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How — and Why — to Go on a REAL Vacation

Nearly 40 percent of US employees feel like they have too much work to take a vacation. But research suggests you’ll be happier, healthier, and more productive if you do.

Last year, I was invited by KJ Dell’Antonia of The New York Times to coach Julie, a partner at a law firm who was feeling overwhelmed and inefficient at work. Julie planned to leave for a family vacation right after we spoke, and she worried that she was going to forget everything she learned about finding more ease and efficiency at work by the time she got back from vacation.

But I saw an excellent opportunity: Julie could use her vacation as a way to increase her enjoyment and productivity after she returned to work.

How? For starters, we know that vacationing can increase happiness and lower depression and stress. Productivity increases at work both before and after a vacation. And vacationing can also increase creativity and improve health. (Did you know that men who don’t take vacations are 30 percent more likely to have a heart attack? And that women who rarely vacation are an astounding 50 percent more likely to have a heart attack; they are also much more likely to suffer from depression.)

Maybe you can’t afford not to take a vacation this year.

There are some caveats, however: Happiness only increases when a vacation is relaxing. So how can we actually relax on our vacations?

First, plan a true vacation — one where you do not do any work. None. Zip. Nada. No work.

This might be blazingly obvious, but not working is a critical aspect of actually taking time off. So don’t do what Julie was planning to do, which was to hide that she was out of the office from some of her clients. She could easily do this by checking and responding to email throughout the day from her vacation. While you might be able to work from your vacation, you won’t reap the many benefits of a vacation if you do so.

So see if you can find a vacation partner, someone who will cover for you at work should an urgent situation arise. (A reciprocal relationship is ideal: They handle your work while you are gone, then you do the same when they take their vacation.)

Then tell your team at work your plan: You are going on vacation. You will be totally unplugged from work. You will not be checking in, or checking email. But you’ve planned well: In case of emergency, they can contact your colleague, who will either handle the situation or, as a last resort, get in touch with you.

Don’t forget to do this for any unpaid jobs you might have as well. If the kids’ swim team counts on you to organize volunteers, make sure you’ve handed this duty off to someone while you’re gone. I’ve found that having someone handle things on my behalf while I’m gone enables me and the people I work with to relax a little more.

Second, remember that all vacations are not created equally.

It is possible (as you probably know from experience, especially if you have kids) to return from vacation more exhausted than when you left. Research indicates that having pleasurable and relaxing experiences on your vacation, along with savoring those experiences, are important for remaining happier after a vacation for a longer period of time.

Again, this is totally obvious, but not all vacations are relaxing. The lure of adventure or philanthropic travel for novelty-seeking people like me is great. We pack our vacations with nonstop action when what we really need is time at the pool to nap. Here, from my desk, it seems so much more fun to travel to multiple areas in a new country rather than just see one beach. Our more more more culture leads us to believe that more will definitely be better–more activities, more destinations, more sights to be seen.

Plan a true vacation -- one where you do not do any work. None. Zip. Nada. No work. Click To Tweet

Before you pack your vacation with a lot of stuff that will actually leave you needing a vacation from your vacation, schedule yourself some downtime. Will you be able to get eight hours of sleep each night? (And if you accumulated a sleep debt before you left, will you have time to nap as well?)

Is there some aspect of the travel likely to cause you so much anxiety that you’ll be better off skipping it? Will you have time to truly savor the pleasurable aspects of your time away? Eliminate all preventable stress and time pressure from your schedule before you leave, and don’t let people tell you what you “should” do, or “have to” do while visiting a place that they love. Instead, ask yourself what you need most out of your vacation. Plan from there.

Finally, plan your re-entry.

