Don’t Bring Your Stressed Self on a Vacation

For our first big family vacation in a decade, we rented a small villa in northern Italy. Everything is slightly less shiny than in the pictures. The coffee machine doesn’t work. Neither does the AC. The rooms are somewhat dirty. But we’re still in a villa! In Italy! We can either complain, run around, and try to fix everything, or we can laugh it off, sit back, and relax by the pool.

It’s understandable but ironic: Because we spend months anticipating a trip, we charge it with even higher expectations than our everyday life. By the time we’re finally on the road, the best we can hope for is that our experience is up to par.

But why go on vacation if you’re going to bring your stressed self with you? It’s a time to let go and flow with the current, not to apply your usual patterns to a new environment.

My family’s standard for cleanliness, for example, is very high. But if we were to bring our AirBnB up to that standard, we’d spend most of our vacation cleaning instead of recharging.

In day-to-day life, it’s common to have rules that separate your productive self from your recovering self. “I will work from 9 to 5, and I won’t listen to music. After 5 PM, I will turn on some music, and I will relax.” These rules are helpful for balancing different aspects of life while the lines are blurry, but on a vacation, the priority is clear: Rest. Everything else should go out the window, or else, your vacation quickly will.

If you arrive at your destination and start thinking along your usual lines, you might say, “I can only relax when all the dishes are clean and dry.” Suddenly, you find yourself doing dishes for two hours instead of enjoying the sun beds on your veranda. Is that really the point?

You can obsess over emails, clean dishes, and the perfect cup of coffee all day long when you’re at home. Most of the time, that’s part of your job, perhaps even what makes you especially good at it. On vacation, however, more of the same will only get you, well, more of the same — not the restoration you seek.

Then again, that’s the main reason unwinding on command is difficult: You are still traveling in your own company. Even Socrates already faced this challenge: “Why do you wonder that globe-trotting does not help you, seeing that you always take yourself with you? The reason which set you wandering is ever at your heels.”

You may not always succeed in leaving your old habits at home when you go on the road, but it sure is an attempt worth making. Even vacations cost time and money, and though we rarely control how they turn out, it is mostly up to us whether those days and dollars will be well spent.