Last month, I took a nice, two-week holiday. I was excited, but even shortly into the trip, I was also dreading the awful feeling of coming back. It's not the best attitude to have, but it's easy to become anxious when holidays go by so fast. Before you know it, you're stuck in the same grind you were in before you left. This time, I wanted things to be different.
Photo by SplitShare
When I'm travelling, I almost feel like a different person. I want to learn more. I can laugh at myself more. And I hate to say it, but I'm happier. Sure, holidays are lazy and indulgent; they make you happy by design. But I wondered if there wasn't something more to it than that. I wondered what exactly it is about travelling that puts you in a totally different state of mind. So during this trip, I paid attention. My goal was to pinpoint the benefits of my holiday and sneak them into my everyday life.
Distance Yourself For A Fresh Perspective
When I come back from a trip, I have a new perspective, I'm better at solving problems, and I find it easier to brush off small, distracting annoyances. This is thanks to the mental distance of a proper break.
...many important mental processes seem to require what we call downtime... Downtime replenishes the brain's stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life.
We've already told you why relaxation is important too, so I won't get into it much more. The point is, a break is mental distance from everyday bullshit. Breaks, downtime, distance -- whatever you want to call it, it works wonders for your brain. That's why holidays feel so necessary.
Take Better Breaks
I already use the Pomodoro technique to remind myself to take breaks. But my breaks often involve thinking about work, replying to emails, or doing some other task that requires problem-solving. I always anticipate getting back to my desk, and I keep a close eye on the clock. Basically, I half-arse my breaks. I don't distance myself from anything, which makes them useless.
Mental distance is easier on holiday -- out of sight, out of mind. But when your everyday life and your work are in front of you, it's harder. To take a proper break, I've found that the key is to distance myself physically so I can distance myself mentally. Here's what helps:
- Take breaks in a natural, outdoor setting: A 2008 study published in Psychological Science found that subjects perform cognitively better after spending time in a calm, natural setting.
- Schedule lunch with a friend: A social obligation helps force me out of work-mode (unless I talk about work, which I try not to do).
- Ease into the break: An hour before my break, I switch to my laptop or work somewhere that's not my home office. It's easier to take a break when I'm detached from the office area.
- Leave my phone behind: Otherwise, I'm tempted to check it for time, email, or other distractions. I have to keep track of time on my own, though.
For me, it just helped to redefine my breaks. I had no problem remembering to take them, but I had to learn to take them properly. When I do, it's like taking a mini-holiday, as far as my perspective and mental performance goes. Yes, proper holidays are still important. But so are breaks.
Leave Work Behind at the End of the Day
Another important way to distance yourself from work is to make sure you're actually done for the day at some point. It's easy to take work home with you, and here are some tips to stop working and go home at night:
- Schedule an activity right after work: If you have womewhere to be, it's harder to just spend "five more minutes" working. We know five minutes easily turns into an hour.
- Have a friend or family member call you: This serves as a reminder. Similarly, you could set an alarm.
- Schedule a daily task review: I like this because it offers closure for your workday.
Creating boundaries between your work and home life is hugely important. It gives you distance, and with distance, a new perspective.
Embrace Novelty To Feel Happy And Motivated
I love being on holiday because I love travelling, and I love travelling because I love seeing new places. The key word here is new. Novelty does all sorts of wonderful things to our brain -- it improves our memory, makes us happy, and motivates us.
And novelty is what makes travel so enjoyable. Everything is new. Even the smallest activities, like eating lunch, are fun, because they're new experiences.
Typically, day-to-day life doesn't feel very new. For the most part, you do the same stuff, see the same people, and live in the same place. I love what I do, who I see, and where I live, but it's easy to get stuck in a routine when everything is...well, routine.
But there are ways to reap the reward of novelty in your everyday life, even if it does seem old. Harvard University professor Ellen Langer says it's about being mindful. It's easy to get into a mindless routine at work and home, even if you have an exciting job and live in an exciting place. Travel breaks that routine by design, so it's a lot easier to be mindful when you're travelling -- you have no routine, and everything is different.
