This has been, as a CBS News headline recently put it, a “summer of travel hell.” We all know the stories: thousands of flights cancelled, and even more bags and luggage lost or delayed. And it couldn’t have come at a worse time: after two and a half years of pandemic isolation, we’ve been justifiably excited to get back to travel and have our first real vacations. And may have — if that includes you, hopefully yours went off without a hitch. For many others, the experience of getting to and from their destination clearly wasn’t great. But at the same time, as the pandemic has made way for the resumption of travel as challenging as it’s been, we’ve also learned some valuable lessons— about well-being, sustainability, and the value of connection and experiences with those we love. Summer travel season might be coming to an end, but we know that travel disruption is less likely to. So with that in mind, how can we apply the lessons we’ve learned during the pandemic about well-being and sustainability to how we think about travel going forward?
Let it go
First is a mindset shift. So many of us still tend to think of rest and productivity as being pitted against each other in a zero-sum game. In fact, they’re working together. Rest isn’t the cessation of being productive, rest is being productive. But even as awareness of the connection between rest and productivity is growing, there’s still this idea that, in the lead-up to taking time off, we need to do all this preparation to make sure every “I” gets dotted and every “T” gets crossed while we’re away. We’ve all experienced it — that feeling before a vacation where we think, “I need a vacation from my vacation!” As a recent piece in the Atlantic put it, “Why must we work so hard before vacation?” What does all this preparation get us, besides a huge amount of stress? So my solution, which might sound controversial in an era in which “hustle culture” is still hanging on: just…let it go.
This doesn’t mean drop the ball, or leave your colleagues hanging — it’s more about realizing we’re all human. Everything is going to be waiting on you when you get back. I’ve never had a CEO on an earnings call say, “Well we were on track to hit our goals, but see this dip on the trend line here? That’s when Jen took a week off.”
This is especially important for leaders — when we stress ourselves out by working doubly hard before a vacation, it sends a message to our teams that, in some ways, we feel that they can’t quite handle it. And, also, that they should prepare for their own time off in the same way.
Plus, we should remember that the workplace is a lot less siloed than it used to be, with many more people working in teams now. Work is a collective effort, not a celebration of individual contributions. That makes it easier, when the time comes, to just let it go. Work is still a four-letter word, and it doesn’t have to define our lives.
Think about your “why”
Next, think about why you’re taking a vacation. What are your needs? What do you hope to gain or accomplish? Is your goal wellness? Experience? Travel and sight-seeing? Giving this some thought can prevent us from those vacations, which most of us have had, in which we get up every day at 5:00 a.m. and march ourselves around the city all day and then wonder why. Maybe this is your goal, and if it is, that’s okay, but thinking through your “why” before you go will make your “what” and “where” and “how” a lot more productive.
Experience doesn’t necessarily mean travel
One lesson many of us have learned during the pandemic is that creating meaningful experiences and connection doesn’t necessarily mean getting on a plane or in a car (and burning up a lot of expensive gas). Creating experiences close to home can be rewarding and rejuvenating. That can mean simply carving out some time to read some good books. If you’re like me, you’re no stranger to lugging several heavy books to a distant location, and then lugging them back home untouched. So instead of giving your books a trip to an exotic location, give yourself a trip to a far away land by taking some time to read them.
Or if what you want to do is connect with family and friends, try something like spreading a series of events at different peoples’ houses over the course of a week. Each night could be themed. Maybe each host could share travel photos and stories of somewhere they’ve been. So many times, the best part of travel is just the joy of having a shared experience with loved ones. And we can do that without the travel.
Don’t pack much, don’t buy much
If you do travel, try to avoid what I usually do: over-packing. Think about taking just a capsule wardrobe, which is all those of us who end up wearing the same few things every day need anyway. Plus, the less we all pack, the less fuel we use, the smaller our carbon footprint.
In addition to strategically packing, we should think about strategically consuming. I confess I’m not very good at this one. When we travel, my husband has to constantly remind me that, in fact, we don’t need to buy this here because we have the same stores at home, too. Letting go of the idea of consumption while we travel has the added benefit of allowing us to focus more on experience and less on things.
Focus on what you can — and can’t — control
If you find yourself in a travel nightmare, one essential item to bring along: the mindset that you can’t control everything. This one I’m particularly bad at. I’m one of those people who stands right by the gate, thinking that if I do, I can somehow will the plane to show up. Turns out this doesn’t work at all. So bring along the acceptance that there are going to be a lot of factors out of your control. Which also means control what you can: stay hydrated, bring nutritious snacks, and think about the kind of experience you want to have.
Sustain the benefits of time off
According to a Harris poll, almost a quarter of Americans say the positive well-being benefits from vacation disappear immediately after getting back to work. Another 40 percent say it’s gone in a few days. So how can we widen the idea of sustainability to extend the well-being effects of time off? Some people like to start planning the next vacation immediately upon getting back, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but instead, perhaps it’s more useful to look back at the memories we’ve just made. Think about what was the most meaningful experience you had. What lessons did you learn? What would you like to repeat and what would you do differently? You can write them down, or simply share your list with others on the trip. It can make nice bookend to connect to your “why” you came up with at the start of your time off.
Whether your summer travel is already in the rear view mirror, you’re gearing up and hoping for the best from the travel gods, or you’re planning some time off closer to home, keeping in mind the lessons we’ve learned about sustainability and well-being can help you make the most of your vacation and sustain the benefits long after you return to work.