In one of my favorite episodes of Frasier, Niles is so reinvigorated after a trip to Belize that he develops a persona when he returns to day-to-day life: Island Niles. Unlike day-to-day Niles, “Island Niles” is carefree, non-judgemental, and relaxed. He wears board shorts. He goes commando. He says “Yeah, mon.” Of course, this doesn’t last. Eventually, day-to-day Niles returns and so does his fancy suit and uptight demeanor. Vacation mode is over.
I know, I know. TV isn’t real life. But we can all relate to this, right? You go on vacation and have an epiphany: your worries don’t matter, life is short, and you should be enjoying yourself more. You are a new person with a new perspective, or maybe it’s more accurate to say you’ve found yourself again and realized that the stress of day-to-day life has made you a different person.
And then you get back. Slowly, but surely, that perspective wears off and you slide back into your old habits and hangups. I wrote about this phenomenon a couple of years ago at Lifehacker, after I had an epic vacation in Japan. I came back feeling like a different person and wanted to make a conscious effort to hang on to “Tokyo Kristin” and not let her slip away. There’s no beating the stress of everyday life completely (and, actually, my life is crazy stressful right now), but after writing that post, I’ve made it a point to embrace “vacation mode” as much as possible in real life. If you’re dreading the jarring return back to the real world, here are some everyday habits that have helped me hold on to that liberating feeling.
Our brains love new stuff. And I’m not just talking new toys and gadgets. We love novelty: new experiences, new skills, new routines. Even if you seem to prefer staying in your comfort zone, your brain actually reacts more favorably when you break out of it. Research, like this study published in Neuron, shows that novelty makes us happy, motivates us, and even improves our memories. There are some easy ways to add a little novelty to your everyday life, too:
- Schedule stuff after work: To combat my bad habit of working late and then vegging out in front of the TV, I try to make plans with friends during the week so I actually get out of the house and doing something different. A friend and I have a standing appointment to meet up every Wednesday, and yes, I know that sounds contradictory (it’s our routine, after all), but it does break up the week and we don’t always do the same thing. Sometimes I help her with a new project. Sometimes she helps me write blog posts. Sometimes we just get pedicures!
- Rearrange your office: Trust me, I know how silly this sounds. You’re probably thinking, So…to make my everyday life feel more bearable you want me to move some shit around? Listen, I get it, rearranging furniture isn’t going to make your stress go away. However, changing up your scenery, whether it’s working at a coffee shop or just moving around your workspace, can actually motivate you to work more when you’re stuck in a rut. Scientists call this The Novelty Effect.
- Say “yes” to stuff. Especially stuff that doesn’t sound like you: Maybe it’s a cat convention or durian or karaoke. There are so many things in this world we instinctively want to reject, but saying yes instead can open you up to new experiences, new stories, new opinions. You may even learn new things about yourself. I’ve learned that I hate durian, but it was a fun experience.
Novelty is one of the easiest ways to “hack” your brain into feeling the same way it does when you’re on vacation. Novelty is, after all, one of the reasons why vacation is so fun to begin with: you get to travel to a new place and experience new things.
Put Down Your Phone
I don’t want to sound like some out of touch grandpa shaking his fist at people for walking on his lawn but people and their phones these days, sheesh. Looking at phones walking down the street. Looking at phones on dates. Looking at phones watching TV. It’s sad, really, spending a life glued to a screen. I remember when my brother graduated from college and I took zillions of pictures with my phone. After he walked, I had a realization: I never actually saw him graduate.
Everyone knows this: our phones are distracting. They can become such a mindless habit that we often don’t even realize it, though, and the worst part is, it seems like people are getting more and more comfortable with it. (I actually heard a famous business guru defend the practice of snapping photos of everything instead of enjoying the moment. His rationale? Memories fade, but you’ll always have those pictures. Good thing I have those photos of my brother graduating somewhere, I guess.) Beyond the dystopian nightmare of abandoning a real life for a digital one, smartphone addiction has a real impact on both our mental and physical health. It makes us depressed, unmotivated, and probably less creative. It’s the opposite of vacation mode.
I realized I had a problem with my own smartphone when I started mindlessly scrolling Instagram, then closed it to get to my phone’s home screen, then immediately opened it back up and started mindlessly scrolling. This is not healthy behavior, but it’s probably something a lot of people can relate to, and a digital detox, albeit corny-sounding, works wonders. It reminds you that there’s more to life than curating an online persona. It reminds you to be more present and deliberate about how you choose to spend your time.
Take Better Breaks
The old work-life balance thing is tricky. Many people believe it’s not even possible or a good idea. I’ve given up trying to completely separate my work life from my personal life because so much of my work is based on what’s happening in my personal life and vice versa. That said, however you decide to separate your personal life from your work life, it’s important to step away from work regularly.
You probably know that taking regular breaks can help with your cognition — it’s like when you were in school and you couldn’t figure out a math problem, but then came back to it later and the answer was so clear. However, most breaks we take as adults aren’t good enough. Chances are, your “break” probably involves scrolling through your Twitter feed, replying to emails, or extending your work in some other way. If this 2008 study is any indication, you should be going outside instead. Researchers found that subjects performed better on cognitive tasks after spending time in a calm, natural setting.
To really give yourself a chance to get a little piece of “vacation mode” during your break, you have to sort of re-set your mind. Mentally, that means leaving work behind, not just taking it with you into a different setting.
Be a Resident Tourist
One of my favorite ways to get a little taste of vacation is to travel in my own city. Granted, I live in Los Angeles, where it’s easy to find new stuff to explore and discover. However, when I lived in a rural Texas town, one of my favorite things to do was take weekend road trips. I would drive into Houston, or Galveston or Eagle Lake. In college, I moved to Houston, where there was more to do, but I still had the urge to travel beyond the 610 loop. So on the weekends, I’d drive around with a friend, looking for historic sites and other points of interest. I was broke, so it was all I could afford, but it was also a cheap way to embrace novelty and learn something new about my state. Again, novelty helps you manifest the same perspective as you get on vacation, and actually driving around and seeing new stuff feels like a vacation itself. Even if it was just for the day, I had no obligations to deal with, no schedule to stick to, and no plan except to explore.
Learn to Say No
I know, I praised the habit of “saying yes,” but it’s just as important to learn when to say no to stuff, too. Overextending your schedule is a sure-fire way to stress yourself out. And if you want to make room for fun, spontaneous things that are worth saying “yes” to, that probably means you have to say no to certain things, too.
I talked about this in the Lifehacker post, but I when I feel overextended with my schedule and out of control of my own time, I make a list of things I dread. These are normal tasks or obligations in my everyday life that I don’t enjoy for one reason or another, maybe because they’re boring or stressful. I might not be able to do anything about most of the stuff on the list, but that’s not the point. I just write them down then break them into three categories:
- Things I can’t really control: Like tasks that are necessary for my job
- Things I can totally do something about: Favors I don’t have time for. Agreeing to take on extra work.
- Things that I don’t want to do but are good for me: Working out or volunteering, for example.
Once you have all of your obligations categorized, you can easily see what you do and don’t really have control over, and then it just comes down to saying “no” to things that are making you miserable. It feels good to take back control over your own time. It’s liberating and gives you a small dose of vacation mode.
Everyday life is not vacation, I understand that. If it were, vacation wouldn’t be vacation. However, I also think it’s way too easy for everyday life to stray far from the way we feel on vacation: curious, liberated, creative, and motivated. What do you think? Is there anything you do to make your everyday life feel a little more like you do on vacation?