What do you need to do so that your first day back is joyful rather than hectic? Here are a few things that work for me:

  • I have a “no hellish travel” rule — no overnight or complicated flights home that will leave me sleep-deprived and wiped out.
  • I dedicate the first day I’m back at work to just playing catch up — I don’t actually try to accomplish anything other than get through my email, return phone calls, go grocery shopping, and get my laundry done and put away. If I’m traveling home from a different time zone, I come back a day early to allow myself to adjust. (It is tempting max-out vacation time by staying away as long as possible, so I often need to remind myself that my goal is to come back rested and rejuvenated.)
  • I think of the email that comes in while I’m on vacation similar to the snail mail that comes to my house — someone needs to pick it up and sort it while I’m gone. (When I didn’t have an assistant to help me with email, I paid a high school aged neighbor $10 a day to do this for me; she loved the job and it was easy to get her set up.) I create special folders before I leave, and I have someone sort new incoming email into them once a day, deleting promotions and sending personal “vacation responses” where necessary.

My first day back, my inbox is — get this — empty. The emails I need to respond to first are nicely prioritized into a folder. This system isn’t perfect, of course, but it is much better than returning to 1,000 unread messages.

Join the Discussion

This summer, will you be taking a vacation? Will any aspects of it be difficult? If so, which ones? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Should You Talk to Strangers?

A half dozen recent studies demonstrate the power that connecting with strangers has to make us happier. Research also suggests that that talking to strangers makes us luckier.

In one study, researchers randomly assigned volunteers to talk to the strangers who sat down next to them on the train during their morning commutes. Pretty much no one thought they were going to enjoy giving up their solitude to make small talk with someone they didn’t know and would probably never see again. But guess what? The volunteers enjoyed their commutes more than the people in the study who got to read their books and finish their crossword puzzles in silence. What’s more, not a single study participant was snubbed. Other research indicates that the strangers being chatted up in public spaces similarly think they won’t want to talk, but then end up enjoying themselves.

In another study, researchers measured how much people enjoyed interacting with people they barely knew, and how much they enjoyed connecting with loved ones. Turns out that interacting with both types of people made both introverts and extroverts happier — and the more social interactions they had, the happier people were.

Finally, research shows that even just acknowledging someone else’s presence by making eye contact and smiling at them helps people feel more connected. So yes: Talking to strangers strangely makes us happy.

Take Action: See how many strangers you can interact with today. Smile at the woman you pass getting on the bus. Chat up the barista. Compliment the grocery checker.

Join the Discussion: How does talking to strangers make you feel? Inspire others in the comments!

3 Resolutions to Make You Happier

I do understand why people don’t like New Year’s resolutions: they can be a source of failure, year after year. Folks often pick resolutions that are inherently unrewarding, that necessitate relentless hard work, or that remind them of their mortality in a way that makes them feel small instead of grateful.

This year, make the right resolution. Make the wrong one and you won’t keep it; you’ll just add another habit to the “fail” list. This year, pick just one resolution that research shows will make you happier. Here are are three of my favorites:

1. Spend more time with friends. Study after study shows that we tend to be happier when we feel connected to our nearest and dearest, when we feel like we are a part of a group or a clan. Even introverts don’t like to feel lonely; this may seem like the science of the blazingly obvious, but it bears repeating. Do you frequently feel isolated or lonely? Make a resolution to routinely reach out to others.

2. Every day, find a way to give something to somebody. My favorite happiness booster is to give thanks: to a higher power for the abundance that surrounds me; to my dad for taking my kids to ice cream; to my husband for all the ways he makes me giggle. Equally good is to give something else—a helping hand, a compliment, a much needed $5 bill—even if it is just a tiny act of kindness. In a world that is more focused on getting than giving, a New Year’s resolution to do one kind thing each day is a pretty radical act. When we make giving a habit, we make gratitude and kindness central themes in our lives. In so doing, we transform our lives with joy.

3. Get more sleep. The science around this is clear: You’ll be less stressed, less sick, and less grouchy in the New Year if you get more shut-eye. Try increasing your sleep 10 minutes a night for a week, and then another 10 the next week, and so on until you are regularly getting your eight hours.

