How To Take a Better Vacation

Three Science-based Steps To Maximize Your Down Time

Jul 10, 2018

By Nicole M. Coomber

SMITH BRAIN TRUST — You don’t need to be reminded that in the United States, we’re not great about taking vacation. You’re probably living that reality right now. Although Project Time Off reports that we’re getting better at taking time off work, more than half of us still leave vacation days unused each year.

Many of us don’t feel like we can take more paid time off. If you’re like my family, you need some of those “vacation” days for decidedly non-vacation purposes. Examples might include trips to the DMV to get your car inspected or gaps in childcare, such as the week between when school ends and camp starts. All of these are activities, by the way, I had to rearrange my schedule to accommodate in the past month. 

We would be better off trying to enjoy the days we have more, rather than carving out even more time away from work — and away from the billable hours or client interactions that are the bread and butter of many of our work lives. Luckily, finding more pleasure in your precious little time off boils down to some very simple steps. 

Feel the Anticipation

First, plan ahead. Research from the Applied Journal in Quality of Life shows that anticipating a vacation is what makes us feel happier about it. My husband and I just found out that some dear friends are moving to Montana, and we have already started thinking about when to go see them and what to do when we’re there.

Yellowstone National Park is a couple of hours away from where they will be living, as are other beautiful national parks. Even if it is a year or two before we actually can go, the anticipation and planning are part of the fun.

My husband and I keep a “bucket list” of dream travel destinations, and we revisit it regularly. Start thinking about your next trip now.

Take in the Good

On the flip side of anticipation, vacation memories also add to our overall happiness. However, we might have to do a little bit of work to forge those memories in our minds.

Neuroscience research has demonstrated the “plasticity” or adaptability of the brain, especially as it relates to creating new connections. One specific way to do so is to “take in the good,” a term coined by psychologist Rick Hansen. The basic steps are: Have a positive experience, enrich the experience and absorb the experience.

We just got back from a trip to Maryland’s Assateague Island National Seashore, where we camped just steps away from the beach (and its wild horses). It’s a breathtaking place, and I did a bit of taking in the good. I had a positive experience watching my sons splash in the wild waves.

I enriched the experience by noticing how I felt and by taking in additional pleasurable feelings, such as the feel of the wind on my face and the beautiful blue color of the sky. Then, I let the feelings sink in, absorbing the joy and the pleasure of being with my boys and the clean, beautiful seashore.

Really taking in our experiences help us stop time for a brief moment and feel the elation of our vacation.

Share the Joy

Finally, spend time with family and friends. In her new book, Off the Clock, Laura Vanderkam recommends that we schedule time with friends and family as part of our leisure time. Why? When asked about how they felt about their time, people who spent more time with family and friends felt as if they had more time in general.

Time with those we love expands the time we have in ways that are hard to describe. And that’s important. For each of us, time is a finite resource. Managing it well means making the very most of it.

Nicole Coomber is an associate clinical professor of management and organization for the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business and mother to four boys.




About the Expert(s)

Nicole M. Coomber

Nicole Coomber is on the faculty in the Management & Organization area at the Robert H. Smith School of Business.

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