How Most People Waste Their Time Off (and What You Should Do Instead)

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So how was your Labor Day break? Did the time off refresh you? Did you use your long weekend to the fullest? Are you fired up and ready to come back to work?

Too often when we return from vacation, our answers to these questions are sadly negative. Either our time away flew by, or we somehow manage to feel just as tense at the end of the break as we did at the beginning. There has to be a better way.

And according to a fun post on Science of Us (as well as several other experts on the psychology of the vacation), there is.

The problem, according to the post by Melissa Dahl, is that our instincts on how to best utilize our time off are often at odds with the psychology of what actually refreshes the human brain. In short: your desire to sit around doing as little as possible is probably destroying your breaks.

Why your “relaxing” doesn’t work

I’m as much a fan of lazing by the pool as the next woman, but according to legendary psychologist and Flow author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, this sort of slothful “relaxation” actually doesn’t do much to reset and refresh your brain.

“For quite a few people free time is… wasted,” Dahl quotes Csikszentmihalyi as writing. “Leisure provides a relaxing respite from work, but it generally consists of passively absorbing information, without using any skills or exploring new opportunities for action. As a result life passes in a sequence of boring and anxious experiences over which a person has little control.”

What should you do instead of binging on your favorite Netflix show or chilling out in your friend’s back garden? Csikszentmihalyi insists that if you really want to refresh your mind, you need to engage it. People are “happiest when they were just talking to one another, when they gardened, knitted, or were involved in a hobby,” he explains, citing his research and noting that all of these activities “demand a relatively high investment of psychic energy.”

So if you want your break to feel actually enjoyable and worthwhile (and also longer —laziness makes time feel like it passed in the blink of an eye), you need to actually do something a little challenging.

The limits of chilling out

It’s not justCsikszentmihalyi who makes this point. Time use expert Laura Vanderkam also agrees that the most refreshing breaks aren’t necessarily the chillest.

“Other kinds of work–be it exercise, a creative hobby, hands-on parenting, or volunteering–will do more to preserve your zest for Monday’s challenges than complete vegetation,” she has written before recommending that, if you really want to feel jazzed up after a break, you should proactively schedule challenging or engaging activities rather than just planning to chill and take things the days as they come.

Which do you prefer: activity packed breaks or chilled out days off?