Many summers ago, I took a three month road trip across Europe with my wife. We visited all the sites, walked relentlessly, ate gelato under the hot sun, and marveled at the many beautiful corners of each country we visited.
I know it’s a privilege to be able to take that kind of time off, and it’s an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world. But by the end of our travels, I felt like I needed a vacation from our vacation. When we got home, all of my energy was depleted and I found it hard to think, much less be creative.
Now that we travel with two small kids in tow, that feeling has tripled. Don’t get me wrong: making memories with the people I love is one of the things I treasure most, but it doesn’t necessarily equate to real rest—the kind you need to restore yourself before going back to the daily grind.
Maximizing time away is critical, but hitting the reset button isn’t about venturing out for novel adventures (as fulfilling and fun as these can be).
In my experience, truly unwinding consists of taking a step back and doing absolutely nothing. I’m not suggesting we skip family vacations or lie on our sofas all day (as tempting as this last one may sound), but I’d like to offer three suggestions for achieving the relaxation needed before logging back on:
1. Spend some alone time in nature
We hear this one all the time—but there’s a reason for this. One of the greatest physicists of all time, Albert Einstein, even followed this advice. “Look deep into nature,” he said. “And then you will understand everything better.”
I’ve always taken these words to heart. I‘m an avid practitioner of mindful walking meditations, where you focus your attention on the present, noticing your surroundings and the way your mind and body feels.
Aside from the above, I make it a point to pay yearly visits to my native country of Turkey for the olive harvest. It’s not nearly as exciting as visiting all the sites in Europe, but it gives me a sense of serenity to allow my thoughts to float away and do something as simple as plucking an olive from a branch.
These activities are like wiping your mental slate clean and clearing out the noise of “busyness” that often plagues us. They also don’t involve the stimulation a large, bustling city might, so that you can process your thoughts and allow new ideas emerge.
2. Be intentional about disconnecting
In an idyllic world, we’d all ditch our devices and detox for a month. Sure, I know people who have done it. But on a realistic level, I don’t find this exactly plausible. We use our devices to text with friends and family, pay our bills, or even use GPS.
So I will not be giving the advice to “completely switch off.” But I do believe in setting limits and ditching poor habits, so that we avoid doomscrolling or actively checking social media notifications. One way I’m intentional about disconnecting is by leaving phones off the table during meals. Not only does it help your mind unwind, it also helps you foster stronger connections with the people in your life.
You can also choose to turn your phone off at a specific hour at the end of the day or hide it away in a drawer, so that you’re not tempted to scroll till midnight.
The point is to create strong boundaries around technology, so that you can remain in the present and give your mind a much-needed break.
3. Cultivate a relaxation routine
As Tristan Elizabeth Gribbin writes for Harvard Business Review, “You deserve a restorative vacation. You’ve earned it. You don’t deserve additional stress for taking it.”
Preparation can be an essential ingredient for unwinding, and I believe we can counteract return-to-work stress by being intentional beforehand.
Designing a plan in the days before logging back on will set you up for a smoother transition. “You don’t have to arrive at work, plug back in, have tasks come cascading onto you, and try to handle everything immediately,” writes Gribbin.
For me, that means taking care of my well-being ahead of time, like focusing on my sleep hygiene and healthy eating habits, getting enough exercise, and remembering to take deep breaths throughout the day.
Gribbin also recommends we regularly check in with ourselves. “As you resume work, ask if you’re still fulfilling the intention you set for your vacation: Am I feeling more joyful, energized, or calm? Take moments to remember some of the best experiences of your trip, and use those to guide yourself toward that intention.”
It’s important to check in with yourself regularly, and notice when you’re feeling stressed. She adds: “You’ll start to notice and counteract some of the stress that’s setting in. You’ll remind yourself that your batteries are recharged and that you are up to the task.”
In cultivating a relaxation routine, we’re not only able to unwind before heading back to work, but we’re also creating a practice that will keep us calmer and more mindful long into the future.