3 Unexpected Ways to Get More Out of Your Vacation

I found out recently that some researchers have nailed down the ideal vacation length: eight days. Apparently, the eighth day is the peak moment of health and wellness, after which the benefits fade.

That’s possibly true, but you might not be able to take eight or more days off from work. Even if you do, every vacation has its own unpredictable ups and downs, from sugared-up kids in a small hotel room to long flight delays. The undeniable truth is that vacation should be a non-negotiable for everybody: It has been shown to help reduce the risk of heart attack and depression, lower stress levels, and recharge your resilience. And at its best, vacation is just plain fun.

Rather than shoot for a certain number of vacation days, what you need are strategies to get the most out of the vacation you do have, whether that’s two weeks in August or a series of long weekends over the winter. Here are three ways to boost the benefits of taking time away—no beach destination required!

Daydream about vacation before you go
I was fascinated by research showing that anticipating a vacation can boost positive emotions. In other words, daydreaming about your time at the lake can make you feel just as good as being there. Positive emotions are excellent tools for weathering stressful times, as they help you train your mind to tune into good feelings and positive thoughts more easily than negative ones.

Imagining what your time off will be like is one way to tap into the power of vacation anticipation. Planning works too. Where will you have dinner on Monday night? What will you do while you’re in town? Revel in the details, but be open to spontaneity when vacation actually comes. You don’t need to follow the plan to a T; the anticipation is its own reward.

(Read more on tuning into positive thoughts and feelings.)

Think twice before you respond to an email while you’re away
Chances are you will check in with work while you are on vacation—a complete break just isn’t realistic for a lot of us. But you want to do so carefully, so the flood of emails and questions and problems don’t overwhelm you and sour your time off.

I like to draw the line here: Check emails or other work communications for emergencies and truly urgent matters. Don’t respond to non-urgent things; doing so sends the message that you’re not really away, but available anytime someone needs you. You can also set limits around when you’ll bring work into vacation. Perhaps early mornings are when you answer emails or finish organizing online files. Or make a decision that you read evaluations or training materials after lunch. That feeling of control may be more rewarding and rejuvenating than you expect.

(Read more on using priorities to defuse stress.)

Relax when you get home
Your car doesn’t do well going from zero to 100, and neither do you. Even if you feel great after a vacation, you’ll lose that glow right away if you jump full-blast into regular life. (The Wall Street Journal reported on the quick vacation fade here.)

This doesn’t have to be a big deal, trip to the spa kind of relaxation. Maybe you go for a short walk in nature between the kids going off to school and you starting work. You could try scheduling one evening for leisure time. A gentle exercise class, such as restorative yoga, once a week could be the ticket. Or simply committing to getting enough sleep each night.

Get these habits in motion as soon as you get home (or before you go) to keep your relaxation reflexes primed. Vacation days might be long gone, but you’re keeping some of that magic with you all the time.

(Read more on get in relaxation shape right now.)