It is miraculous to me that people can change themselves simply because they want to. New Year’s resolutions are an amazing act of creation, an art form where the canvas is the self.


Want more advice for keeping New Year’s resolutions? Enroll in Brave Over Perfect Group Coaching. Our January theme is all about setting and keeping the right resolutions. Get instant access to three live coaching calls (and call recordings), a thriving online community, worksheets, and online resources. Use the code BESTYEARYET to enroll for just $10.

Learn more or enroll now. Cheers to making 2019 your happiest year yet!

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5 Ways to Tame Compulsive Checking

Next Week, April 30-May 6, is Screen-Free Week!

Before you think, “I can’t be screen free a whole week,” bear with me. It is SUPER worth-while to consider doing a digital detox every once in a while. Why?

Research suggests that screen time (especially social media usage) leads to unhappiness. Three recent studies all found basically the same thing: The more people used Facebook, the lower their happiness (or the higher their loneliness and depression) was when researchers assessed them again. It’s important to note that it’s not that people who were feeling unhappy used social media more; it’s that Facebook caused their unhappiness.

The more people used Facebook, the lower their happiness (or the higher their loneliness and depression) #screenfreeweek Click To Tweet

Most of us can’t give up screens at work, or if we are in school, but we can give up digital entertainment and social media for a week. This will free up tons of time (and don’t we all want more time?). Let’s read! And stare into space! And most importantly: Connect with family and friends!

Even if we can’t go completely screen free, we can reduce our exposure. It’s easy to spend most of our entire waking existence monitoring our email and social media feeds. We can begin the day by turning off the alarm on our phone . . . and then checking our messages. Before we are out of bed. And then we can bring our phones–and our feeds–with us to the bathroom. And we check again at breakfast. Once at work, the emailing continues–before, during, and after meetings. Lunch? We “catch up” on email or Facebook. For most people, the checking continues long into the evening, well after we’ve left the office.

Does this sound familiar? If so, here are five steps that will help you check less, but work — and play — more.

Step 1: Decide what to do instead of checking constantly. If you are going to spend less time monitoring your email (and social media feeds, and anything else that is constantly nagging you for attention), what would be more productive or joyful for you? My clients often want to spend more time doing focused, intelligent, creative work during the day, and more time relaxing, exercising, and hanging out with their families before and after work. Actually block off time on your calendar for stuff like “Read with hubby” or “Do focused writing/thinking.”

Step 2: Schedule two or three specific times to check your email and messages during the day. I check my email first thing in the morning, and again in the late afternoon. Here is the key: Block off enough time to get all the way to the bottom of your inbox in one way or another. If a particular email is going to take more than 5 minutes to read and respond to, I put it in a folder (“to do this week”) and add whatever it entails to my task list. If you need X hours a day to deal with your email, make sure you’ve scheduled X hours daily.

Step 3: Turn off all your alerts. Unless you are actively checking your email and messages, you don’t need to know what communication is coming in because you’ll be devoting your full attention to something else. So turn off all notifications on your desktop, laptop, tablet, and smartphone. Vibrate counts; turn it off. Now do this for your text messages and all of your social media feeds. Breathe. (Note: Even if, through the strength of your ironclad will, you are able to resist reading a message that comes in, if you see or hear or feel a message notification, your brain has still been interrupted by that alert. Even a millisecond attention hijack like this will make you less focused, less able to resist other temptations, and more irritable.)

Step 4: Hide the bowl of candy. If you were trying to eat less candy, would you carry a bowl of it around with you? Would you put it on your nightstand and reach into it first thing in the morning? And then carry it with you to the bathroom? And then set it next to you while you try to eat a healthy breakfast? And then put it on your dashboard? I didn’t think so. So keep that smartphone tucked away until you actually need it. (Maybe make sure your water bottle isn’t leaking before you keep it stashed in your bag, though.) Think of it as a tool, like a hammer, that you don’t need to pull out until one of your strategically designated times. Make adjustments: Dig up your old-fashioned alarm clock, update your car’s navigation system, and put that digital camera back in your bag for the times when getting a call or text will tempt you if you are using a camera.

