Why I Unplug On Vacation Every Year

In early 2012, I was tired. I had been pushing 80+ hour weeks at work for a while. I found myself unable to be civil to clients or my coworkers. My boss at the time asked me “John, do you need a vacation?”

I did. I took 5 days (a “long weekend”) and went to Colorado with one of my good buddies to go to MountainFilm in Telluride. For those five days, I removed my email clients, Twitter, and Facebook from my phone. Instead, I watched interesting movies about outdoors issues I care about, met some intriguing people, drank awesome beer at the Telluride brewery, and spent time in the mountains hiking and rock climbing.

When I came back five days later to NYC, I was refreshed. I was nice to people. I was relaxed and able to focus on my work. And at the same time, I had time while in Telluride to reflect on what was truly important, and when I look back now I realize that I made some big life changes after that which ultimately led me to where I am now.

I’ve since done this with:

  • Costa Rica in 2012 with my family for Christmas.
  • Alaska in 2013 with my now-wife
  • Alaska and Mexico in 2014 for my wedding and honeymoon
  • Colorado in early 2015 for skiing
  • Europe in September 2015 for vacation

The science behind unplugging

The importance of unplugging from your work while on vacation is backed up by science. Basically, our brains have a finite amount of space and when they are overloaded we get stressed out. According to this NYT article:

The processing capacity of the conscious mind is limited. This is a result of how the brain’s attentional system evolved. Our brains have two dominant modes of attention: the task-positive network and the task-negative network (they’re called networks because they comprise distributed networks of neurons, like electrical circuits within the brain). The task-positive network is active when you’re actively engaged in a task, focused on it, and undistracted; neuroscientists have taken to calling it the central executive. The task-negative network is active when your mind is wandering; this is the daydreaming mode. These two attentional networks operate like a seesaw in the brain: when one is active the other is not.

Basically, when our brains are always on the task-positive network and never allowed to recharge and dream (and be creative), they become tired and overloaded.

I’ve read before that when you go on vacation, it takes the brain five days to move from work mode (task-positive) to vacation mode (task-negative). Then, you start thinking about work two days before you return.

Let’s run a scenario. You leave Friday evening for vacation and come back the next Sunday. You think about work Saturday (1), Sunday (2), Monday (3), Tuesday (4) and Wednesday (5). By Wednesday evening you are relaxed. So you relax on (5), (6), and (7), which is Friday. But starting on day 8 (Saturday) you are thinking about work again (task-positive now) and off the task-negative vacation brain. So for 9 “days of vacation”, you really relaxed for just over 2 days. Woof!

Solutions To Task-Positive Overload

I have always had life-changing experiences when I have taken enough time off and completely gone from the task-positive to the task-negative. I’ve had three week vacations in Spain, 17 day vacations in Europe, and 11 day vacations for Alaska, Mexico, and Costa Rica.

I know that America’s attitude towards vacation is not very conducive to taking long periods of time. I’ve been lucky to work for companies that offer three to four weeks of vacation each year, so I’ve been able to make these trips happen. But here are some ideas for making them happen for yourself as well:

  1. Show your boss case studies about how vacation is good for refueling your mind. Show that you will be more productive.
  2. If they ask you to check in while on vacation, ask them for a test of not checking email. If they need you for something urgent, then they have your permission to call you. But if it’s not urgent, then you’ll handle it when you’re back. This will put them at ease, and it will be easier to completely unplug for future vacations. (Btw, this psychology taken from Tim Ferriss’s Four Hour Work Week.
  3. Schedule unplugged trips around long weekends. For example, if the 4th of July is a Tuesday and your company gave you Monday as well, take the Friday before and do 5 days unplugged. Even that is enough to start resetting your brain, and you’ll only use one of your precious days.
  4. See number four above but apply to the holidays (Christmas/New Years/Thanksgiving). Often you can get a full week off and only take one or two days.

Do you unplug completely on vacation? Why or why not?