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Why it's so hard to come back from vacation — and how to do it better

You spent a lot of time plotting your time away, but have you made a plan to come back? Here's how to get better at vacation recovery.
Image: Woman ready for vacation
Vacation is often a time to recharge our batteries and take a step out of our routine so that we can better think about what’s working and what’s not.Tetra Images / Getty Images

Vacations — at least the ones where we truly get to disconnect and do what we want to do — are times when we get to live our best lives and be our best selves.

We don’t have to chain ourselves to our desks until we get through the day’s to-do list. We can be explorers. We can eat delicious foods. We can be that person reading a book (for fun!) in the café down the street. We can spend hours engaged in good conversations with the people we love.

It’s a no-brainer that the transition back to the reality of having a whole lot more things on the to-do list and having a whole lot less doing-exactly-what-I-want-to-do-when-I-want-to-do-it time can be challenging.

The issue is that you’re making a shift from the daily rhythm of vacation mode (sleeping, waking up, and eating when and where you want to) to work or home mode (getting places on schedule regardless of whether your body particularly wants to or not), explains Dawna Ballard, Ph.D., Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She studies what drives our paces of life and its impact on organizations, communities and individuals.

“That shift is a point of friction, and it is frequently experienced as gloom. It’s just ‘Blue Monday’ on a different scale,” Ballard tells NBC News BETTER. They’re two very different paces of life and we usually need an adjustment phase to shift from one to the other.

(Note: That glumness not only comes from transitioning from a slower to faster pace. The reverse may also be true, Ballard says. Unemployment, retirement or a job or routine that’s the wrong fit can also be a source of stress if it fails to stimulate or engage you at the pace you want to be living.)

What’s important to know is that it’s really natural to feel this way when going from a vacation in which you have a whole lot of control over the rhythm of your routine back to a work or home schedule where you may not, Ballard says. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re unhappy with your day-to-day life, she says. “There are different types of happiness: There’s the kind of happiness that comes from indulging in short-term pleasure (hedonic happiness), and there’s eudemonic happiness, which comes from the very pursuit of our life’s goals.”

The latter type of happiness tends to bring us joy in a deeper way, but it’s not necessarily as fun and carefree in the way that vacations and shorter-term pleasures are, she says.

Our daily routines may very well be positive ones that we learn and grow from, but they likely include less spontaneity, freedom, novelty and creativity than we experience when we’re on vacation, adds Alexander Caillet, an organizational psychology consultant and adjunct professor at Georgetown University. (He is CEO of Corentus, a company that provides leadership coaching in the workplace.)

We think about how our decisions might affect the future; we try to make choices based on what we’ve learned from the past. “It’s a more critical type of thinking,” Caillet says of the everyday mindset. “Vacation [can] allow us to really do what we need and want in many ways (like going on adventures, trying new foods, experiencing new cultures, or spending time with family, friends and loved ones).”

We’re more “in the moment” and present, Caillet says. And there’s a basis in neuroscience as to why this mode of life makes us feel so good. Research suggests that this mode of experiencing new things (as long as they aren’t perceived as stressors) actually light up the reward centers of our brains, stimulating feel-good neurotransmitters.

How to get better at vacation recovery

So is there a way to make the transition back to the “real world” any easier?

The first step is don’t go beating yourself up for feeling a little sad after returning from vacation. “It’s to be expected and it’s not necessarily a sign that you hate your life,” Ballard says.

And yes, there are a few other things you can do…

1. Prep before you go

Before you leave: clean out the fridge of food that’s going to spoil by the time you get back; tidy up your living space; work ahead on assignments for your job so deadlines aren’t missed; set an out-of-office message on your email; and recruit friends or coworkers to help out while you’re away.

The idea is that you don’t want to come back from a great trip to find a mess awaiting you at home or at work — and you don’t want to have to be worrying about home or work while you’re away, says Joe Robinson, a productivity consultant, who works with individuals and organizations on stress management and work-life balance.

2. Give yourself a buffer before re-entry

If you can, schedule a day or even a weekend to transition after a trip, especially a long one, Caillet suggests. Give yourself time to unpack, relax, enjoy the feeling of coming back from a satisfying trip, and reflect on your experiences. Some vacations and trips change us, Caillet says. We see priorities differently. We have new desires. We have new (or renewed) interests. But most of the time, whatever routine we come back to hasn’t changed. Give yourself time to meld those two realities.

To do the transition right, keep living in that fluid state of mind where you’re making your own decisions on your own time for a little while once you’re back home, rather than jumping right back into missed emails and voicemails and the hundreds of things you think about in the day-to-day routine, Caillet says. “We tend to go from where we were to where we are overnight, and it’s a bit of a shock to the system, especially if the vacation was intense.”

3. Savor the good times and let those feelings linger

Look back at photos. Organize them. Share them with friends and family. Tell people (who are interested) about your trip and your experiences, Caillet says. Visualizing something in that way can be nearly as emotionally powerful as living it, he explains. It’s a way to hold onto and savor those moments of happiness and contentment you may have experienced on vacation. “It’s a way to relive it,” he says, which helps us re-experience the positive feelings we had. (Psychiatrists are actually studying whether this type of strategy could help people with psychological disorders.)

4. Put your recharged battery to use

Vacation is often a time to recharge our batteries and take a step out of our routine so that we can better think about what’s working and what’s not. Maybe you realize you want to start sleeping more, making more time for staying active, or making more time for people you care about. Take advantage of the renewed energy that vacation leaves you with, Caillet says. And do those things that allow you to engage with the world in a more thoughtful, productive, and constructive way.

Rather than let the vacation be over the minute you get home, Caillet says: “Carry it over by integrating further what you’ve learned.”

5. Get your next vacation on the books

And while you’re in the midst of savoring those happy vacation vibes, think ahead to the next time and place you want to feel that way. “Get your next vacation on the books right then,” Ballard says.

You don’t necessarily need to buy plane tickets or plan every last excursion right then and there, she says. But get the plans in motion so that you can look ahead to it. It’ll help you create a more natural rhythm of having regular phases of rest to balance out the intense phases of work — and it helps to know that there will be future phases of rest and fun. Traditionally humans have pretty much always worked that way: work, rest, work, rest, work, rest, Ballard explains.

And don’t just think of that rhythm in terms of a once-a-year-trip. Look for ways to incorporate those rhythms — and get into the vacation state of mind — on a monthly or weekly basis, too, Caillet says. Engaging in more weekend getaways or day trips or even just an afternoon “off” (remember: it’s not about where you go, it’s about the mindset you’re in) helps make that vacation attitude more a part of who we are rather than just something we do once a year.

6. Bring a little bit of vacation home with you

We all have the same core needs of autonomy (feeling in control of our life and our choices), competence (being able to take on challenges and meet them), and relatedness (connection with others), Robinson explains. “A great trip gives you a heaping dose of all three of those needs. And it’s a high because you are gratifying those innermost needs.”

But you can also get those things in smaller doses once you’re back home, Robinson says. Do activities that will help you maintain that sense of “play,” he says — maybe ones that you did on your time away (like yoga or salsa dancing).

Bringing those experiences home with you is another way of bringing the trip home with you, savoring the experience, and keeping that carefree, best-you version of yourself active at home, too, Caillet adds. “Make it a part of who you are.”


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