Step 5: Notice what happens. Notice the difficult bits with curiosity (and maybe humor). How do you feel as you detox from constant checking? How are people reacting now that you don’t respond to everything instantly? Notice also the moments of ease and focus. Your tension levels will likely drop, and you’ll probably be less stressed. How does this feel in your body? Really see the people around you, now that you are looking up from your phone. Smile.

Want support? Well join us, then!

In my Brave Over Perfect coaching group, we are doing a spring stress detox together. Our next live call is Wednesday, May 9 (you can listen to the recording anytime). Throughout the month, I’ll be teaching research-based techniques for dialing back the stress of our modern lives.

Join now for instant access to the Spring Stress Detox study guide and three live coaching calls. All three calls plus tons of resources are just $20. Learn more or enroll now.

How to Practice “Discontinuous Productivity”

Doesn’t “practice discontinuous productivity” sound so technical and important? It IS powerful, but honestly it just means: Take a break. Rest your brain. But if I posted a Tuesday Tip titled “Just Rest a Little Here and There” would you have read it?

If you are like most of my clients, probably not. Most people I know are afraid (terrified?) to rest during the workday and go to great lengths to hide the breaks they take. As a society, we are super committed to the factory model of continuous production that arose during the industrial revolution. But, as I’ve written about before, the human brain did not evolve to work well nonstop. You can probably work for eight to ten hours straight, I know. But here is the real question: Why would you want to work in a way that doesn’t optimize your brain’s natural power? That doesn’t optimize your intelligence, energy, efficiency, creativity, and, frankly, the joy you derive from your work?

One simple (if not easy) way to get the best of your brain power is to rest between periods of productivity. After about 90 minutes of high output, your energy will naturally dip. Your brain needs a period of recovery, or tension and stress will start to build, and productivity will start to decline. So work with, not against, your brain’s natural cycles of high and low energy (which are called “ultradian rhythms”).

Productivity experts recommend periods of intense focus followed by high-quality periods of rest. Rest periods needn’t be long if you truly take a break. But, I’ll be honest here, rest periods are better if they last about…90 minutes. I know, I know. That seems too long today, when we want everything instantly. I’m old enough to remember a time in corporate America — I worked at The Quaker Oats Company — when we regularly took lunch breaks that lasted an hour or more. Today we want an insta-break; 1 minute seems ideal in a world where many people don’t leave their desks for lunch.

Even if you can’t find 90 minutes between meetings, you can practice “discontinuousproductivity.” Try going for a little walk outside, chatting with a coworker or neighbor about a new movie, or eating lunch outside or near a sunny window. One productivity expert, Bob Pozen, closes his office door after lunch and naps for 30 minutes. Pozen has worked as a top mutual fund executive, an attorney, a government official, a law school professor, a business school professor and a prolific author–often doing several jobs at once. If he can nap midday, for crying out loud, so can the rest of us.

Join the discussion: Do you have any tips for making time for breaks in your day? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Photo by Simon Matzinger.

Tuesday Tip: Choose not to complain

Leading a joyful life does not mean always trying to be happy, or pretending that we don’t sometimes feel annoyed, disappointed, irritated, or hassled. These days, I try not to fake happiness…ever.

At the same time, I’m not really one for complaining. When I was in my twenties, I complained nearly constantly. My best friend used to make bets with me that I couldn’t go even one month without complaining about the weather in Chicago. He was right — I couldn’t do it, even though that was the year that I’d landed a dream job and had every reason I needed NOT to complain constantly. But complaining was a bad habit that was easy, and in a weird way, rewarding. I could always find something to say by complaining about the weather (because in Chicago, it is always too hot or too cold to us Californians).

But complaining is a bad habit that threatens our health, happiness, and success. Consistent complainers get sick more often and don’t do as well in their jobs as their more positive counterparts — and their relationships tend to be shorter and less satisfying. Perhaps because they are so miserable to be around!

