I just started a week-long vacation from both of my jobs. The moment I stopped working on Friday afternoon, I noticed my brain immediately thinking of several work-related things, causing me some anxiety.
I’ve noticed this same pattern over the past four years where I would take a vacation but my mind would still be at work.
So I’ve started thinking about what we could do to stop thinking about work on vacation and actually take a vacation that is restful and rejuvenating. The five points below are what I came up with.
Get Curious About Your Mind
The first thing I think we have to start with is getting really super curious about what’s going on in our minds. What exactly are you thinking about when you’re on vacation? We have to start with getting curious about our minds because we cannot change anything without fully understanding it first. Getting curious means being willing to take a look at what’s going on in that brain.
Write It All Down
One of the ways we can find out what’s going on in our brain is to ask ourselves a question, such as “what am I thinking right now?” and writing down everything that comes up. Don’t try to only write down the thoughts you like. Write it all down. No one will be grading this. It’s only for you. If you want, burn it afterward. The point is to take everything out of your brain and put it onto paper where you can see it clearly outside of your own head. From there, you can gain more awareness over it and begin to become more familiar with it. This is especially useful when you feel anxious and you’re not sure why or it feels as if you’re being bombarded by thoughts against your will.
Once you’ve emptied out your brain, look at each sentence and ask yourself if it’s a thought or a fact. Facts will be completely neutral and they won’t contain adjectives. Facts can be verifiable by other people. Could someone else witness it? Then it might be a fact.
Thoughts contain adjectives, judgments, interpretations, and stories about those facts. It’s what we’re making the facts mean.
For example, a fact might be “meeting with a client next Tuesday.” It’s completely neutral. A thought about it might be “I need to prepare for that.” Can you see how they’re different? Meeting with a client next Tuesday is a completely neutral circumstance. What I think about it is that I need to prepare for it.
Once you’ve gotten all of the thoughts onto paper, go through and highlight all of the facts. Then, go through again, looking at just the thoughts you’ve identified, and ask yourself how you feel when you think that thought. I like to write it down next to the thought. Then start asking yourself what kinds of actions you take when you feel that way and what results do you get when you take those actions?
This may seem like a long drawn out process, but set a timer for five or ten minutes and try it out. The point is to find out what you’re thinking about when you can’t stop thinking about work on vacation.
Don’t Avoid It
When we start to find out what we’re thinking about, we may be kind of horrified by what we uncover. It’s okay. Nothing’s gone wrong. It’s just a thought. Remember gaining awareness is the first step in changing our minds, and that means we may uncover some things we don’t really like. It might be tempting to avoid it when we don’t like what we find. But I encourage you to stay curious about it. You’re not a bad person for thinking anything. It’s all just thoughts.
Next, we can set some boundaries around our own minds. This might look like committing to a schedule for when you will check work email or when you will allow yourself to think about what’s coming up when you return from vacation.
Commit to It Fully
With those boundaries in place, we need a solid commitment to them. What’s a boundary without committing to it? The point of the boundary is to free your mind up by assuring it that you’ll get to it later.
Have Compassion for Yourself
Lastly, have compassion for yourself. Even with the boundaries, the curiosity, the writing and an increased awareness, we may still find our minds gravitating towards thinking about work on vacation. It’s okay. The brain is just doing its thing. It’s used to thinking about it. It’s really efficient at it. Nothing’s gone wrong. It’s just thoughts. Again, get curious about it and notice it. “That’s interesting I’m thinking about work again.” And let it be there.
The points in this article aren’t a magic bullet. It’s like a workout for your brain, something that takes time and effort. The practices listed above have drastically increased the quality of my life and my mental health overall, so I encourage you to try it, whether the problem is thinking about work while on vacation or any other problem you might be experiencing.