Summer vacation. Why we need a break.

For the lucky ones among us, summertime means vacation time. Most of us have had the experience of taking a summer vacation. At best, it can be a time to reset, regroup, relax, and breathe deeply. It can also be a time to have fun, reconnect with family and friends, see new places and try new things. At worst, it can be airport lines, sticky car seats, complex family dynamics, mosquito bites and sunburn….but that is a subject for another blog, not this one!

What exactly happens to us when we take time away from our usual routine? There was a time scientists thought that when our body is not busy, our mind is not busy. When our to-do list is blank, so is our mind. With the advent of EEGs and now, even more amazing, fMRIs (machines that can measure brain activity by monitoring the blood flow when we are thinking about certain things) we know this is not so. It turns out that our brains are very busy when we aren’t. Our brains are busy even when we are sleeping. It is a different kind of busyness. When we are not focused on accomplishing a task or getting a job done, our minds meander in and out of memories and thoughts and ideas, making connections and figuring things out.  After some time of not being busy, our minds are more at peace, our body is calmer, we feel more balanced, we have more patience and more creative ways of thinking through problems. This is precisely why time away from our usual routine is important.

We humans are not machines. We are not meant to focus all day long. Just like our bodies are not meant to sit still for hours at a time, our brains are not meant to focus on a computer screen (or anything else) for hours at a time. Taking breaks helps us work more efficiently. Taking time away, helps us to work better and actually get more done in less time. In order to do good or great work, our minds need to experience variety, change and movement. Coming back from a vacation (or even a day off) you may notice that you work better and have new ideas.

Unfortunately this is a hard sell for employers, at least in the US. Other countries have figured this out. An article in Time magazine from January 2017 ( reported on productivity and length of work week around the world. Working long hours doesn’t mean more productivity. Luxembourg, the most productive country, has an average workweek of just 29 hours. “The USA puts in more hours on average then all four of the European countries with higher productivity rankings.”   Staying at work longer or not taking days off doesn’t mean increased productivity. It seems counterintuitive but the research bears this out. When we take breaks, we are happier, healthier, more focused and more productive when we are at work. Americans have fewer paid days than 19 other developed countries ( ) . In addition, one in four of us do not receive any paid vacation time and more than half of us do not use the vacation days we do accrue.

If you have vacation time. Use it!  All of it! And use it well. You need it!

The reality is most of us don’t  live in Luxemburg or anywhere in Europe and we are stuck with the number of hours our workplace requires us to work each day and week, as well as the amount of vacation we get or don’t get. What we can do though, is use the time we do get off as wisely as possible. Here are some tips:

  • Leave your laptop at home. When you work on vacation you are not as engaged with those around you, you interact less and you remember less about your vacation.
  • Use technology appropriately. Don’t check messages every day. Don’t video everything. You are less likely to remember what happened when you are watching it through a screen then when you are actually present, engaged, and watching it actually happen.
  • Snap pictures to help you remember. Taking a photo is different than filming. We seem to remember things we take photos of but not remember well events we film. Go figure.
  • Take naps. Schedule time for doing nothing. Let your mind wander.
  • Interact with nature if you can. Just being in nature is healing and rejuvenating.
  • Ease yourself back into your work week. Coming in late on Sunday night and beginning the work week on Monday can make your whole week be one of recovery (doing laundry, getting groceries, watering the garden, catching up on email, and unpacking). Planning a recovery day into your vacation can help your transition back be more manageable.

So, take a vacation, and be present when you do!