Vacation Soul-Nourishing (1)As soon we lifted off the runway on our recent vacation, I could physically feel the layers of stress begin to melt away. The phone was off, very few people knew how to contact me, and I had cleared my desk pretty well before I left. Throughout the week I was away, I felt present with my surroundings and my family in a way I hadn't in far too long. 

I didn't need to carve out time to meditate and be with God. Every minute, steeped in nature and surrounded by loved ones—whether we were sightseeing, socializing with friends, or just hanging out—seemed its own prayerful meditation and sacred activity. 

This week away was so soul-nourishing that on the plane coming home, I took some time to think about why it had seemed so therapeutic and what I could learn from it to take back to my daily routines and to share with you. I'm convinced that occasional vacations—be they big trips, short getaways, or “staycations”—can be essential times of rest and restoration with real benefits to both your physical and your mental health. 

There's nothing here that happiness and wellness researchers haven't been telling us for years, but I hope that hearing them from me, your heartspoken friend, will encourage you to take action and implement some of these vacation strategies in your own life. 

1. Occasional breaks from our routine are important for our well-being, so make sure you take them. 

This quote from Tsh Oxenreider and her Art of Simple website says it beautifully:

Breaks-Tsh2 (1)

2. Get vacation time on your calendar as much as possible in advance.

In January, take out your calendar for the year and pencil some time off—both longer times (e.g. a week or two) and some long weekends. Even if you have to change the dates later, you'll have freed up some time to move other activities into and minimize the stress of rescheduling.

If you get to a day you've pencilled in and haven't made plans to go away, just shut down your computer, walk away from your desk, get in your car, and visit the nearest park, arboretum, or museum. You'll feel refreshed and nourished.

3. Set the expectation with your friends, family, and professional associates that you'll be unavailable until a specific date and time.

If you're anticipating something coming up while you're gone, make arrangements before you leave. Ask your sister to check in on your elderly aunt. Ask your neighbor to be on the lookout for that package delivery. Make someone else responsible for problems that might arise at work while you're gone (and try not to second-guess their decisions when you return). 

4. Clear your desk and tackle the most critical items on your “To Do” list before you leave so you can relax while you're gone.

My brother Bruce once said if he could get as much done all the time as he gets done in the few days before he leaves on vacation, he could have been president of the world by now. There's some truth to that. I always start the week before a vacation with a daunting list of things to do. Invariably, the day before I leave, I've done a great deal, but there are some things that clearly are not going to get done. At that moment, I usually realize the world won't end and I can make arrangements for doing them later.  

5. Unplug from your digital devices as much as possible. 

Set certain times to check your phone and put it away the rest of the time. I've got to get better at this. When most of the folks who regularly email me know I'm on vacation, I don't get as many emails from them, so that helps. I haven't yet had the nerve to do what Michael Hyatt advocates: he sets up an out-of-office email message that says he won't see any emails that come while he's gone and instructs the sender to either contact the person he's left in charge or re-send important messages after his return. In fact, Michael Hyatt's podcast episode called “How To Vacation Like A Pro” inspired some of the items on this list.

6. Check voicemail as infrequently as possible.

I turned off the voicemail on my home phone (because I don't like strangers to know I'm out of town) and left a message on my business voicemail that I wouldn't be back in the office until a certain date and to please return their call after that time. This kept me from dreading the long list of voicemail messages I'd have to deal with when I got home.

7. Make sure you plan a change of scenery.

The kind of trip I took had this built in, but even if you're vacationing closer to home, make sure some of the time is out of your house with non-routine surroundings and activities. Not only is this refreshing, but it makes you be more observant and forces your brain to engage in different pathways than usual. I couldn't believe how many fresh, creative ideas I had while I was gone. 

The Black Range in southern New Mexico  and the high desert of Santa Fe seemed like worlds away from the Shenandoah Valley.

The Black Range in southern New Mexico and the high desert of Santa Fe seemed like worlds away from the Shenandoah Valley. Photo by Dr. John A. Cottrell, Jr.

8. Identify a purpose for your vacation and focus on it.

This may sound like work instead of rest, but I really consider it a form of mindfulness—being present for what's going on and not letting yourself be distracted by what you left behind or what has to be done when you get back. If one of the reasons for your vacation is to visit family, for instance, make sure you have some quality time with them. If the purpose for your vacation is to see a part of the world you haven't seen before, really immerse yourself in that place and that culture.

9. Build essential connection time into your vacation.

On our recent trip (See “Adventures in the High Desert and Mountains of New Mexico,”) I made time for all four of life's essential connections. I connected with God and nature over and over again, marveling at God's creation and immersing myself in the natural world. I connected with myself by unplugging somewhat from my digital devices and spending time reading in the morning coolness. I connected with others in time spent with my family and dear friends. These are the soul-nourishing activities of life—don't forget them when you're on vacation by cramming too much activity into too little time.  

My friend and veteran traveler, Esther Miller, reminds us to allow time for the unexpected. It's great fun to take a road that looks interesting or explore a destination you've never heard of but you happened to see the sign on the highway. A museum volunteer might tell you about a “local secret” you shouldn't miss (that you'd never find in your tourism literature). Feeling free to explore these serendipitous discoveries can enrich your travel/vacation experience tremendously.

Elizabeth relaxing with a  good book at her daughter's home in Santa Fe

Elizabeth relaxing with a good book at her daughter's home in Santa Fe. Photo by Dr. John A. Cottrell, Jr.

10. Don't schedule anything the day after you return. 

I have a confession to make. Except for my immediate family, the date I tell people I'll be back and available is a day later than my physical return home. For me, this is an enormously important buffer. It allows me to sleep late, unpack, open the mail, read the back newspapers (okay, this mostly means finding out who died while I was gone), do laundry, and simply get acclimated to being back.  

Let's talk about money

I couldn't always have afforded a week-long trip to New Mexico, and for many, the cost of travel is prohibitive.

Don't let this stop you from taking soul-nourishing breaks!

Get creative and have fun. My friend and high school classmate Pamela just shared with me a wonderful week of activities she and her husband planned to do for their anniversary. It included going out for lunch at a favorite restaurant and going to a baseball game, with days designated intentionally in between to “hydrate and communicate.” I love that! 

Adapt and improvise

These ten tips can all be adapted for shorter or longer vacations and to suit what you and your family consider fun and meaningful, but understand the wisdom behind each of them: we need to rest and we need to take breaks from our work or regular routines, even when we love those routines. They make us more productive and creative when we return.

This kind of vacation is good for the mind.

It's good for the body.

It's good for the soul.

I love learning new ways to live a healthier, more wholehearted life. What tips can you add to this list? I'd love to hear them in the comments below.




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