Complaining trains your brain to see something negative as the most relevant thing to be commented on, and this negative filter can lead to greater and greater pessimism. Complaining can make your brain feel like you are doing something about a problem, when in fact you aren’t taking action at all.

Want to get out of a complaining habit? I created a little action plan for Self.com here that you might be interested in. In addition, it isn’t too late to start my free 90-day coaching program which aims to help you get into a new habit that sticks.

Photo by Kevin Spencer via flickr.

Tuesday Tip: Plan Now to Enjoy the Weekend

Want to know the secret to enjoying next weekend?

Pretend you’re about to move out of town, and spend the weekend seeing the friends you’ll miss the most, in your favorite places.

A writer for Oprah.com recently asked me and some other happiness experts for tips for enjoying the weekend more (read my response here); my favorite suggestion was from psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The Myths of Happiness.

Lyubomirsky and her colleagues tested the pretend-you’re-moving tactic by asking research subjects to imagine that they were moving in a month, and to spend their weekend accordingly. Participants “were happier and more appreciative of the people and places around them than those who were just told to keep track of what they did each day,” according to Emma Haak, who wrote the Oprah article (the study hasn’t been published yet). “They savored their time more when it felt finite,” Lyubomirsky explained to Haak.

What is your favorite tip for a happier weekend? Share your ideas in the comments!

Want more tips for living life to its fullest? Check out my latest eCourse: The Science of Finding Your Flow.

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Tuesday Tip: Stop Trying to Find Balance

All our talk and worry about “work-life balance” is such a bunch of baloney.

I don’t mean to be depressing, but you will never find “balance” between your work and your personal life. That very idea hinges on an implicit belief that there is some perfect ratio between time spent on work (and work-like activities, like checking your email) and time spent on everything else (like sleeping, or eating your lunch away from your desk, or helping your kids with their homework).

Your work and your personal life do not amount to a zero-sum game, where more of one means you’re compromising the other. In fact, the quality of your work and your productivity — your ability to create something of value and meaning for yourself and for others–is utterly dependent on the quality of your personal life.

How happy you are profoundly influences how well you do your job. Reams of research shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that what we do outside of work thoroughly influences the energy, motivation, focus, creativity, persistence, insight, and raw intellectual power we bring to a given project or task at work.

The better your personal life is, the higher your potential to do great work.

I can hear the war cries from Silicon Valley and Wall Street now. “But no one in tech or at a start-up or who is brokering a billion dollar deal has a life!!! And THOSE people are rich and successful!!”  you protest.

Hah. While those professions are certainly rigged so that the [mostly male] people at the top take home more money, their success is deeply subjective. Are they wealthy in the things that matter to you? Brigid Shulte reminds us to “remember that the wolves of Wall Street bragging about those long hours at the office got us into a global financial crisis, and that 95 percent of startups fail.

Our sense that the most successful and productive people –“ideal workers”– put in an insane number of hours is just wrong. But what does the real “ideal worker” ACTUALLY look like?I’ve been pondering this question for five or six years now, and I’ve come to see that the real “ideal worker” has seven core qualities or skills. Read about them here, in this Medium post.

The search for the elusive ideal work-life balance is futile. You’re much better off putting effort into finding your flow. Need help? Check out my latest eCourse: The Science of Finding Your Flow (launching this Spring). If you order this eCourse now, you’ll get a FREE hardcover copy of my book The Sweet Spot. Click here to learn more about The Science of Finding Flow eCourse.

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Photo by Michal Koralewski.

Tuesday Tip: Give Yourself a Shot of Awe

Are you feeling starved for time? Impatient?

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New research shows that experiencing awe can make us feel more satisfied with our lives, more patient, more willing to help others, and — importantly, in our crazy busy lives — as though we have time to spare.

