Vacations: Where Productivity Takes an Unexpected Turn

Do you ever find yourself talking about a scene in a movie, only to forget the name of the movie midway through your sentence? The way our brains work is both remarkable and mysterious. One minute, we’re processing massive amounts of data like a machine. Next, we’re struggling to remember our best friend’s birthday.

There’s so much about the brain we don’t understand. But what we are learning is that like machines, in order for us to achieve sustained levels of wellness and productivity, our brains need to be refueled, recharged, and properly cared for. Our brains need to take a vacation.

Vacation deprivation a health risk?

The health benefits of taking vacations is becoming more well-documented and better understood. Longer breaks are not only beneficial, but critical to our health and well-being. Francine Lederer, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles, points out that “just as small breaks improve concentration, long breaks replenish job performance. Vacation deprivation increases mistakes and resentment at co-workers…The impact that taking a vacation has on one’s mental health is profound.”

This may come as welcome news to those of us feeling a little burned out from deadlines and deliverables—news almost as exciting as reports of the health benefits of chocolate. Tim Kreider, an essayist for the The New York Times writes, “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets.” Perhaps these health benefits may be enough to encourage many of us to change our ‘work-harder-faster-and-more’ mentality.

Vacations can be productive

If the health and wellness argument isn’t strong enough to convince some of us to go ahead and book that overdue vacation to Rio, perhaps the productivity argument might work. It turns out that by giving your brain a break, you can increase productivity, replenish your attention, and foster creativity. Why is this? The fact is—our brain never really stops working. A recent article published in the Scientific American states, “Some studies have demonstrated that the mind obliquely solves tough problems while daydreaming—an experience many people have had while taking a shower.”

Daydreaming your brain taking a ‘virtual vacation’—turning the focus away from regular tasks and obligations. Taking our focus off of a situation often helps us explore new perspectives. Tim Kreider writes, “The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration—it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”

Not everyone agrees, but things are changing

This concept of carving out time from work to vacate and rest is more acceptable in some countries than in others. In many European countries, shops and cafes unapologetically hang “We’re Closed” signs up during the entire month of August. In America, Canada, Japan and Hong Kong workers average 10 days off each year—a stark contrast to the over 20 days of mandatory, paid vacation in the European Union. Despite the reported health and economic benefits and the growing trend among companies to offer unlimited, paid vacations, ‘vacation-shaming’ is more prevalent than you might expect.

Even views on taking time off during the workday to rest vary across the globe. In China, resting your head on your desk after lunch is both acceptable and commonplace. Spain, Mexico, and a few other countries structure their days around citywide naps, referred to as siestas. For those of us living in the U.S, daily naps at the office would likely be a topic of concern in our next performance review.

But, attitudes appear to be changing. There are a growing number of books and apps being developed to help people carve out time to rest. The Productivity Project chronicles one man’s year of productivity experiments, to discover such things as the effects of sleep deprivation on productivity. Deep Work is a compilation of best practices, including taking regular retreats away from everyday responsibilities. Apps such as iRelax Soundscapes transport us to virtual islands and rainforests, while Sleep Cycle helps monitor the quantity and quality of your daily rhythms of rest.

Vacations that leave you feeling more refreshed

How do we avoid taking vacations where we come back feeling more exhausted than refreshed? Of course, there’s no guarantee we’ll come back from every vacation bursting with breakthrough ideas, but perhaps the following tips may help:

  1. Plan different types vacations – There are many different flavors of vacation. Ask yourself, what kind of vacation will give you the rest you need right now. A cruise? A cycling adventure? A prayer or meditation retreat?
  2. Come up with creative challenges – Create  a fun challenge for yourself. I know a friend who stops by the local grocery store to snap a photo of bags of Cheetos upon arriving in a different country. What about ‘selfies’ of your favorite rubber ducky or plush elephant in different locations?
  3. Limit online activities – Bring an e-reader with only books on it. Bring an SLR camera to take photos to avoid incessant phone notifications. Set up an out-of-office reply on your email account. Check unread emails once a day or avoid checking emails altogether—whatever works best for you.
  4. Avoid social media – Use apps like Glympse or Find My Friends to automate location notifications and avoid posting daily status updates. Consider meeting up with friends at your destination for some real face-time.
  5. Get organized Make a ‘must-do’ and ‘nice-to-do’ list of places you’d like to visit or explore. Use Google Maps to create custom walking tours. Snap photos of outfits you can wear on your trip, and include them in your packing list.

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