11 Ways to Extend Your Vacation’s Half-Life
Here's how to keep that vacation buzz going as long as possible.
Taking some much-needed time away can help you recover from stress in life and in the workplace, but the R&R only lasts so long. Researchers nicknamed this effect a “vacation fade out.” While one 2011 study affirmed that vacations are a great way to prevent burnout—it also found that the positive effects fade out within a month. The half-life of a vacation is even shorter in other cases, according to the American Psychological Association, which reports that the benefits of time away often dissipate within a few days in nearly two-thirds of working adults.
Why is it that the positive effects of a vacation rarely linger? Susan Krauss Whitbourne, PhD, a professor emerita of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, says our brains are wired to move on—and our circumstances probably don’t help.
“People tend to bookend their experiences, and once you’ve shut one door, you go into the next,” she says. “It’s adaptive, almost like a coping mechanism: You have a job, your kids have to go to school, reality starts to bite.”
Want to avoid the sting of real life and all its stresses once you get home from a trip? Here’s how to draw out the positive effects of your vacation.
If there’s one surefire way to come home more exhausted than when you left, it’s planning a chaotic vacation. While you can’t always plan for unexpected (read: stressful) twists and turns while traveling, be as intentional as possible about using your time away to recharge, whatever that means to you.
Planning is one way to prevent unnecessary chaos on a trip. For example, it may be helpful to make reservations for dinner at your destination, but try not to fill every moment of your trip with activities.
“If you’re madly dashing around on a trip, trying to cram as much as possible into it, you’re going to feel frazzled,” says Whitbourne. “Everyone will be running around, and it will be just like being at home.”
To ease the transition back to reality, Jennifer O’Brien, a travel photographer with The Travel Women, strategically avoids tiring activities at the end of her trips. “I front load tours and activities on the first few days and then purposefully schedule nothing to do toward the end so I can let spontaneous plans happen or just relax and enjoy the place,” she says.
To get the most out of your time away from everyday life, set yourself up to be as present as possible on your trip. Ideally, you could leave your iPhone and laptop with all your other stressors at home—otherwise, you won’t reap the benefits of feeling like you had a break. But for some careers, a ditch-work-for-a-week approach won’t work.
If circumstances won’t allow you to fully escape your job, do your best to brainstorm a plan, and let your travel mates in on it. For example, will you work during certain hours when you’re out of the office? How often will you check your email and phone?
There’s no hard-and-fast rule about how much work works, and how much work will drain you.
Courtney Keim, PhD, an organizational psychologist and associate professor of psychology at Bellarmine University, says some people might be able to relax more on trips with their laptops and phones available, even if they aren’t obligated to work. What’s important in any scenario, she says, is to be realistic about how you’ll handle work if you’re needed.
One of the best things about vacation is the physical change in perspective. Whether you’re traveling abroad or holing up in a cozy cabin in the woods for a long weekend, allow yourself an opportunity to soak in the unique sights, smells, and sounds surrounding you.
Headed to an all-inclusive? It may be tempting not to leave the grounds. But Whitbourne says you’ll probably get more out of your travels if you sneak out to do a little exploring. Absorbing the sounds and scenery can prompt self-reflection and cause you to more deeply connect with your surroundings so you can bring those memories home with you.
If you’ve been at the beach for a week, fly home on a Sunday night, and return to the piles of work sitting on your desk the next morning, you won’t have a chance to recover from your travel—not to mention, soak in all the memories you enjoyed on your trip.
If possible, it can be helpful to build in a buffer between your arrival and the demands of “real life.” If you can’t take an extra day off work, plan to return home on a Friday or Saturday so you can enjoy an entire weekend at home before jumping back into your normal routine. It may be tempting to reenter life as you know it, but your mind and body might need time to adjust.
“Build in a buffer for the transition if you have that luxury, but also have realistic expectations about what you will do when you get back,” says Keim. “You may need that time to get back to where you need to be.”
Learning something new is a great way to stretch yourself and grow in confidence. Learning something new while you’re on vacation is a clever way to enjoy your vacation more and include pieces of your trip in your routine at home.
