You’re a knowledge worker. I know this because wherever you have found this article is a place only knowledge workers care to go to. Being a knowledge worker means you work with your head. One of the defining features of a head is that it is unable to move around on its own and therefore tends to follow the rest of the body wherever it goes. Another defining feature of a head is that things that go into it are a lot more difficult to get out than things which, for whatever reason, enter other parts of your body. Thus, it is most certain that all the work you process with your head will be accompanying you to your holiday destination.
And it will not let you rest. Not really rest. Because one of the defining features of work is that it is the opposite of rest.
Whatever the rest of your body does – sunbathing, swimming, hiking, fishing – as long as work remains in your head it will keep draining your energy. It’s like leaving a phone charger plugged into the lighter socket in your car. Even if there’s no phone connected to it, it will drain on you car battery. The only way to stop it is to unplug it completely. And so that’s what you need to do if you really want to recharge during your holiday. You need to unplug your head from work. Completely. Entirely. Get the work out of there and keep it out until your holiday is over. It’s the only way.
This is where most people fail. Most people will go “Ok, mum, I’ll try not to think about work while on holiday.” and then fail miserably because – see “defining features of a human head” in Encyclopaedia Galactica. You can resolve to not think about something, but you cannot just force the thoughts out by means of willpower.
So what can you do?
The secret human superpower
Fortunately, human nature isn’t only cruel to us knowledge workers. It has also equipped us with a superpower called “forgetting”. We often think of forgetting as a problem, because in our way of life remembering is usually more rewarding than forgetting. But that is mainly because most of our life is not a holiday. When you’re on holiday, forgetting is exactly what you need.
In fact, forgetting is the holiday. It is when you forget about things that bring stress and anxiety upon you that your mind begins to truly rest.
There are many tricks that can help you remember things, but how do you wield this “superpower” of forgetting? You cannot forget things at will – that we know. What you can do, however, is prevent yourself from remembering. The difference? Look at it this way: you cannot make a current thought disappear, but there is quite a lot you can do to prevent it from appearing again. If you’re unsure what those things are, just think of what it is you do when you need to remember something.
You need to build a memory firewall, sealing off any potential reminders of anything that you want out of your mind during your holiday.
Forgetting takes time, so if your vacation is less than a month long, then even the best case scenario, where nothing reminds you of work during the whole time, means that your mind will only start properly clearing up during the second half of the holiday. Therefore, if you want to come back from holiday rested, and not just tanned and full of new impressions, you must be absolutely ruthless in sealing off anything that reminds you of work.
However counterintuitive the following may sound, it is what you need to do:
1. Put everything that reminds you of work out of sight
No, not just your laptop. The human memory is strongly reliant on physical cues. Even an object that doesn’t have anything to do with your work can trigger work-related memories if it happens to have been sighted in a work-related context. Even if you bring a pen with you, which has earlier been on your work desk, that pen elicit undesired memories you didn’t expect. Therefore, be as restrictive as you can with what you bring on your holiday.
Don’t bring clothes you usually wear to work. Don’t play the same music you listen to during workday. If you’re a music lover, create a holiday playlist with new songs which you will later only associate with this holiday.
If you are vacationing at home, stay out of the areas where you usually work. Dump all your work-related stuff on your home work desk and shut the door.
2. Turn off all notifications
If you get a work email – you don’t want to know about it. Turn off all email app icon badges, sound notifications and pop-ups. If you must use your laptop during the holiday, keep your email client closed at all times.
You’d also be wise to turn off your social notifications. This not only because social networks generally steal focus and drain your time and energy, but because they are likely a habitual part of your everyday life, and you really want your vacation to be as unlike your everyday life as possible.
3. Don’t check your work email
Checking your work email on your holiday is the absolutely worst thing you can do if you are serious about giving your mind a rest. You might think “Oh, I’ll just do a quick check.” Listen, there’s no such thing as a “quick check”. Even a two minute email check will reset the time it takes for you to disconnect your mind from work. Usually, a quick glance at the inbox is enough to get the mind up-to-date on where work is at, and you may not get it out of your head again for another week.
4. Don’t talk about work
Work is a big part of your life and it is only natural that it provides you with a large variety of conversation subjects, some of which will emerge during your holiday. Even if you are genuinely interested in the topic, I strongly advise you to avoid such conversation. The specific subject in itself may not be toxic to your mind’s prospect of rest, but wherever it is stored in your memory banks it is likely entangled with other subjects that may be more toxic. Memories are like spiderweb. By accidentally pulling one string you may suddenly find yourself in a familiar though pattern that will set your mind into working mode.
5. Isolate your phone
There is enough evidence out there on how disruptive smartphones are to our psyche. The average knowledge worker’s mind is constantly overstimulated, and smartphones supply a very considerable share of those stimuli. Just having that device in your pocket has a powerful impact on the way you experience the world. It has a tremendous pulling power, and even if you never pick it up and unlock it, the possibility of doing it will always occupy a portion of your mind that could otherwise either have been used to broaden your holiday experience or just turned off to rest.
It may not feel so at first, but being out and about without a phone is truly liberating. If you are travelling, I strongly recommend locking up your phone in a safe deposit box in your hotel room during the day and only using it for travel-related needs (checking for directions or restaurant tips etc). If you can pull it off for two days or more, you will be amazed how different your mind feels in terms of presence and connectedness with the world.
6. Do boring things
Believe it or not, work is not the only thing that can drain your mental energy. All stimuli do that. Visiting festivals and markets, exploring museums, going on guided tours, hitch-hiking between foreign cities, choosing the best restaurants, finding optimal photo locations – all of it requires mental work. If the purpose of your holiday is to gain as many new experiences as possible, then by all means – go ahead and plan a new activity every day if you have the creativity and budget for it. But if your primary purpose is to get back home rested, then it would do you good to spend most of your holiday doing non-stimulating things.
The truth is that the best kind of rest isn’t fun. Your mind rests best when it’s not really doing anything. So if you feel that simply lying on the beach all day long is a waste of time – think again. Boredom is great for your mind. In fact, if on the last day of your holiday you are so bored that you cannot wait to get back to work, then you can be sure that your vacation was a full success and your mind is fully recovered and fit for fight.
Of course, rest doesn’t need to be unbearably boring. If simply lying on a sun bed is killing you, try some other low-stimulation activities like meditation, swimming, beach games, reading fiction and listening to music. What you should avoid is any form of planning, appointments, difficult decisions and, well, stress.
7. Have an accountability partner
To a contemporary knowledge worker, all of the above will require some effort and willpower to pull off. Unless you are spending your holiday alone, whoever accompanies you will have a great impact on your success. You will have your highest chance of success if you can make it a joint effort. If your companion agrees to it, you will be able to set your rules together and support each other in sticking to them. Make an effort in getting your companion on board. If you motivate it by really aspiring to get the most out of your time together, it shouldn’t be a hard sell.
If, however, you have to take all these measures on your own, then try to at least use your companion (or someone else you know) as an accountability partner. You can do so by simply stating all your intentions and then regularly updating your partner on how it went. Accountability partners are a powerful instrument for increasing motivation. They don’t really need to do anything. Just by revealing your intentions to someone else you will experience greater responsibility in delivering on them, and the prospect of having to admit failure in disciplining yourself is a strong motivator to keep sticking to the plan.
Photo by Anna Shvets.