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Going on vacation every week might sound like the (very unattainable) dream. But a simple mindset shift makes it possible—no travel involved.
All you need to do is get in the habit of treating your weekend like a vacation, suggests Cassie Mogilner Holmes, a professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management and author of Happier Hour: How to Beat Distraction, Expand Your Time, and Focus on What Matters Most. “It’s such a simple idea, but people find it really, really helpful,” she says. “It has big effects.”
A few years ago, Holmes and her colleagues began exploring the importance of taking vacations, which are correlated with improved health, creativity, job performance, and life satisfaction. Yet Americans aren’t very good at making these getaways happen: Only 48% of U.S. workers use all their vacation days, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center. “Initially we were like, ‘How do we get more people to take their vacations?’” Holmes says. “But then we realized, we actually have breaks in our lives already.” Presenting: the weekend.
In a series of experiments, Holmes’ team instructed 441 U.S. workers to either spend the weekend like they would any other, or to treat it like a vacation—which meant thinking and behaving how they might if they had traveled somewhere fun. When they were back at work on Monday, people who had adopted a vacation mindset reported being happier, less stressed and worried, and more satisfied than those who had had a regular weekend.
“What was somewhat surprising is that the effect wasn’t driven by people spending their time all that differently,” Holmes says. “It was this mindset that allowed them to be more present—instead of being in ‘doing mode,’ it allowed people to settle in and be in the moment.”
Holmes notes that the weekend-as-vacation philosophy isn’t meant to replace actual vacations. But the strategy is an effective way to turn two days off from work into a real break, without having to spend more money than usual or take additional time off.
The key is making sure you’re truly separated from the usual grind in a special way, says Andrea Bonior, an adjunct psychology professor at Georgetown University and host of Baggage Check, a podcast about mental health. She ticks off myriad benefits: Switching into vacation mode, even at home, will help you tune into the present moment and appreciate it with more gratitude. It turns a regular meal on a Saturday night into something “we take more pleasure in.” It can even help alleviate burnout, or at least help people achieve a better work-life balance. There are many reasons why Americans feel unable to or resist taking time off, but one is that, for years, busyness has been viewed as a status symbol. “Time off is not a sign of weakness,” Bonior says. “We need it physically, we need it emotionally, we need it mentally.”
We asked experts to share their favorite tips for adopting a vacation mindset at home.
Be vocal about your intentions
At 5 p.m. on Friday when you close your laptop, remind yourself that you’re going to treat the weekend like a vacation. Tell your friends and family, too. “That in itself activates all these things,” Holmes says. It sends a signal to your brain and body to slow down and pay attention to the present moment, savoring every hour, instead of allowing time to slide by in a blur. While “vacation” looks different to different people, the common denominator is that “it’s this break that you get to settle into and be present for,” she says. “You’re not rushing through things, and you’re not viewing all your activities like a chore.”
Get creative about making time
Not everyone has Saturday and Sunday (or any two consecutive days) off work—and some people, including parents, are beholden to weekend schedules packed with obligations. In that case, get creative to make time for your vacation mindset. You could apply the philosophy to, say, a Thursday evening, or some other weeknight, Holmes suggests. Or, if you’re worried about getting everything done, designate an hour on Sunday morning for chores—but protect the rest of the weekend as your vacation time, she says.
If you’re spending the weekend with your kids, ask yourself how you could mark the time in a special way. Consider taking them to a museum you don’t usually go to, Bonior advises. “Maybe spend the day with the kids doing something fun, but then get a babysitter for two hours and go out to a nice dinner with your partner,” she says.
Reflect on barriers and priorities
Brainstorm the barriers that are keeping you from enjoying a vacation mindset—or even a real vacation—and ways to overcome them, Bonior suggests. For example, maybe you’re trying to save money, and you equate a vacation with lots of expenses. In that case, figure out what you can do for free or for a minimal cost, like going on a hike, floating down the river on a raft, or having a picnic in a pretty park.
Home in on what makes a vacation different from a regular weekend, too. Does it mean turning off your email notifications? Splurging a little? “Maybe it means being able to spend time with people you don’t normally get to see, or giving yourself a break on a workout or specific chores that you usually attend to,” she says. “It’s helpful to make a list of those things and be able to follow through.”
Act like a tourist
One benefit of a vacation mindset is that it’s a terrific antidote to cognitive fatigue, says Nika Kabiri, a decision scientist who applies the philosophy to her own life. “I can’t tell you how often I see people making bad decisions in their daily lives and at work, for no other reason than that they suffer from cognitive fatigue,” she says. “It’s essential to take a real break and give yourself the right rest so you can make good choices the next day.”
She recommends doing something totally new so you can disconnect from the same-old routines governing your life. “When you go to a new place and are discovering new things, you’re learning about yourself, and this is new information that can bring you joy or stir ideas,” she says. Among her favorite ideas: Drive to a part of town you’ve never been to before, go for a stroll, and grab lunch at the first cute cafe you see. Or take a bike or boat tour of your city, just like a tourist would. “The spontaneity is what makes experiences like this feel vacation-like,” Kabiri says.
Don’t put extra pressure on yourself
Treating your weekend like a vacation doesn’t mean it needs to be an elaborate affair. Holmes enjoys simply walking to the coffee shop with her husband in a leisurely way, and sitting and chatting longer than they would on a regular weekend, when they’d be hustling from place to place.
If your “vacation” encounters a few hitches—or only lasts for a few hours—don’t fret. “It doesn’t have to be all or nothing,” Bonior says. “Don’t put pressure on yourself to have this ‘perfect vacation.’” It’s meant to be fun. Plus, there’s always another one just a few days away.
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