How to harness your pre-vacation energy all year long

A dose of dopamine is the reason you breeze through your to-do list before a vacation. Here's how to recreate the surge of motivation.
Image: Young woman using vacuum cleaner
Somehow that long to-do list doesn't seem quite as daunting with a break from work in your future.South_agency / Getty Images
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By Wendy Rose Gould

Imagine you’re three days away from that week-long vacation with more items on your to-do list than normal. You’ve got to pick up your dry cleaning, finish a mountain of household chores, meet that looming work deadline, and make arrangements for your rental car. And yet, with hours to spare, you somehow manage to get it all done — and then some.

This is the phenomenon of “pre-vacation energy,” something that many of us enjoy even if we don’t fully understand where all that extra energy comes from. To dissect the unique surge in motivation, and to be able to harness it when no break is on the horizon, we asked experts to provide some insight.

Much like we salivate in expectation of a delicious meal when we’re hungry, when we imagine our break from work, our bodies are likely to let go of the unconscious tension, which contributes to fatigue and lack of motivation.

Pre-Vacation Energy, Explained

In general, the way we feel is constantly being influenced by a variety of factors, ranging from objective stressors to our thoughts to physical sensations. The sum of all these factors ultimately affects our general mood and motivation level.

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In the case of an upcoming vacation, we begin to feel excited and happy at the thought of whatever blissful plans are approaching. Dr. Lara Fielding, a behavioral psychologist and the author of "Mastering Adulthood", says this happiness is likely due to a surge of dopamine production, a feel-good chemical that’s released in our brain whenever we experience something rewarding.

“The thoughts of forthcoming relief may trigger this dopaminergic pathway,” she says. “Much like we salivate in expectation of a delicious meal when we’re hungry, when we imagine our break from work, our bodies are likely to let go of the unconscious tension, which contributes to fatigue and lack of motivation. In that letting go, we regain the lightness of that pre-vacation energy.”

Also, as vacation approaches, many feel a strong pull to get as much done as possible before officially signing off. We inherently know that once all’s wrapped up at home, we’re better able to melt into the relaxing arms of vacation. The combination of that dopamine surge paired with a desire to tie up loose ends is a seriously motivating combo.

"This is why you’ll find that many people plan more and focus more on the preparation of a vacation,” notes Dr. Stacia Pierce, a life coach and motivational speaker. “They pack with the trip in mind, finish assignments, get their home cleaned, shop for new clothes. Everything is motivated by the trip itself and how they want to feel on the trip and when they return home."

5 Ways to Recreate Pre-Vacation Energy

But you don’t have to have a Caribbean vacation on the calendar to recreate that surge of dopamine-backed motivation. Yep, it’s possible to tap into when there’s no vacation in sight. Here’s how:

  • Pencil in weekend adventures: By adventure, we mean anything that’s a departure from your routine. Maybe it’s attending a donut festival, hitting the symphony, or having a get-together with friends. “Plan something short, but extraordinary, that you can look forward to doing. Spend time meditating on your reward and how completing your goals will allow you to enjoy the rewards,” says Dr. Pierce.
  • Make your goals more visible: For large-scale goals, Dr. Pierce recommends writing your goals down and putting them in a place you’ll see every day. You can also add pictures and an affirmation to create more of a visible and emotional impact. By being reminded of your goal, you’ll feel more motivated to do what’s necessary to reach it, she says. For small-scale goals, simply writing out a to-do list can be surprisingly motivating. Don’t underestimate the blissful “all done!” reward of crossing tasks off once they’re completed.
  • Get your sweat on: You know what else sends a surge of feel-good chemicals through your body? Exercise. Whether it’s a brisk morning walk or an intense boxing session, you’ll find that the extra endorphins you created during your workout will give you a boost of energy throughout the day.
  • Treat yourself — seriously: Plan something small that you’ll genuinely look forward to, such as an evening at home binging your favorite TV show, finally booking that massage, or purchasing that accessory you’ve been eyeing for months. Consider the treat your reward for completing all your tasks during the day.
  • Think more positively: As a species we tend to focus on negatives, but doing so poorly impacts our motivation levels. “Learn to notice when your mind is getting pulled into the slippery slope of the human negativity bias,” says Dr. Fielding. “Instead, lock your thoughts and self-talk on what’s great in your life. Find the vacation-like moments that surround you.”

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