Awe is one of those quiet positive emotions we don’t tend to think much about. A flourishing life is fed by positive emotions that are global in nature, like awe and elevation and inspiration. Researchers describe it as that “feeling we get when we come across something so strikingly vast in number, scope, or complexity that it alters the way we understand the world,” as Stacey Kennelly explains in this Greater Good article about awe.

In case you missed the headline here: Awe can make you feel less pressed for time and less impatient. How cool (and ironic!) is that?

You can awe yourself with a grand landscape, or by reading about a mind-expanding theory, or by contemplating something that changes the way you think about the world. Researchers induce awe in volunteers fairly simply by showing them video clips of people facing awesome things like waterfalls and whales or by having them write about something that was vast and altered their perception of the world.

Once you find sources of inspiration and awe, connect to them regularly. If it is your church, make sure you show up on Sunday. If it is your study group, stay involved. If it is nature, schedule regular hikes. If it is a guided meditation, listen daily. You get the point.

So make time to expose yourself to something truly awesome. Visit a spectacular  beach or vista point. Watch a sunset or sunrise, or hold a new baby, or watch a nature video (like this one).

What place or experience makes you awe-struck? Share in the comments here!

Photo by Vern via flickr

Tuesday Tip: Schedule Positive Experiences

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All of our emotions, both positive and negative, have an often profound physiological effect on our bodies and our brains. We are most familiar with what happens in our bodies when we are stressed out: that all-too-familiar fight-or-flight response. Something makes us feel threatened — or physically stressed, as when we deprive ourselves of sleep or catch a cold — and our body releases stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline.

But positive emotions like gratitude, compassion, awe, love, and other positive emotions also affect our bodies and brains, decreasing our heart rate, among other healthy things. This is why Barbara Fredrickson, a positive psychology pioneer, has famously shown that positive emotions put the brakes on the part of our nervous system that creates the deleterious stress response—what she calls the “undoing effect” of positive emotions.

Positive emotions come in a lot of different flavors. When we pursue happiness, we are usually pursuing pleasure and gratification rather than an actual positive emotion. Think about contentment, bliss, engagement, mirth, frivolity, silliness—these are all positive emotions based in the present. We can also cultivate positive emotions about the past (like gratitude) and the future (like faith, hope, confidence, and optimism). A flourishing life is also fed by positive emotions that are global in nature, like awe and elevation and inspiration. Positive emotions that connect us to other people, like love and compassion, are our most powerful positive emotions, and they are the most important ones for creating a better world and a fulfilling life.

Here’s an easy way to add more positive emotions into your life:

  1. Reflect on what has made you happy before. When was the last time you felt a strong positive emotion? Perhaps you felt really grateful, joyful, or excited.
  1. Identify the circumstances and the behaviors that sparked the emotion. Perhaps you felt hopeful listening to a TED talk, or love when a child spontaneously threw his arms around you.
  1. Figure out how to make that situation happen again, and — here’s the trick — schedule it. I know that this might sound a little hoaky… scheduling happiness sounds a little like scheduling sex (which is not-so-sexy). But while research shows that trying to be happier tends to backfire, consistently scheduling activities that have made you happy in the past will likely make you feel happier in the future. (How’s that for the science of the blazingly obvious?)

So whip out your calendar, please, and start planning your time around activities that bring you joy. Or inspiration. Or compassion — whatever flavor of positive emotion is lowest hanging fruit for you. Researchers call this activity “prioritizing positivity,” and it’s best done as a way to spend at least a little time each day on the things things you most enjoy.

This post draws from from my latest eCourse: The Science of Finding Your Flow: How to Create Happiness and Maximize Productivity (launching later this Spring) . If you’re invested in bringing more ease and flow into your life this year, you will love this eCourse! And if you pre-order this eCourse now, you’ll get a FREE hardcover copy of my book The Sweet Spot and $50 off! This is a steal, friends. Plus, if you want to, you’ll get to help me test out the content before the launch. Click here to pre-order The Science of Finding Flow eCourse.

Photo courtesy of Liz Henry.