How To Relax on a Vacation (Without Stopping Learning)

Giving yourself permission to finally relax on a vacation can be hard. It’s easy to forget that the biggest changes in perspective (and thus the most profound learning) can only happen in unexpected ways.

You cannot plan for an insight. You can only seek to make it possible.

Vacations are that possibility. If your fear is that you are not being productive during this down time, then fear not. This is the most important time of all precisely because it is unusual. A vacation is a break from the norm, where any insight is possible… if only you make it so.

Normally, adults apply what is known as “spotlight attention” to the things we do. This sort of single-minded focus is great for learning and doing, but it is not so good for creativity. Creativity requires a more diffuse sort of “lantern attention:” an ambient sort of focus which is receptive to new ideas. Vacations offer this potential because they allow us to mentally relax and thus for new associations to arise.

To trigger this ambient attention, follow these three simple steps:

1. Prepare Something to Do

This first step is counter-intuitive, but it can help to relieve a lot of the anxiety that comes with working a lot and then suddenly taking a vacation. If you’re like me and most other modern hard-workers out there, it can be difficult to just suddenly step into a vacation. It seems somehow wrong to just put up an autoresponder on your email and leave the country.

Instead, try treating the departure for your vacation like the beginning of a new project. When I departed for Iceland last week, I downloaded a dozen books that I wanted to read… new novels from my favorite authors, as well as hardcore research books like the Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance. These are the things I had wanted to do/read for a long time, but not had time for.

By preparing these books, I turned them from a nice thing I’d like to read some day and into a task that I wanted to accomplish on vacation. I tricked my brain into thinking of them as the next task.


Once on the plane/train/automobile, departing for your vacation, whatever you do, do not do work. This is the crucial transition time. Do not check work email. Do not sign online to do anything work related. Turn off your phone. Commit to the idea that, at the very least, the time spent in transit will be spent disconnected. You can use these prepared tasks if you find yourself restless.

One of my favorite things to do as part of my my “preparation task” for a trip is to organize the notes I’ve taken from different books (see my post on remembering more when you read books). Organizing notes like this primes the brain with certain thoughts, which will become important in the last step…

2. Don’t Do It… (At least, for now)

Once you’ve arrived at your destination, see if you can manage to not do work and not do your prepared task. Think of it like a personal challenge.

A vacation has its own tasks. Seeing the sights and traveling around are their own challenge. As any practitioner of meditation knows, disconnecting your mind is not necessarily a simple task. It is an ongoing challenge which requires mindful attention.

This is why I dislike prepackaged vacations and tours. I prefer to travel solo and without plans. Instead of sitting back and allowing a tour bus to take me wherever it will go, I am forced to do my own research and plan my own routes. Many times, this means just going with the flow.

In driving around Iceland alone, I was forced to keep my eyes on the road (figuratively and literally). I had to figure out where to sleep, and then strike up conversations with the locals to discover where I should go the next day. This is a trick I first learned from Yoga: if your body/mind is occupied with something challenging, there’s not much room for other thoughts.


Hours after landing in Iceland


Your prepared task is always your fallback whenever work calls. It is your crutch when you feel a compulsion to do something. But try to go without it, and see where it takes you…

3. See What Comes Up

Be open to new experiences.

Take a fork in the road you wouldn’t otherwise take.

Seek out the adventures.

Only in doing these things will you find true growth and novel experience during a vacation. You’ll push yourself in new ways and respond to new challenges, the sort of thing you could not do at home. You’ll learn something about yourself.

What of your original prepared task, though, from step #1?

The true intention of the prepared task was to prime yourself. During those times that your mind drifts or you have nothing else to do, you may suddenly find new insights bubbling to the surface. By putting a task into your mind at the outset of the journey, you’ve given your brain something to chew on in the background while you go off on your adventure.

So many times during a vacation, I suddenly start seeing connections between the notes I’d organized during the last part of step #1. The connections become clear as day, and I find myself sketching out an outline for a chapter of a book or a blog post. Sometimes I feel compelled to go ahead and write the chapter/post.

How you handle this step is important, though. Don’t let sudden inspiration pull you back into a world of emails and instant communication. As I write the first draft of this blog post, I’m sitting in a small cottage outside Vik, Iceland, just writing down my thoughts. Nothing more.

This is the time to explore and let ideas come to the surface. You’re primed, relaxed, and there are no other obligations to fulfill. Keeping a journal isn’t a bad idea, since it will allow you to capture your thoughts and not be worried about implementing them right away. Here, you can experience the true benefit of vacation: a mind which can go where it wants to go.

4. Take it Home

When it’s time to head home, you’ll essentially perform the same steps in reverse. Again, take the transit time to completely disconnect if at all possible.

Take the time to create notes about the thoughts and ideas that appeared in your vacation. If you kept a journal, reread the journal and create your notes from it, much like after you finish reading a book.

The purpose of these notes is not just to give you something to draw upon. Writing down ideas in your own words helps to solidify concepts, and will facilitate the exchange of ideas in the future. Many of the ideas you came up with or thoughts that you had during the vacation will probably not be useful in their current state. 80% or more may be discarded entirely, but that’s not the point.

The point is that later on, when you’re looking for inspiration or trying to do something new, your brain will draw upon these ideas. Bookending your trip with preparation and review, just like in a practice session, will make all those thoughts available to you later on.

5. Review What You Learned

Several months down the line, you may find yourself returning to photos and stories from the trip. I know that every so often, I get great pleasure from revisiting the memories of my travels. This is the perfect time to review your thoughts and your notes.

If nothing else, this will provide you with an opportunity to objectively see where your mind was at during your vacation. You may find that the things that worried your or consumed your thoughts are no longer so important. The notes might spark something, allowing you to connect some thought that you had while you were trying to relax on a vacation to the problems you are facing in the “real world.”

Whatever the case, recognize that the time you spent disconnecting during the vacation was valuable. When we keep pushing our minds in the same direction day after day, they produce the same results. Creativity and discovery is not possible without pushing ourselves to have different thoughts, and a vacation does this very well. So enjoy the trip, and know that it is not wasted time.

Have fun!

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