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June 2024
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Making the Most of Your Holiday Break

Recharge—with intention—on your vacation.

By Megan Preston Meyer

Lots of people around the world look forward to the end of the year as a time to recharge. Whatever holiday you celebrate (if any), the holiday season is a respite from the hustle and bustle of the workday, a blissful expanse of wide-open days in which you can do as much or as little as you please.

Some people will use the holidays to hibernate. They’ll settle down on the sofa for a long winter’s nap, visions of sugarplums and TV shows dancing in their heads. Some people will be hyperactive, hoping to use every hour off work to whittle down their to-do lists.

Wherever you expect to fall along the spectrum, you’ll want to make the most of your vacation, so you don’t go back to work feeling like the holidays just passed you by. Here are some tips to balance productivity and relaxation during your time off—and to do so with intention.

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Goal Setting

As with most things, moderation is key. If you spend your entire vacation in either hibernation or hyperactivity, you’re apt to come out on the other side feeling no better than before. In a Harvard Business Review article, organizational scholars Laura M. Giurge and Vanessa Bohns say that active relaxation is the best way to recharge. “It may be surprising to learn, but passive ‘rest and relaxation’ isn’t as effective for recovering from the daily grind as using breaks to accomplish your goals.”

In fact, as Giurge and Bohns found, employees who set goals over their holidays reported being happier than those who didn’t. For the more driven among us (i.e., the type of people who read articles in a magazine devoted to improving communication and leadership skills), this comes as no surprise. However, as Giurge and Bohns are quick to point out, the goals that led to higher reported happiness were based on personal objectives, not professional ones; thus, the holidays are time to spend on things that you find personally meaningful, not merely extra capacity so you can finally empty your email inbox.

To maximize your holiday happiness, then, it helps to have goals—intentions that you’re actively working toward. “Being intentional … increases the chances that you’re going to spend the time in a way that feels satisfying to you,” says Laura Vanderkam, author of Tranquility by Tuesday: 9 Ways to Calm the Chaos and Make Time for What Matters.

But which personal goals should you aim for? How many should you try to accomplish? And how can you ensure that you actually make progress on the goals you set out to achieve?

Yellow background with woman wearing striped, white shirt writing on notepad

Make Your List, Check It Twice

“I always make a Holiday Fun List,” says Vanderkam. “Those are the things that I want to do to make the holidays feel festive for me.” A bit of time spent brainstorming before your break can head off the dreaded What am I going to do today? paralysis. “Having a sense of what I would like to do increases the chances that I do many of those things.”

Take a few moments now to create your own list. The items on it can—and should—range from large goals and things you’d like to accomplish to small, festive, celebratory moments you’d like to experience. Whether it’s practicing your public speaking or going Christmas caroling, whether it’s decluttering the garage or decorating cookies, write down some things that would make your break rewarding.

To maximize your holiday happiness, it helps to have goals—intentions that you’re actively working toward.

This brainstorming has another benefit, as well: The further ahead you plan out your activities, the more time you can spend looking forward to them. “Every year, I like to go see a performance of The Nutcracker,” Vanderkam says. Once the tickets are booked, the anticipation begins—and “anticipation is a big chunk of the fun of anything.”

Red and white bingo card

Jingle Bells, Bingo Bells

Making your list is important, but don’t put pressure on yourself to accomplish everything on it. Vacations are a time for flexibility—and for fun. Instead of working your way rigidly down the list, Denise Marek, Accredited Speaker and author of CALM for Moms: Worry Less in Four Simple Steps, suggests that you take the items on it and create a bingo card—“and, of course, in the center space you want to have the free spot.” As you go through your holidays, check off the things that you accomplish. “Your goal [is] to hit a bingo at the end of the week,” says Marek. “See which direction you go. It can either be four-corners, a cross, that sort of thing.” The key is to remember that you’re trying for a bingo, not a blackout. By giving yourself permission to not check off every single box, you introduce the flexibility to relax while still enjoying the pride of accomplishment.

Have a Holly, Jolly Plan

For the larger goals that you want to tackle, it pays to plan ahead. “Being respectful of our leisure time means treating it with the same level of seriousness that we would treat our work time,” says Vanderkam. While you don’t have to plot out each day in 15-minute segments, she suggests spending some time thinking about exactly what you want to accomplish and when you’ll work on it. “You want to have very set ambitions that are doable,” she says.

Take your grandiose, abstract goal and break it into concrete elements—and then schedule those elements. If your goal is to clean out the garage, for example, identify tasks and “devote discrete chunks of time to them.”
For instance, tell yourself, I’m going to empty these two shelves on Tuesday, and on Thursday, I’m going to do this other shelf. On Friday, I’m going to sweep it, and Saturday, I’ll take a box to the donation center, suggests Vanderkam. In setting yourself discrete, specific goals and then checking them off, “you feel a lot more accomplished … versus nebulous goals that never feel like they’re done.”

Your vacation objective may not be to clean out the garage, of course, but Marek highly recommends adding a decluttering goal to your list. “There’s this great sense of accomplishment that comes when we’ve decluttered our space, because when our environment is a mess, our brain also feels cluttered.” Take the opportunity to identify at least one thing you no longer need, but that someone else might benefit from. “Drop it off at a local charity shop. Then it goes to good use, and that makes you feel good.” Decluttering your home and spreading holiday cheer at the same time—it’s a winter win-win.

Woman in turtleneck holding white cup while reading a book next to the fireplace

These Are a Few of My Favorite Things

No matter how busy your vacation shapes up to be, “there’s always downtime,” says Vanderkam. “The question is what you do in that downtime.” She recommends using your leisure time during the break to do things you wouldn’t do on a normal weekend or evening. “There are things you can only do during the holidays, so when in doubt, choose something like that.”

Here’s where the smaller items on your Holiday Fun List come into play. Start that book you’ve been meaning to read instead of scrolling through social media; watch a wintery holiday movie instead of the next episode of the show you’re binge-watching. “Having some slightly upgraded concepts of what you will do with your downtime can vastly increase the chance of having a really fun vacation.”

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

To get the most out of your holiday break, plan ahead, balance productivity and flexibility, and be intentional about how you spend your time. Vanderkam explains, “Part of [making your] time feel full and rich is that you were doing something you intended to do.”

You may not be able to check off all the goals on your list, and that’s okay. “Keep your expectations about what you’re going to be able to accomplish during this time in check,” says Marek. Don’t feel guilty about what you don’t get done and remember that relaxation is a goal in itself. “Ask yourself, I’m sitting on the couch, enjoying my life for a moment—isn’t that something that I also wanted to do [on my] time off?” Give yourself permission to pursue personal goals, to make room for rest, and to enjoy the most wonderful time of the year.


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