If you’ve ever found yourself wishing for another vacation before you’ve even finished unpacking your suitcase from the last one, it’s time to do something a little differently before you hit the road for this extra-long July 4th weekend.
It sounds like extra work, having to prepare for vacation. But turns out, if we don’t take a few crucial steps, we’ll end up sabotaging our free time. Matt Richtel wrote for the New York Times last year about setting out to find a way to avoid what he calls “the seven-day trap” of a week-long getaway: “three days impatient to be relaxed already, two days actually being relaxed, and then two final days of dread before going back to work.”
He didn’t mean reminding the boss you’ll be gone, leaving detailed documentation of who is covering what and emailing around your in-case-of-emergency contact information — although those are all good ideas. Richtel’s point was that a busy brain can keep you from fully relaxing, and that it’s nearly impossible to ask your mind to just cool it at the drop of a hat. In that spirit, here are some de-stressing steps to take to help you shift seamlessly from work mode to vacation mode — and back again.
1. Don’t stress about leaving things the way you’d like to come back to them.
Maybe you’ve heard that a de-cluttered desk is a decluttered mind, or are in a constant battle to empty your email inbox. “Many of us stress about doing extra work before leaving in hopes of cutting down on the amount you have when you come back,” says psychologist J. Kip Matthews, vice president of Athens, Georgia-based AK Counseling and Consulting, Inc. “But it seems like there’s always a lot of work when you get back,” no matter how you prep, he admits.
While some people might benefit from a little prep work beforehand, it won’t make re-entry easier for everyone, says Teri Bourdeau, clinical associate professor at Oklahoma State University’s Center for Health Sciences. For others, the prep only adds more stress, says Matthews. “Focus and prioritize those tasks that do have a deadline while you’re gone,” he says, and put the non-pressing items — like organizing your papers — on the back burner.
2. Don’t make yourself too reachable
Pressure from the boss might make you feel compelled to say you’ll check in every day. Don’t do it! When describing your plans, keep it vague with a casual promise to check in from time to time. “The more that we check our email and respond to phone calls, the more we’re training our colleagues and bosses we’re available 24/7,” says Matthews. “They don’t try to figure out alternative ways to get their needs met without you being there.”
Once you’ve announced you’ll only be available from time to time during your days off, practice being out of touch while you’re still on the clock. Richtel suggests practicing shifting into vacation mode during the couple of work days leading up to your time off to avoid what is essentially withdrawal from being constantly connected. Turn your phone off before bed or step away from your desk for an afternoon walk to show your brain what the next few days will be like.
4. Level your expectations
Your flight could be delayed. It might rain the afternoon you plan to go jet skiing. Mishaps and meltdowns happen, but they don’t have to ruin a trip. Bourdeau suggests planning for flight delays. “Put an extra playlist on your iPod or bring an extra book to read,” she says, so you’re feeling productive — or at least engaged in relaxation — when plans change.
“Be fully present and enjoy the moment for what it is,” suggests Matthews. If you keep yourself open to new experiences and adventures, you might realize that sitting on the deck, watching the rain fall on the surf, and breathing the cool air results in a total sensory experience. “It may not be that you can fly a kite on the beach, but being mindful in our approach to vacation can be just as rewarding,” he says.
5. Remind yourself this is a vacation
“This is not just an extension of your work from a different location,” says Matthews. “The problem with feeling compelled to check email or voicemail is you’re never fully ‘away’, you’re not getting a mental vacation from work,” he says. You earned these hours off for a reason — without them, you’re bound to burn out.
6. Do a little something differently with your phone
You don’t have to forgo technology altogether, since being completely out of touch might simply stress you out more, but experts encourage workers to disconnect as much as possible. “Confine your phone calls or emails to a restricted part of the day, say 30 minutes, when you scan through to relieve that anxiety that the world is crashing down around you,” says Matthews.
“Stay in your vacation frame of mind and really turn it off or set it aside so you can’t hear it ring,” advises Bourdeau, “but know that you can check it in a few hours.” Most of us could stand to try a little harder when it comes to limiting the smartphone use that’s born of constantly worrying we’re missing out on something back home, she says: “If you’re worrying about what you’re missing, you’re missing the moment.”
7. Schedule an activity
All of a sudden having less to do can feel strange. “If you’ve been really wired and anxious at work, it may take a couple days to wind down and be present in the vacation,” says Matthews. Overpacking your vacation schedule and feeling compelled to get everything done is probably not the solution. But having a loose structure for what your day and week will look like — as long as you can be flexible enough if, say, it rains — can keep your brain active while changing things up.
8. Remind yourself everything is fine
Back at work, they will get by without you, and that doesn’t mean you’re getting fired. Especially in a struggling economy, employees may worry that setting up boundaries to preserve the sanctity of the vacation may look bad to a boss, says Matthews. Or that if everything does run smoothly, they don’t need you around. “If you’ve done a good job to delegate and met any deadlines before you left, go ahead and set that boundary,” he says. And if you’ve documented what you’ve delegated, you’ve proved how essential you are, since you are responsible for making your time off run so smoothly, he says: “It doesn’t cost you your job if you turn off your phone for an hour.”
Bottom line, ask yourself how you want to remember your vacation, says Bourdeau. When you look back on your vacation memories, will it be you on a cell phone, she says, or that special moment you spent with a loved one. It’s up to you.
A version of this article originally appeared in July 2013.