The science behind having a good holiday break

10 years ago, I was feeling emotionally exhausted.

It had been an intense year of work and study. I desperately needed a break.

So I packed a backpack and went hiking with a group of friends. We did the sorts of things you see people do in wilderness films: we swam in rivers, slept under the stars, and ate the simplest of meals.

Five days later, I re-emerged from the forest feeling re-energised and with a new perspective. I felt excited about life again.

This is the power of a good holiday.

If you’ve ever skipped a holiday or used your holidays to catch up on work, you know at some level this is bad for your soul.

Research shows people who skip holidays are more likely to:

• suffer from burnout;
• feel emotionally exhausted;
• be less productive;
• have trouble concentrating during their free time after work; and
• find it harder to deal with the challenges of work, study, and life.

Think of the last time you felt really exhausted. How easy was it for you to do your work?

With a tired mind, it’s hard to get anything done. You can’t do your best work.

So holidays matter. They matter a whole lot.

Let’s face it . . .

You’re not a machine.
You’re a human being.
Your energy is finite.
You have limits.

Following any period of intense or stressful work, you need to rest and recover.

If you choose to ignore your biological limits and burn yourself out, it can take 12 months to fully recover. It’s your choice. Your call. Personally, I wouldn’t risk it.

So it’s time to get serious about rest and in particular, holidays.

What makes for a re-energising holiday?

Let’s take a quick look at the science . . .

Research by Sabine Sonnentag and her team found we need to experience the following four things to fully recover from stress:

1) Relaxation;
2) Mental detachment from work;
3) A sense of being in control; and
4) Mastery experiences.

In his book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang encourages us to think of breaks as being like meals. You want your meal (i.e. your break) to be nourishing, so it needs to be high in all four of the components listed above.

The good news is you can train yourself to get better at doing these four things. It just takes practice.

Below we explore each of these factors in more detail. Read on!

1. Relaxation

This is about calming your mind and body.

What’s the best way to relax?

There are no hard and fast rules but you could try:

• Meditating;
• Having a massage;
• Listening to relaxing music;
• Spending time in nature;
• Doing yoga;
• Breathing exercises; and
• Taking a long hot bath.

What do these activities have in common?

They require very little effort. And they make you feel good!

Research by Frederickson (2001) found that when people feel good (i.e. they experience positive emotions) this helps to boost their energy levels.

2. Mental detachment from work

Have you ever found yourself worrying about school/work when you weren’t at school/work?

When you do this, you’re wasting your precious (and finite) mental energy. But what’s even worse is that no recovery can occur when you worry.

One study by Sonnentag, Binnewies and Mojza (2008) found that low psychological detachment from work in the evening is associated with feeling exhausted and tired in the morning.

Want to wake up feeling refreshed and alert? Then stop any negative thoughts about work and school as soon as you get home.

Easier said than done, right?

Again, it’s just practice.

Here are some strategies that help me to switch off from my work/study:

• Set a worry time (worry o’clock): Find yourself worrying? Quickly jot down the thought that is bothering you. Then tell yourself you’ll revisit that thought later at worry o’clock.

• Create non-work zones in your room/home: Deliberately segment work and off-work life. Don’t bring any work into your non-work areas.

• Don’t do any work on your holidays: Put your books and notes away. Your top priority is to have fun, relax and engage in mastery experiences (see point 4 below).

• Get moving: Engaging in intense physical exercise can provide ‘time out’ from worrisome thoughts. When I exercise, my focus is just on doing each movement (nothing else). I tune into how my body feels. Increased levels of endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine following exercise also help with the recovery process.

3. A sense of being in control

Do you feel in control of your time when you’re not at school or work? Can you engage in activities that you enjoy and find meaningful?

If the answer is no, you need to work on feeling more in charge of your life.

Here are some questions to consider:

• Are you overscheduled?
• Could you cut back on a few activities/commitments to free up more time for fun and relaxation?
• Can you outsource any activities?
• Can you do certain activities more efficiently to free up more time?
• Can you reduce time confetti in your life?

4. Mastery experiences

These are experiences that challenge and stretch you in some way. When you engage in them, you tend to forget about your work and/or school.

These activities require you to exert a bit of effort, but you don’t want them to leave you feeling completely exhausted.

Here are some examples of mastery experiences:

• Physical exercise;
• Learning a new instrument (e.g. the piano);
• Learning a foreign language;
• Volunteering in the community; and
• Taking a free online course on a topic that interests you.

But a word of warning before you jump online to take that free course . . .

As a general rule of thumb, try to limit time on digital devices over the holidays.

Let me be clear: technology can be a great tool to help you engage in a mastery experiences. But depending on how you use it, it can also inhibit the recovery process.

Screen time leisure activities, such as scrolling on your phone and watching Netflix, don’t really challenge us. We typically sit down and enter a passive, zombified state. This in turn can lead to boredom, apathy and depression.

For every hour you spend in front of a screen, that’s an hour you could have spent at the beach, going for a walk in nature, working on a creative project or learning how to cook a new dish.

Here’s another reason to limit your screen time . . .


Sleep is your most important recovery mechanism.

If you’re looking at a screen 30 minutes before going to bed, you’re messing with your melatonin (a hormone that makes you feel sleepy). The light emitted from screens has been shown to suppress the production of melatonin, thereby making it harder for people to fall asleep.

Scrolling through your social media feed so close to bedtime also means you’re at risk of seeing content that upsets you.

Put simply . . .

Light from screens + upsetting content = Poor sleep

As Demerouti and her team state:

“The better an individual’s physiological and psychological state before bedtime, the longer and better the quality of sleep she/he will have. A better quality and quantity of sleep in turn leads to a better psychological and energetic state the next morning before going to work.”

So put your phone to bed at least 30 minutes before you plan on going to bed. This simple action could change both your mood and outlook in dramatic and profound ways.

To sum up

For these holidays, I encourage to explore and experiment with different ways to make your break truly restorative. And most importantly, make sleep your top priority.