How to Use a Vacation Day Right Now

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I’m woefully behind on my Real Housewives consumption, and recently I had the thought that I might take a day off work to catch up. Just as soon as the idea occurred to me, however, objections arose: For one, I’d presumably watch the show on my laptop, from the same couch where I work on my laptop every day; this was not the change of pace I sought. Two, watching TV all day typically leaves me feeling guilty and vaguely ill, and that’s not how I want a day off to make me feel. But what else could I do? Read a book? (Barely, and it’ll put me to sleep.) Go on a goddamned walk? While COVID-19 restrictions and weather conditions continue to limit many of us to our homes, at least most of the time, it’s hard to conceive of another day “off,” at home, as a treat. “Vacation day” lost all meaning months ago; though vaccination is upon us, and the possibility of leisurely travel will follow, true vacation remains, for most, a fantasy.

At the same time, though, there is an overwhelming desire to not be working. A 2020 MetLife report found that two-thirds of workers reported burnout symptoms; another survey found that employed workers were three times more likely to report poor mental health than they were pre-pandemic. Nevertheless, 2020 found the average workday growing longer by an hour, and many Americans left vacation days unused. (Many American workers had none to begin with.) It’s one thing to have vacation days, and another to feel that one is genuinely free to use them. But let’s say you’re already there: You’ve decided to take a day off, and the request was approved. What will you do?

Keep expectations low

Apologies for starting on such a bleak note, but no vacation, no matter how good, can eliminate burnout or job stress, says Irvin Schonfeld, a professor of psychology and author of Occupational Health Psychology: Work, Stress, and Health. “The half-life of the impact of a vacation is about two weeks,” he says — meaning you’ll be back to the way you felt pre-vacation day(s), for better and for worse, inside a month. “That’s okay if you’re in a job that you like,” Schonfeld explains. “It’s not so good if you’re in a job you don’t like, or a job where you feel oppressed, where your workload is excessive, where you have very little control over the things you’re doing.” This isn’t to say that taking a day off isn’t worth it, but it does suggest employers shouldn’t count on time off as a sustainable solution to job stress and burnout.

Doreen Dodgen-Magee, a psychologist and author of Deviced!: Balancing Life and Technology in a Digital World, adds that people often take a day off when they’re beyond exhaustion, so when they get there, they’re frazzled and frantic. “A successful day off means getting your needs met in a new way, not having this amazing life-changing experience,” says Dodgen-Magee. Because our culture is so fixated on productivity, she says, we may find ourselves tempted to multitask during our free time, but it’s better for us to make room for boredom. “When you’re thinking about your goals for your day off, do one thing at a time, and be bored,” she says. “If you’re doing the dishes, just do the dishes. Don’t also listen to a podcast.” (Ahh, she knew.)

Build excitement by planning

Though it may run counter to one’s conception of relaxation, Dodgen-Magee also suggests mapping out your day off ahead of time: “Part of vacation is the anticipation.” A few months back, she took a “vacation day” at home, and packed a suitcase over time, in advance. “I included a new book, a new magazine, an essential-oil roller … got a new little punch-needle craft, which is something I’d always wanted to try,” she tells me. “If we don’t do any planning and we come to the day, there’s a huge chance we’ll spend it scrolling, and we know that scrolling dysregulates us.”

Alexandra Elle, author of After the Rain: Gentle Reminders for Healing, Courage, and Self-Love, says she tells clients to set a “stop, drop, and self-care alarm” — a tool which can be used for both a day off, and in shorter, five-minute installments on a daily basis. Elle finds that scheduling self-care and relaxation time is helpful in reframing our collective late-capitalist framework: “It’s counterintuitive to think we deserve rest, but rest is our birthright, and not something we have to earn,” she says. Organizing one’s rest with an alarm clock and/or a suitcase puts real intention behind the act of taking time off.

Consider your senses

Part of what we’re missing most in lockdown life is novelty, and one way to make up for that is catering to our underutilized senses, says Dodgen-Magee. “We are overtaxing and overusing our visual and auditory senses right now, so anything we can do to amp up new tastes and smells” is ideal, she says. (Touch, too!) That might include trying a new recipe or ordering takeout from a new restaurant, burning a fancy candle you’ve purchased ahead of time, and/or trying a new perfume. Dodgen-Magee suggests trying to rearrange your space to create some visual/sensory difference, too: Throw a blanket over the workstation, move a reading chair to the window, or put up a tent in the backyard or living room. She’s also had success using Airbnb Experiences, many of which have become internet-friendly in the past year: “I’ve taken three or four cooking classes with a cook in India, I’ve gone to drag shows over Zoom, and there are dancing lessons,” she says.

Again, the goal is not to do all of the above on a single day off, but to set modest expectations and plan an activity or two, even if the activity is sleeping or staring out the window. (Unless you live alone, getting the rest of your household to honor your vacation schedule is another challenge altogether.) A day off can’t save us, but it can’t hurt — and personally, having something to look forward to is, for me, half the joy at least. Please excuse me while I draw up plans for my Housewives tent.

How to Use a Vacation Day Right Now