President William Howard Taft thought vacations should be long — really long. In 1910, he famously told the New York Times that “2 or 3 months’ vacation … are necessary in order to continue work the next year with that energy and effectiveness which it ought to have.” The 27th president of the United States thought a couple of weeks off was far too little. And while months off sounds great, Taft was wrong. According to the Journal for Happiness Studies, to reap the most from a vacation, you need eight days off. After that, the benefits level off.
So if you can take that much time off, do it. But many of us can’t go away for that long. Besides, it’s also true that even a short vacation is better than none at all. A weekend isn’t quite long enough, but a long weekend can do wonders, especially if you follow some simple rules to maximize your time off.
This might seem obvious, but it bears repeating: You can’t reap the many benefits (heart health, longer life) of time off if you’re still mentally tied into work. So set an email vacation away message, leave your work phone at home, and commit to leaving any email or phone calls until you return to work. If you absolutely must check your email, pick a time once per day, do it, then put your devices away until the next day at that time.
When you’re on vacation, prioritize your sleep. Schedule time to sleep for as long as you like to allow for that deep rest to do its important work building up your immune system, repairing damaged cells (including those that cause wrinkles), and calming your system. Lie in bed and do nothing (try to avoid grabbing your phone and diving into social media), and just revel in the relaxation.
If you can’t sleep longer at night, consider taking an afternoon nap during your time off — and why not? And even if you can’t necessarily fall completely asleep, spending time in a hammock or dozing in the late afternoon sun can be restorative too. Letting your mind wander can be reduce anxiety and allow for greater creativity.
Do something unexpected and immersive
Part of the joy of travel is leaving yourself open to new experiences. So while it’s great to plan activities or things to see when you voyage to a new place (or even if you staycation), don’t be too rigid. If someone invites you to their home for dinner, say yes. If you hear about an interesting local play last-minute, go see it. If a road looks like it might have some great views, drive down it and find out for yourself.
It’s the unanticipated and unusual moments that we often remember best, writes clinical psychologist Richard Friedman in the New York Times: “My personal and clinical experiences suggest that there might be something more to the effective vacation than just the proper length: namely, the importance of unexpected, immersive experiences.”
Put the camera away
It’s fun to take some pictures and share them on social media — and this can be a nice way to remember your trip weeks or months later — but consider limiting yourself. I try to post one great image from each travel day (or at most two), and I usually do so at the end of the day, so I can sit back and reflect on what I did and the best encapsulation of that experience. This can be a fun activity in itself and help you remember and appreciate your time off in a more relaxed way.
Also, think about what you’re taking pictures for, and put the camera away sometimes. Concentrate on taking mental pictures, or experiencing other aspects of the place you are visiting. What does it smell like? (I’ll never forget the smell of the Nile: city dust, and couscous with veggies I ate one night in Egypt, though I don’t really remember what the dish looked like or where I was exactly.) Is there a rock face or water to touch and feel? What sounds do you hear? A visual record isn’t the only way to make memories. “I think back to all the people I observed on my recent vacation armed with smartphones and cameras, diligently documenting the beauty around them,” Friedman writes. “It made me wonder whether in the attempt to record and preserve our pleasure, we become observers of our experience rather than full participants in it.”
Read a novel or eat a great meal … but do 1 thing at a time
The upsides of reading fiction are many: It helps make you a more empathetic person, and it’s good for your brain. It can help you relearn how to focus on one thing at a time (a skill that multitasking can wear thin) and can take you into another world, or inside another person’s life. Reading while on vacation can also work to beautifully connect reading a certain book with a place. I’ll never forget plowing through the Elena Ferrante books while rocking in a glider high nestled into the Berkeley, California hills.
If reading isn’t your thing, or you read a lot at your job and want to do something else, listening to a book on tape, or music, or enjoying a long, delicious meal can also be ways to tap into the moment and enjoy your time off, and connect to the people you’re with or even just yourself.
So use those vacation days already. With a little planning and setting of intentions before you go, you can make four days feel like a much-longer time away from work.