My family and I just got back from a week of “glamping” in the Shenandoah Valley at a Getaway house. It was great, our second year going. We visited Luray Caverns. Sat by the campfire and roasted s’mores. Hiked. Foraged for wild blackberries and just relaxed.
I’m a small business owner, active parent, and only child to my aging mother, so at any given time I have a lot on my plate. Like many of us, I turn to vacation as a way to recharge from the daily stressors of my life. Vacation can offer us a myriad of benefits, from creating memories to disconnection to rest—all of which is good for our psychological well-being.
But something that many of us forget to do is to put in place a post-vacation plan. A plan that allows us to slowly transition back into our pre-vacation life and work pace. Or, if we’re lucky, a plan that allows us to sustainably reduce that real-world pace altogether. While most of us primarily invest our energy and attention on the actual vacation, we desire, even if subconsciously, its benefits long after we’ve returned and unpacked our suitcases.
Vacation fade out
We not only feel the benefits of a relaxing vacation, research supports it.
We can receive psychological benefits from vacation before the vacation as we ramp up the anticipation by planning, viewing pictures of the destination, and talking about vacation plans with others.
The vacation itself has been found to boost our life satisfaction, improve our sense of health, reduce exhaustion, increase our well-being, and reduce burnout. A study of 87 blue-collar industrial workers in Israel found that a 10-day vacation alleviated the workers’ feelings of job stress and burnout. Another study of 221 German university employees found that their health complaints and exhaustion decreased one week before and immediately after vacation.
But the real power in vacation for busy and stressed adults like myself is that vacation can offer relief after the vacation is over—but this is the period when we have to be proactive and vigilant.
In research studies, the post-vacation time is appropriately termed the “fade-out period,” when the positive effects begin to subside. Studies have shown this period can be anywhere from three days to four weeks after a vacation! During this period, stress gradually increases, sometimes ramping up to higher levels than pre-vacation. While the memories from the vacation can last forever, that post-vacation release might start to feel ephemeral.
Prolonging the benefits of vacation
If the idea of maximizing the well-being benefits of your vacation sounds appealing, then focusing on your post-vacation plan is a must. If vacation is a superhero for our well-being, then its arch-nemesis is stress.
Prolonged experiences with stress or chronic stress can cause our amygdala to become excited. That’s a part of our brain responsible for scanning our environment for sensory information that indicates we may be in danger, which can kick off the stress response. While our brain is a wonderful and sophisticated organ, it’s not very discerning in its interpretation of danger. So stress from your job, home, or a lion chasing you into your room is treated pretty much the same. An already-excited amygdala tends to elicit a stress response much more quickly, speeding up our vacation fade-out period.
It’s like the popular and research-tested workout method HIIT (high-intensity interval training). The reason it works so well is that you mix long periods of exertion with short periods of rest. Because the rest periods are shorter than the exertion periods and you ramp right back up to exertion immediately following the rest, your heart rate never fully comes down. It spikes right back up, sometimes even more quickly, during the subsequent exertion periods, which results in increased fat burning.
When we do the same with our lives, long periods of work exertion (exciting our amygdala through stress), mixed with short periods of rest or vacation, then ramping right back up to exertion, can result in a different kind of burn: burnout! This can almost erase the mental and physical health benefits of the vacation. You ever take a vacation and then find a day or two later that the calm and rested feeling you had is gone? Yeah, that!
So, how can you flip that ratio, so that the vacation has a bigger impact than the return to work? There are things we can do during our vacation to minimize this effect, like detaching from work, being mindful of the quality of our rest, and having autonomy over what we do while on vacation. But there are also things we can plan for that take place after our vacation, setting us up for success and keeping the good feelings rolling long after we return to work.
Your post-vacation plan
Calendar block like a pro: Work-related stress from job demands is the enemy of the benefits you get from vacation. A great remedy to this is calendar blocking. It’s one of my favorite things to do because it allows you to curate your calendar, dictating what happens when, versus ceding control to others.
When calendar blocking to prolong the benefits of your vacation, you want to do the following:
- As soon as you make the decision to go on vacation, start calendar blocking. Calendars can get booked up quickly, so the more in advance you do it, the more likely you will be successful.
- Block the immediate two to four days following your return from vacation. This isn’t to say you won’t work, but it lets you control how you ease back into the work. Perhaps a later morning start and light admin work in the beginning as you ramp up to meatier tasks.
- In the week following your vacation, try to schedule meetings and activities that “spark joy,” à la Marie Kondo. Now, I get that this may be hard to do, depending on your job, but try to curate your calendar with meetings and responsibilities that feel energizing, while delaying those that do not.
- For the next two weeks after your vacation, block off 30 minutes to an hour every day for your lunch, to ensure that you have a dedicated break during the day.
When we planned our glamping vacation several months ago, I immediately blocked off the entire week following our return in my calendar so that I could later go back and curate my post-vacation cadence. I ended up taking the first two days off, and I worked at a moderate pace for the remainder of the week, with intentional non-working lunch breaks.
Plan post-vacation leisure activities: There’s a tendency when we get back from vacation to feel like we should abstain from leisure activities for a while, because after all…we did just get back from vacation. If you’ve felt that, let me release you—that feeling is related to guilt, not science. In fact, research finds that planning post-vacation leisure activities can help to prolong the fade-out period, especially if the activity encourages relaxation.
So go ahead and schedule that day by the pool with friends or a trip to your favorite museum a day or two after getting back from vacation. During our most recent vacation, I made sure I had a massage appointment on the calendar shortly after we returned.
Anticipate and reduce home stress: Just as job stress can diminish our vacation return on investment, so can home-related stress. Prior to departing on your vacation, anticipate the stressors that might present themselves when you return and proactively develop a minimal-effort plan.
Fridge empty and you’ll need to grocery shop when you’re back? Load up the Instacart basket before you leave and submit the order on your drive back home. Will it be the end of the month requiring you to pay bills? Schedule payment in advance for all bills electronically. Kids have a sporting practice to which you loathe driving? Arrange a carpool or alternative transportation option before you leave. You get the point: Anticipate and plan. For us, it was the grocery shopping. We are already long-time Instacart users, so it was easy to pre-load the cart and order when we got back.
Post-pandemic burnout is on the rise for adults—and so is travel. While the two sound like they go together like peanut butter and jelly, contrasting but complimentary, the former can weaken the benefits of the latter. So, while we are still in the height of vacation season, consider investing just as much forethought and time in planning the post-vacation transition as you do the actual vacation. Your well-being—and those who care about your well-being—will thank you!