How to Use Your Winter Vacation to Boost Your Career

Are you taking a winter vacation this year? There are ways to use your time away that could benefit you professionally. (And don’t worry: none of them involve checking your work email.)

At first, the idea that going on vacation could boost your career might seem counterintuitive, especially to Americans who tend to value productivity above rest. In one study of U.S. workers, 47% of respondents said that they leave paid vacation days on the table at the end of the year. The reasons workers chose often had to do with work stress. Some (26%) worried that their employer would question their dedication if they took time off. And, 65% said they were concerned about the amount of work they would have when they returned.

Plus, workers in U.S. don’t take (or get to take) vacations the way people do in other developed countries. One study found that respondents from the United States, Japan and Thailand reported the lowest vacation usage — an average of 10 days in the past year — compared with employed adults from 19 countries around the world. Workers from France, Germany, Brazil and Spain took 30 days, on average. As a result, folks in the U.S. might feel differently about taking vacation than they would in other countries where the experience is more normalized and appreciated.

Amid all this pressure, it can be really easy to lose sight of the professional advantages of taking a vacation. But if you go about it the right way, taking time off can actually benefit you in your career.

Here are some tips for making the most of your winter vacation this year: 

winter vacation
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“Every person needs to take one day away. A day in which one consciously separates the past from the future. Jobs, family, employers and friends can exist one day without any one of us, and if our egos permit us to confess, they could exist eternally in our absence. Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for. Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us.” – Maya Angelou

1. Schedule it ahead of time

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The first step toward having an awesome winter vacation is arranging for it in the first place. If you can, try to schedule your time off as far ahead as possible. This is a good idea for a few reasons. First, you’ll be able to get away mentally if you have time to prepare. You can be sure to wrap up projects, meet with clients, or tie up any loose ends that might make it hard to escape.

Also, it turns out that there are a lot of benefits associated with looking forward to a vacation. According to a 2010 study, just planning or anticipating a trip can boost your happiness. In many cases, the happiness that comes beforehand is actually greater than the happiness you experience while you’re away. So schedule your time away far enough in advance to reap this reward.

2. Don’t work

winter vacation
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If you really want to maximize the restorative benefits of a vacation, then you actually have to take one. Too many people say they check in with work when they’re supposed to be away — upwards of 56%, according to one survey. But sending emails, returning phone calls or firing off a quick revision to a document while you’re on vacation still counts as work. And that’s not as harmless as it might seem.

You have to unplug altogether in order to reap the full rewards of getting away. It might help you to find the motivation to do just that when you consider the benefits of really taking this kind of time. The bottom line is this — you’ll do a better job when you return if you take some real time off. Getting a break once in a while helps workers to be happier, more creative and more efficient. If you really want to be more productive at work as a result of taking a vacation, you have to actually take one.

3. don’t feel guilty

winter vacation
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Don’t feel guilty about the fact that you’re getting away. First of all, it’s a waste of energy and it won’t do you any favors. Second, you have nothing to feel guilty about.

Keep in mind that you’re contributing to the company culture around vacationing no matter what you do. If you don’t take any time off, you’ll be encouraging more people to follow your lead. However, if you take your vacation time and don’t feel ashamed of it, you’ll be setting a more positive example.

It’s only natural to find yourself thinking about work from time to time while you’re away. If feelings of guilt strike during those times, remind yourself of all the professional benefits associated with getting away. Taking some distance will help you to do a better job when you return. Remind yourself that you have absolutely nothing to feel guilty about.

4. Don’t over-schedule Your Time

winter vacation
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“A vacation is having nothing to do and all day to do it in.” – Robert Orben

It’s tempting to jam-pack your schedule when you’re on vacation. If you’re away, you might feel some pressure to see all the popular attractions and do all of the cool activities available. And if you’re enjoying a stay-cation, you might feel the urge to attend to all of the to-dos you’ve been putting off. But, if you schedule repairs, dentist appointments and other chores for your time off, is it really time off?

What really separates vacation time from other forms of downtime, like nights and weekends, is that it’s a full break from your usual routine. You don’t have to wake up and immediately start running through your agenda for the day. Instead, you can have — wait for it — unplanned time. Even just a day or two of this can go a long way toward helping you to relax. You can go for a walk, if you feel like it. Or, you can do something fun and touristy, if and when you’re in the mood. Taking this kind of approach allows you to really unwind from your normal pace and schedule. And that will allow you to fully maximize your vacation experience, which could lead to career rewards further down the road.

5. Do something new

winter vacation
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“But that’s the glory of foreign travel, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t want to know what people are talking about. I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again.” – Bill Bryson

There’s something to be said for stepping outside of your comfort zone when you’re on vacation. Relaxing on the beach for a long weekend is great. But, it’s probably not as memorable as trying snowboarding for the first time. Challenging yourself to do something you’ve never done before, even something small or simple, can go a long way toward helping you maximize your vacation this winter. It will help to make the experience more memorable and probably more exhilarating and rewarding, too.

Here’s something else to keep in mind — your vacation will probably feel longer if you do something new and different. You see, when you’re participating in an activity that you’ve never done before, you have to pay closer attention. It’s more of a stretch — so you’re more alert and you take in more details. As a result, time seems to move more slowly when you’re doing new things. For example, if you’ve been on an airplane dozens of times, the experience will mostly just wash over you. But, if it’s your first flight, you’re more likely to eagerly notice every detail of the trip.

You take in more details when you pay closer attention to what’s happening around you. And, you pay more attention when you’re doing something new. So, if you really want to make your vacation experience last, try stepping away from your comfort zone.

6. Be intentional about your return

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It’s so easy to get caught up in planning your vacation that you totally forget about how it’s going to end. But, being intentional about the return side of your holiday can make a world of difference. You want the time away to boost your professional performance, not hinder it. So, be sure to consider carefully when and how you’ll return to work.

Be sure to give yourself a little transition time if you’re traveling. It’s tempting to maximize your time away. But, you’ll erase the benefits if you fly in on the red-eye and head right into the office. Instead, give yourself a day to transition back, if you can swing it.

Similarly, think about your post-vacation self before you go away. Clean your workspace so that it will support your refreshed feeling upon your return. And, don’t over-schedule yourself for the first couple of days back. If you don’t have to meet with that difficult client first thing Monday morning, don’t do it.

Investing just a little time and effort toward planning your return supports your efforts to maximize the benefits of your vacation. You aren’t just taking this time to relax — you’re taking this time to relax so that you can be at your best when you return. Keeping that in mind when planning the experience can help you to meet your goals.

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