Each morning on my train, I catch a handful of people already falling down the multitasking rabbit hole.
Two phones in hand, one personal and one professional, bouncing back and forth to keep up with an onslaught of never-ending requests.
No matter how you make a living, every industry hails multitasking and balance as the golden key to success.
Answer all your emails, remember to get the headlight fixed, and don’t forget to make time for a social life. Keep all the balls in the air while, of course, maintaining a motivated, upbeat and gritty attitude.
We’re supposed to find energy in the constant demand of it all, even when we know deep down that this schedule isn’t sustainable without some downtime. This constant slog toward the bottom of our to-do list leads to a resentment of Mondays, anxiety on Sunday evenings and a constant veneration of vacation days.
It’s all well and good to say we need to get away more, but for many of us, shipping off to a secluded island is not always in the cards.
Thankfully, finding that rejuvenating “vacation mindset” doesn’t require a beach towel and a cocktail.
In a recent study by NBC news, mastering a vacation mindset is not only possible without technically being on vacation, but also crucial to building things like reading comprehension, creative thinking and even social skills.
According to Brigid Schulte, director of the Better Life Lab at New America, our brains have two settings — one which focuses on productivity and the other that allows unstructured mental states like daydreaming. This state of mind is unaware of time and responsibilities, even if just for a moment, and frees us from keeping up with every ping, phone call, email and errand.
The productivity of shutting off
It’s a counterintuitive idea — if we allow ourselves to turn off or switch gears for a moment, won’t everything come crashing down? A 2012 study found the opposite. Constructive Internal Reflection, coined by this research team, combines a curious attention to our external surroundings with inner contemplation.
This daydream-like state, they found, enhances our ability to remain socially and creatively present throughout the rest of our day. In other words, without a moment to let your mind wander, it becomes more difficult to remain present and centered when it’s time to concentrate.
So that frustration you feel when yet another calendar invite pops up? You’re not alone. Without a more frequent use of vacation brain, we’re far more likely to reach our stress tipping point, leading to sloppy work that we’ve learned to resent.
How to enter a vacation mindset
By analyzing brain activity, researchers have found that it isn’t necessary to drive off into the sunset to obtain this reinvigorating mindset. It only requires few essentials:
• The feeling that you have control over your own time (no matter how short)
• Diving into an activity of your choice
• Experiencing a sense of belonging or identity
• Creating distance from work and personal responsibilities
Again, we’re not programmed to allow ourselves to let go and zone out, so finding this groove can take practice. Begin by giving it a go when time is more within your control, such as a weekend afternoon with friends or in a setting that makes you feel naturally calm. Ease into the habit of flipping the switch during your busiest of days as you find what works for you.
Choosing your “destination”
Vacation mindset can be switched on with little-to-no planning, and therefore available to you on the days you need it most. It all comes down to shifting your focus away from communication and responsibilities and settling into the present moment. The next time you have either a few hours, 20 minutes, or a short coffee break, consider these ideas to settle into the curious mind of vacation brain.
Whether you’re wandering through a familiar neighborhood or visiting a new city, settling into the back corner of a local coffee shop is a great place to try out vacation brain. Stay aware of your senses if you feel stuck — the taste of the coffee, the feel of the booth, the sounds of the room. People-watch if you’re by a window. Bring along a journal, a book or a good friend, and try to avoid defaulting into talking about work or your to-do list.
Even if you live in the center of a city, finding a patch of nature can free the mind and even lower stress levels. Check in with a friend to let them know you’re turning your phone off and walk without checking your step counter or watching the clock.
When all you need is a boost in creativity without spending money, get lost in the stacks of your local library. Explore the shelves for a new story or study and spend an hour simply sitting in the park with a good read.
Make it mindful
No matter what you choose to do, select an activity that helps you feel more present in the given moment. Mindfulness is not to be confused with extreme concentration or work mode. You can dive into a good book without shifting into your active work brain, for example. Mindfulness specialist Leo Babauta explains to, “Pick something to do, immerse yourself, let go of worrying about other things, and just do. Enjoy yourself. Once in a while, come up for air and look at the big picture.”
On your next actual vacation
We’ve all been there — after months of looking forward to a trip, we reach our destination only to find ourselves still stuck in work mode and griping about going back. To ease this transition, break away from your vacation schedule for a moment to check-in with your brain. Sit a little longer at lunch, take in your surroundings with a curious eye, and set aside reminders of schedule or work, such as social media or your planner.
Remaining fully present during travel helps you feel more rejuvenated after your return. It may even cut down the on the post-vacation blues heading back into work. Knowing you can shift back into the seaside mentality any time throughout the day will keep you afloat throughout a busy week back.
Avoiding that burned-out brain
Support yourself in this vacation mindset journey by making slight shifts to your daily rhythm. Recognize which parts of your regular schedule are off-limits for social media or checking work emails. Cutting yourself off from staring at a screen before bed can aid in the quality of sleep. Also, don’t be afraid to say no to new opportunities if they wildly throw off your work-life balance. The more you detect the benefits of this enriched time, the more you’ll feel justified in making it a priority.
Ever since middle school, we’ve been told to avoid doodling, zoning out and disappearing into la-la land. We’ve finally proven that it’s time to let that go.
This week, give yourself the gift of letting go of time, even if just a few minutes. Sit in the park with no agenda, lose yourself in a book or catch up with a friend you haven’t rambled with in years.
When you head back to work, it may just feel like you spent the day on the beach after all.