How to Vacation Well

A couple of weeks ago, I headed out to vacation in the Azores—a dreamy and lush Portuguese archipelago known for its subtropical climate, dramatic landscapes, and blue-green crater lakes. It was a trip I’d been planning for months and dreaming about for years. When they called our boarding group at the airport, I practically skipped down the jetway, then elbowed my way to my seat and buckled my seatbelt with gusto. I was pumped.

I was also determined to make this vacation different. On this trip, I would be more present...

Recently, I’d listened to a podcast where the hosts recounted something Eckhart Tolle once said. Essentially Tolle’s message was: The past is regret, the future is anxiety, and all we really have in life is a collection of present moments. The past and the future don’t exist.

I thought about this idea sleepily as I relaxed into my overnight flight across the Atlantic.

We arrived early the following morning, and the island was everything the travel blogs had promised. Stunning black-sand beaches, green pastures, and abundant hydrangeas that grow like weeds everywhere you look. If ever there were a place to practice presence and quiet mindfulness, it would be here.

And yet, I still spent too much time on social media, checked my work email regularly, and made mental notes and checklists about things I needed to do as soon as I got back. I even caught myself Googling ideas for my next vacation.

I don’t think I’m alone in this (read: I hope I’m not alone in this). So why does it happen?

One thing we know for sure is that no matter how stimulating our external environment is, our phones are still addictive and distracting. This is no longer late-breaking news. I, among millions of others, am locked into a technology habit loop. I’m hooked on the dopamine reward I get every time I refresh my email or see a text light up my screen.

But I think the struggle with presence goes beyond the technology habit. I think many of us also find ourselves in the habit loop of living in a future state, because at work, we’re rewarded for doing so. On project teams, we outline our deliverables and forecast reasonable future deadlines. We set milestones. We schedule meetings and account syncs months in advance. We envision a final product. And then our preparation, hard work, and foresight is rewarded when the client is happy. We feel a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. And we can’t wait to feel that way again.

Future-mindedness is a reality and a requirement for complex and creative work. And it’s difficult to turn this part of our brains off when it’s time to relax and fully embrace the present.

So what can we do about it? Here are a few ideas (I wish I’d tried in the Azores):

Practice meditation.

To clear up any confusion about the difference between meditation and mindfulness, it may help to use the analogy of exercise. If meditation is exercise, then mindfulness is the resulting endurance, muscle tone, and endorphin boost. Meditation is the work; mindfulness is the benefit. Studies have shown that, through meditation, we can actually rewire our brain to boost more of the traits we want (like focus and presence) and reduce the ones we don’t want (like stress).

For best results, don’t wait until you’re on vacation to practice meditation. Like any other skill, mindfulness improves with patience and repetition. No clue where to start? Our team likes the Headspace app.

Practice observation as a skill.

Oftentimes, our default state is to ignore the world around us, and our future-oriented habits give us tunnel vision. But when we live this way all the time, we miss out on opportunities for inspiration, and we fail to get curious about things outside our purview. On a typical work day, most of us don’t have time to set aside for quiet observation and stillness.

So, practice this skill on vacation. Get out of your own head, use your senses, and regain awareness of your environment. Recognize the emotional and physiological response you have to the world around you. As you build your vacation itinerary, carve out some dedicated time for people watching. Take a walk without a destination. Think critically about the things you see and take some field notes.

For those of you who have trouble completely unplugging from work, think of practicing observation as a productive skill-building activity that just so happens to be fun. Go forth and observe!

Hold yourself accountable.

Accountability is baked into our daily lives at work. We plan ahead in order to use our time as efficiently as possible and be good stewards of our organizations and our clients. So why wouldn’t we also hold ourselves accountable to making the most of our time off. Being good stewards of our own self-care?

If staying present and absorbing your vacation fully is one of your goals, look for ways to drive accountability to that goal. Create conditions that make staying present easier, like temporarily removing work email from your phone. Set screen-free hours on vacation and see if your travel partner will commit to doing this with you (nothing makes me reach for my phone faster than seeing the person I’m with reach for theirs). If you’re feeling adventurous, take this a step further and leave your phone at the hotel.

Irony be damned, with a little bit of future-mindedness, we can plan ahead to stay present.

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