bart Lorang, head of software company Full Contact, pays his employees $7500 to take their vacation and to be unplugged when they are on it.

He knows that a complete mental break is what’s necessary to restore fatigued brains. Our chief productivity tool, attention, has to be recharged just like a smartphone. Mental exhaustion creates disengagement, the last thing an employer wants, since employee engagement results in 28% more productivity.


We can solve a lot of the compulsory email checking on vacation by a little time management and planning at the office beforehand. This is how Europeans go away on their vacations without tethers. Everyone plans vacation time at the beginning of the year. This way everyone knows when the gaps will occur. Then they figure out who can cover for everyone while on holiday in the tradition of cross-training, which the U.S. Army is a big proponent of.

German automaker Daimler, though, may have just figured it all out. They came up with a system that allows 100,000 of their employees to relax without email concerns on their holidays. Employees can set their email to auto-delete before they go on vacation. The software tells the sender the email will be deleted and not saved. The person is advised to contact someone else at the company, instead. This way employees come back to an empty in-box and have no concern about checking email on vacation.

Now that is an elegant solution, insuring continuity at the office while you’re gone and enforcing cold turkey on the email self-inflictors. May it spread far and wide and put an end to the theoretical vacation.

If you are interested in the topic of time and how to have more of it in our lives for happiness, health and community, I invite you to join the Time Matters Conference in Seattle Aug. 25-27. I will be speaking there, along with many other experts, from former Oregon governor John Kitzhaber to John de Graaf, author of Affluenza and What's an Economy For, Anyway, as well as many doctors, scientists, and professors talking about the effects of stress and the importance of recharging and refueling. Click here for a link to the conference schedule.

Tags: time management, vacations and email, vacations and stress, vacation planning, work life balance and vacations

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