Victoria Yore, founder of Follow Me Away, recommends learning to cook something new while you’re gone and then trying the recipe at home. “Let’s say you went to Paris or New Orleans for your vacation. Take a cooking class, which will take you out of the traditional vacation activities, and set you up for success once you return home,” she says. “Then try out those macarons for a sweet treat or cook up some jambalaya after work to remind you of the fun you had on your trip.”
One key to riding out vacation relaxation is creating a relaxing environment for when you return. It’ll be hard to rest if you return home to a cluttered home, empty pantry, and long to-do list. Sure, you’ll probably have enough to do leading up to your vacation, but a little prep beforehand can help you get more out of the trip you’ve worked so hard to plan.
As a gift to your future self, Amina Dearmon, a luxury travel advisor and owner of Perspectives Travel, recommends decluttering your home before you leave. If you’re able to order a grocery delivery, schedule one for a few hours after you’re supposed to arrive home so you don’t need to take a trip to the grocery store.
Spending time in the laundry room after a relaxing vaca might feel like culture shock, but Dearmon recommends unpacking and getting on top of laundry ASAP when you get home. “The sooner you get it done, the sooner you can spend time catching up with your friends and telling them all about your adventures,” she says. “Taking care of your dirty clothes also means you won’t have it hanging over your head once you are back to your daily routine.”
Whether you take photos (with a real camera!) of the afternoons you spent at the beach or grab a few souvenirs from a local gift shop, make an effort to bring home a physical reminder of your vacation. When you get home, organize your pictures in a real photo album or scrapbook, or find a high-traffic area to display your souvenir. Don’t have a camera, or don’t want to start a snow globe collection? Set a favorite photo from your trip as the background of your computer or phone as a constant reminder.
“These things can help you reconnect with and extend your experience and memorialize the trip,” says Whitbourne. “And the memories could become the basis for family stories that get told for years to come.”
Another creative way to delight your future self: Mail home a postcard describing a favorite experience from your trip. “When you return home, reading how you felt at the time is great fun and brings back the energy all over again,” says psychologist Sandra Hoffman, president of the educational travel company Children’s Concierge.
Coming home to your normal routine from a relaxing trip already feels like a major adjustment. If you’re traveling across time zones, do your best to avoid the extra exhaustion of jet lag.
International tour guide Rashad McCrorey, who coordinates trips to Ghana, says preparing to dodge the effects of jet lag can be a challenge, but if you do it correctly, you can feel refreshed and renewed at home.
To fend off exhaustion and disorientation at home, he recommends gradually adjusting your sleep schedule to coincide with the nighttime at home. Try not to go to sleep immediately when you board a long flight—instead, be patient and grab some shut-eye when it’s nighttime at your final destination. Finally, try to plan your arrival during the day of your home country. If you sleep on the plane before you arrive home, and you’ve already begun adjusting to the new time zone before your trip, you can have a full first day at home and be instantly on your normal sleep schedule.
According to the “peak-end rule” of psychology, most of us judge our experiences by how we felt during the peak and end of the experience. Is there a fancy restaurant people have been raving about or a beach you’ve been wanting to visit? Save it for the end of your trip so you can carry the special experience with you when you get home.
“Do something special on the last day or night, something you can look forward to the whole trip so you don’t dread the end of your time off,” says Jane Liaw, a travel planner with Bella Bird Journeys. “Ending your experience on a high lets you look back on the whole experience more positively after you have returned home.”
When you return home from a vacation, fend off the fade by adding anticipation into the process. Psychologist Kate Sullivan, head of experience at Secret Fares, says most people get more pleasure from anticipating something rather than a short-lived experience. That’s why she recommends her clients start planning their next trips as soon as a few weeks after returning from the last one.
If you’re dreading your trip home and all it represents, Dearmon recommends grabbing your in-flight magazine and using it as a tool to plan your next trip while on your flight home. “Being able to look forward to your next trip as soon as you touch down allows you to not dwell on the realities of being at home,” she says.