illustration of a person on staycation camping in their living room

The many lures of summer can make us feel disconnected to our work and resentful of the time we spend at our desks, even in the best of years – which this most certainly is not. Options for the epic summer vacations that lift our spirits and refill our cups in typical years are severely restricted right now, and international travel is all but off the table.

That’s a worrisome truth from an emotional wellness and work-life balance perspective. So what’s a motivated, self-aware professional to do?

(Before going further, I want to acknowledge our friends in Australia and elsewhere in the southern hemisphere. Just bookmark this page and come back to it in six months. See ya then!)

The true value of a vacation

In order to come up with valuable alternatives, we need to examine what we’re really trying to get out of vacation travel in the first place. (Besides bragging rights and ‘Gram-worthy selfies, that is.) Generally speaking, we’re looking to recharge our batteries and de-stress. That’s healthy for both your mind and body, according to Dr. Susan Kraus Whitbourne, a professor of Psychology and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts.

“Chronic stress takes its toll in part on our body’s ability to resist infection and maintain vital functions,” she says. She also notes that stress disrupts sleep and digestion. “Mentally, not only do you become more irritable, depressed, and anxious, but your memory will become worse and you’ll make poorer decisions.” All those negative effects compound and often end up causing even more stress.

But vacations can break the stress cycle. That’s why medical professionals and savvy employers emphasize the importance of taking time off: your life is a marathon, not a sprint. Depending on your personality and every-day lifestyle, you might de-stress by simply taking time to relax or by having new and invigorating experiences. Maybe both.

Breaking it down even further, psychologists have identified a number of factors that make vacations rejuvenating:

  • Change of scenery – It’s common for international travelers in particular to experience a mental phenomenon called “derealization”. In a foreign country, you’re immersed in subtle-but-thrilling differences: the sound of a different language being spoken, new smells in the air, unfamiliar makes of cars on the street. As you take it all in, you become dissociated from your usual conscious and unconscious expectations. It’s the psychological equivalent of taking a refreshing plunge into a cool lake on a hot day.
  • Novel experiences – When you discover something exciting or feel like you’re being adventurous, your brain releases dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with feelings of being rewarded. Plus, according to researcher Marc Wittman, author of “Felt Time”, new experiences are more memorable and have the effect of making your vacation feel longer.
  • Physical activity – Researchers from the University of Calgary found that physical activity – even relatively mellow activities like golf – reduced job-related stress in a study of 900 lawyers.
  • High-quality sleep – The extra walking associated with sight-seeing, combined with the stress relief of being away from the office and (let’s be honest here) that extra glass of wine at dinner, means that people often sleep more soundly when on vacation. Don’t over-do it on the wine, though: going to bed tipsy is not a recipe for restful sleep.
  • Time with loves ones – Being with people we care about stimulates the release of oxytocin, the neurochemical responsible for feelings of trust and social support. It also mediates stress and boosts overall well-being.

How to create the ultimate battery-boosting staycation

Now let’s get back to the immediate problem. You’ve got days or weeks of accrued time off, but you’re understandably nervous about flying, staying in hotels, and generally venturing very far from home. (Feels like being all dressed up with nowhere to go, amiright?) No worries. Equipped with a deeper understanding of what makes summer trips so beneficial, we can find ways to reap those same benefits from a multi-day “staycation” or ad-hoc days off.

Spending time at outdoor venues like parks, arboretums, and sculpture gardens is a low-risk way to get the change of scenery you’re craving. Whether you’re in a big city or small town, there are probably loads of options within a 20-mile radius. Probably a few you’ve never visited before, to boot.

To really get that derealization effect, however, look for moments of awe – whether at home, in your neighborhood, or out in nature. According to a team of researchers from various universities in China, experiencing awe elevates us from our mundane, every-day concerns. Awe pulls us away from our own egos and prompts us to re-think things we considered to be known and permanent, both of which have a transformative effect. In fact, awe is such a powerful emotion that it can alter our sense of time and hold us immersed in the present moment.

Research has also revealed that experiencing awe improves decision-making and critical thinking. For example, a study at Arizona State University found that awe leaves people less susceptible to being persuaded by weak arguments. This means that if you seek out awe on your time off, you’ll be set up to stay focused on the most important work and make smarter choices when you go back to work.

The best part is that you don’t have to travel to a rainforest to experience it. There are moments of awe waiting for you in your own back yard – literally. The shimmer of aspen leaves shivering in the wind, towering storm clouds, ants building hills in the cracks of the sidewalk one painstaking grain of dirt at a time. All you have to do is build some unstructured time into your staycation so you can pause and enjoy moments of awe when you stumble into them. You might also schedule time outdoors, or find a way to volunteer on your time off. Being proactive about awe doesn’t make the experience any less authentic.

As for new and novel experiences, changing up your routine while on staycation can be almost as effective as zip-lining through the Costa Rican jungle, albeit less thrilling. How about trying a new workout, which has the added benefit of keeping you physically active? (If exercise can help high-powered lawyers de-stress, it can help anyone.) On the opposite end of the physicality spectrum, you could spend a day reading a book cover to cover or watching all three “Back To The Future” movies in one go. If you’re a dedicated 3-meals-per-day type person, try ditching breakfast and lunch in favor of brunch for a week. Bonus: eating your first meal of the day at 10:30 am encourages sleeping in late, which is another way to change things up.

Speaking of sleep, don’t be afraid to indulge in naps. Talk about luxury! We tend to get the most restful sleep in cooler environments with plenty of fresh air. If your neighborhood is quiet at night, you could try sleeping on your balcony, camped out in the back yard, or just opening your bedroom window. Otherwise, a few nights camping at a nearby campground might help you catch up on any sleep deficit you’re carrying. Just be sure to follow safety guidelines around shared bathrooms and sinks.

And even though you might be sick of them by now, look for ways to include family members and people in your “quaran-team” or “COVID-clique”. Getting out on a hike with your partner might remind you why you love them in the first place after months of grumbling about their quirks and foibles, amplified by being in close quarters for so long.

Make the moment last

Burnout is real – here’s how to avoid it

Since you won’t be arriving back home with a Moroccan rug or case of stroopwafels in tow, it might seem like your “ultimate staycation” will vanish without a trace the moment it’s over. But integrating some of those new and novel experiences into your everyday life can make the benefits of your time off last longer. Could brunch become a regular part of your weekends? Might you make a habit of stopping to take in little moments of awe instead of rushing past them like you used to?

As for work, try taking your laptop outdoors when you can for a change of scenery and some fresh air. Maybe include a festive and/or fruity non-alcoholic beverage, just for fun. Also, think about whether some of your pre-staycation job stress was caused by feeling like you’re stuck in a rut, or like your work doesn’t matter. If that’s the case, dig through all the “dream project” ideas filed away in your brain and see if now is the right time to pursue one of them. Juicy, meaningful work acts as a buffer against both boredom and burnout.

And when your wanderlust creeps back in, remember that travel isn’t as glossy as the magazines make it out to be. One travel site actually ranks the Mona Lisa and Venice’s gondola rides as the #1 and #2 most disappointing experiences in Europe, respectively. Consider that, for the price of one night in a four-star hotel, you could buy a Lego set that will occupy you for days and days. Sort of makes you want to treat staycations with a little more respect, doesn’t it?

You vs. the summer slump