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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

3 Ways to Make Your Vacation More Enjoyable

A few years ago, I planned a vacation to the Jersey Shore to celebrate my boyfriend's birthday at a small bed and breakfast a few blocks from the beach. Shortly before we left, we had one of those decadent days where you do nothing but relax, enjoy each other's company, and gorge on reality television.

Still, I couldn't wait for my real vacation to begin.

But at the shore, even though we were greeted by blue skies, everything seemed off. Somehow, in those seven days away, I couldn’t help but realize that we didn’t have nearly as much fun as we’d had eating popcorn and laughing together watching a Bravo TV marathon.

On our way home, I remember saying: "Well, I guess you just can't plan for fun."

My sense of being let down by my vacation is not unique: There’s research to show that people are happiest when they’re looking forward to a trip away—not when they’re actually vacationing.

Considering that we only have so much time off from work—and that vacations aren’t exactly cheap—is there any way to enjoy our time off a little more? Well, I’ve gotten a little better at it over the years, and it’s not just because I’ve taken trips beyond the Jersey Shore. Here are three strategies I’ve used over the years to relax, disengage, and make the most of my limited vacation time.

1. Manage Your Expectations

Studies have shown that the people of Denmark are among the happiest in the world—and that this satisfaction is at least partially attributed to their expectations about what’s to come. It’s as simple as this: The Danes have low expectations for the upcoming year, they thus find themselves “pleasantly surprised” when life brings them joy.

Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t look forward to your vacation, but take a tip from the Danes and don’t fixate on perfection. Hope for a good trip, rather than anticipating (and telling everyone you know) that you’re in for the best week of your entire life. Or, instead of imagining stretches of cloudless skies for days, think about what your Caribbean getaway will be like in the rain. This will help to curb disappointment if things don’t go perfectly, and may even inspire you to create a fun plan B in case you run into less-than-ideal vacation conditions.

2. Detox from Your Devices

So, you were thinking of packing your Kindle, iPad, MacBook Air, Blackberry, and iPhone for your three-day weekend to the Cape? Take a few minutes to assess what you actually need. If really do need a computer while you’re away, then bring it. But if you can leave something behind and take a break from the glare of at least one of your screens, do. Your brain (and your travel companions) will probably thank you for it.

Without a device to distract you, you’ll have easier time letting go of your “real life” and tuning in to those can’t-miss-moments like a beautiful sunset or the sound of an ocean breeze (the reason you go on vacation in the first place!).

If you do want to use your phone to take photographs, remember that you can disable your email so that new messages don’t ping you all day long. And if you can’t get away from your online life completely, try to set up one or two times a day to check your email and messages, and spend the rest of the time signed off so you can fully enjoy your getaway.

But also remember this: Your co-workers will most likely be able to survive without you.

3. Pack Like a Pro

If you’re anything like me, the packing and preparation for your trip can really stress you out. I stare at my suitcase, puzzled by what I might bring, lots of ideas of different outfits swarming through my brain. So I start to put things into the bag—one by one—until it’s filled and I can just cram it closed. Then I arrive to my destination with a hodgepodge from my wardrobe that doesn’t work. Plus, I’ve usually forgotten some essential item like a toothbrush, makeup remover, or a bathing suit—and there’s no feeling worse than having to go shopping for essentials upon arriving at your destination.

Don’t let the decisions involved in packing tire you out before you’ve even left for your trip. One tip I love is to use a basic packing list as you prepare. Joan Didion, for example, would keep a packing list taped inside her closet during her years of steady reporting and traveling. And you don’t even have to create it yourself: Whether you’re journeying on a warm-weather weekend, a month-long holiday, or a four-day Inca trail hike on Machu Picchu, there’s a list for you to reference.

It doesn’t matter if you’re traveling to Thailand or Teaneck—vacations can be stressful by virtue of the fact that we’re supposed to be having fun when we get there. And while there’s no recipe for success, if you can lower your expectations that the trip will be perfect, bring the things you need, and disconnect from the office at least part of the time, you’ll be on your way to having a better time. You may not be able to “plan fun,” but you can at least set the stage for it.

Photo of woman on beach courtesy of Shutterstock.