It's become a buzzword, but mindfulness is a useful concept. We've written about it in detail, but it's basically about being more aware and focused on the moment. This way, you notice new things. And in noticing, you experience your everyday life in a novel way. Here's how I've worked to be more mindful since I've been back:
- I meditate (in my own way): I try to be "present" more in my boring, day-to-day activities. Like chopping vegetables. It sounds silly, but it helps. Meditation lets me concentrate more and pay attention to every experience.
- I have a better morning routine: Like breaks, I had a tendency to blow right through my morning routine. So I upgraded it to force myself to be more mindful. For example, I start my day writing in a journal, and not a digital one. Pen to paper makes me focus better.
- I disconnect (sometimes): We all know our devices can be distracting. But sometimes I don't realise how bad it is. It's a reflex for me to mindlessly pick up my phone and browse Instagram. Sometimes, I don't even know what I'm doing -- I'm just tapping stuff! On holiday, I had to remind myself to stop doing this. I remind myself in my everyday life, now, too. I turn off my phone more, and I recognise my "stare at my phone" triggers. Resisting that urge makes me more present.
Aside from mindfulness, embracing novelty is as simple as trying new things. Not everyone has the luxury of travelling to faraway places to do this. That doesn't mean new things are off-limits.
Be A Tourist In Your Own Town
I grew up in a small town and went to college in nearby Houston. I wanted to see more of the world, but unfortunately, I couldn't afford it. So in college, I took weekend trips to nearby small towns -- Galveston, Lake Jackson, Humble. A lot of people would scoff at calling this "travel", but I focused on the novelty. I looked for ways those cities were different from my own. I looked for historic sites and new things to learn. Novelty is good for you. You'll most likely find it travelling across the world, but you can find it in your neighbourhood, too.
Ditch The Comfort Zone
Embracing novelty might be as simple as trying a new restaurant. Or going to an event you wouldn't normally go to. And remember -- trying something new doesn't have to be comfortable. Holidays are often uncomfortable -- you might eat something you don't like, sleep in weird places, or (ahem) pee in squat toilets. You're still experiencing or learning something new. Maybe embracing novelty in your everyday life is as simple as saying yes to things that are outside of your comfort zone.
Keep in mind -- it's still important to return to your comfort zone. This allows you to appreciate all of the new and exciting things you're doing, because it gives you something to compare it with. Hedonistic adaptation happens when novelty loses it's...novelty.
Free Up Your Schedule And Make Room For Spontaneity
Aside from the mental distance and the novelty of seeing new places, holidays are so great because you have no obligations. I like exploring without a schedule or an agenda -- it's freeing. And it's very different than my everyday life, which is filled with responsibilities, deadlines, and social obligations.
I love how liberated I feel on holiday. While there are some obligations in my life that are inescapable, I knew I could get rid of a lot of them, too. I do a lot of stuff I don't like doing because I'm afraid of saying no to people.
Learn To Say No
It sounds depressing, but I actually made a list of the things in my everyday life I didn't enjoy, for one reason or another. Maybe they were boring. Maybe I didn't have time for them or couldn't afford them. The list was mostly stuff I was dreading -- obligations that, when I thought about them, altered my mood. Then I broke the list out into three categories:
- Stuff I can't do anything about: Tasks that are necessary for any job
- Stuff I can do something about: Taking on extra work I didn't have time for
- Stuff I hate but that's good for me: Jogging, volunteering
From there, I decided to do something about the obligations I had control over, and that meant facing a big fear: telling people no. I found ways to do it without being an arsehole, and of course, people understood. It lifted a major load, and helped me feel a little more like the liberated person I am on holiday.
Don't Overbook Yourself
Another way I've incorporated that freeing feeling in my everyday life is to stop overbooking myself, even if it's things I enjoy. It's great to fill your weekends with fun, exciting activities -- especially if they're new activities.
But there's nothing quite like the feeling of waking up on a Saturday morning and knowing you have nowhere to be, nothing to do, and you can spend your day however you please. You have the freedom to be spontaneous, which is part of what makes a holiday so fun.
Of course, there's nothing quite like a true holiday. Unfortunately, most of us aren't in a position to fulfil ourselves by travelling the world all year round, if ever. With some minor shifts to my lifestyle and a few new habits, I've been able to take my parts of my holiday mindset and apply it to my everyday life.