We’ve all been there: We spend weeks and even months anticipating that dream vacation, only to return to work afterward feeling like we need a few days off. Even our weekends, which are supposed to help us relax and rejuvenate, often leave us feeling exhausted.
So if downtime is supposed to make us happier and healthier, then why do so many of us feel depleted by it?
“People today are doing more with less, and there are tremendous levels of burnout,” says Jamie Gruman, Ph.D., associate professor of organizational behavior at University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. “People really need to figure out how to decompress in their leisure time”.
Cut the cord
One way to make better use of time away from the office is to actually leave it behind. People who leave work at work tend to be more satisfied with their lives and experience fewer symptoms of psychological strain than those who bring it home.
What’s more, a study published in Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology found that “psychological detachment” during the weekend may even improve our job performance during the workweek.
Still plugged in
“It’s not enough to just physically leave the office,” Jamie says. “You have to mentally leave the office. Very few people do this.” Sure, you might be sitting by the pool, but your mind might still be parked at your desk.
“If you’re checking your email every half hour, if you’re not turning off your head and allowing yourself to enjoy the moment, you’re psychologically attached to your obligations,” he says.
Technology has made it easier than ever to check in with work, which in turn has made it that much harder to check out mentally. Jamie recommends giving high-tech the heave-ho as much as possible. That could mean turning off email notifications on your cell phone or creating an out-of-office auto-reply so you don’t feel the need to respond immediately.
Even better, have two cell phones—one for work and another for personal use—allowing you to turn off the work phone on nights, weekends and vacations.
Learn to detach
Of course, turning off devices is easier than turning off thoughts. If you’re the type who broods about what happened at work or worries about what might happen, you may need to change how you spend your free time. A study by Sabine Sonnentag, Ph.D., called “Psychological Detachment from Work During Leisure Time: The Benefits of Mentally Disengaging from Work,” published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, found that meaningful activities like volunteering and mindfulness practices such as meditation can help us detach from work.
You’ll stand a better chance of detaching if you bring tasks to completion before clocking out, notes Sabine, a leading researcher in organizational psychology and a professor at University of Mannheim in Germany. She’s published a number of studies showing that a heavy workload and high time pressure are the strongest predictors of low detachment from work. That’s why it’s wise to take vacations during slow periods at work or on the heels of a big deadline.
And, if you absolutely must do some work on evenings, weekends or a vacation, set aside a specific time for it—and don’t allow yourself to dwell on it before or afterward.
How long is enough?
No matter how well-timed the vacation, work will likely pile up in your absence. That’s just one of the reasons Jamie and other experts recommend taking frequent short vacations instead of infrequent long ones. Less time away means less catch-up and stress when you return; shorter vacations also require less preparation, which reduces stress in the days beforehand. “It’s not the [amount of] time but the quality of the time that matters,” Jamie says. “Research shows that three-day weekends can be as replenishing as longer vacations.”
In his study “Vacationers Happier, but Most Not Happier after a Vacation,” published in the journal Applied Research in Quality of Life, Jeroen Nawijn, Ph.D., found that vacation length does not affect post-vacation happiness and confirmed previous findings that a vacation’s positive effects are short-lived.
However, we can prolong our getaways’ positive effects by looking at photos, telling friends about the trip and otherwise keeping vacation memories alive, says Jeroen, a lecturer at NHTV Breda University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands. Both he and Jamie advise building in some “recovery time” between time off and returning to work.
Cut down on lag time
“People think the way to get the most out of their vacation is to spend the most time away. It’s logical, but it’s a mistake,” Jamie says. Instead, leave time for laundry, grocery shopping and even recovering from jetlag when you return home, he says. And rather than getting home late Sunday night and going back to work Monday morning, consider coming home Saturday night—or at least early in the day on Sunday—to give yourself time to re-enter your world.
Do downtime differently
While relaxation is important to well-being, the way we relax could be keeping us from optimal happiness. “We’re not very creative in our downtime,” Jamie says. “We just do whatever is our habit.” He advises taking time to assess the effects of your habits. Does TV time relax you and improve your mood? If you go for a walk before you sit down to watch TV, do you feel better? Do the people you spend time with bring out the best in you?
Ask yourself if there’s something you used to love doing that you aren’t doing anymore, and then start doing it again. “Doing something you enjoy is key to getting a boost out of downtime,” Jamie says. “We play a role in how happy we’re going to feel.”