Ah, vacation. That magical, carefree time away from the office. An opportunity to relax, unwind, and let the stresses and strains of work melt away. We spend what feels like forever waiting for it to arrive, then in the blink of an eye, it’s gone. Poof. Back to work.

Enter the back-to-work blues. A heavy sigh, slumped shoulders, and that feeling of ‘ugh’ in the pit of your stomach. The American Psychological Association’s Work and Well-being Survey found that even though the majority of working Americans reported feeling more positive after taking a vacation, a whopping 42% dread returning to work.

For those of us lucky enough to return to work feeling refresh, relaxed, and renewed, the outlook is still grim. The positive effects of taking a vacation are depressingly fleeting, with two thirds of us struggling to hold on to these positive benefits beyond our first week back. The survey found that for 40% of workers the positive effects are gone within mere days of returning to work, and for an unlucky 24% the positive effects of taking a vacation disappear immediately.

So, how can we make these positive benefits more sustainable so that they last longer than just the first week back in the office? Is it possible to beat the back-to-work blues entirely?

While researching for this article I was surprised to find that the large majority of the advice being repeated had an overwhelmingly negative tone.  Article after article was underpinned by the assumption that the misery of the back-to-work blues was somehow inevitable. The language seemed to focus on ‘coping’ with being back, learning to ‘accept’ and ‘not resist’, finding ways to ‘ease yourself in’ and ‘plan ahead to minimize the stress’. It’s as if everything I read was saying ‘it’s definitely going to suck, so here are some ways to help you deal with it’.

I struggled to find anything positive or upbeat about going back to work; no wonder so many people are overcome with a sense of sheer dread at going back to the daily grind when all the advice out there is telling you there’s nothing you can do but find a way to deal with the inevitable stress of it all.

So, instead of spewing more advice to help you ‘cope’ with heading back to the office, here are three positive mindset techniques to help you build on the positive benefits of your vacation, reframe your perspective, and apply insights from your time away so that you don’t slip back into being your pre-vacation, stressed-out self.

1)     Reflect on what you learned about yourself while on vacation

While on vacation, we have the freedom to spend our time in any way we choose, whether off on a thrilling adventure or relaxing on the couch with a book. We are the masters of our universe, in charge of our own destinies, and loving every minute of it. How we choose to spend this free time is an enormous treasure-trove of insight into what we value, what motivates us, and what brings us joy.

Take some time to think about how you chose to spend your time off and what it says about you and your values/motivations. For example, did you love spending time with your family and friends? Were you happiest when you were surrounded by people or when you were enjoying quite time alone? Did you choose physical activities, or prefer more intellectual or creative pursuits? Each of these choices give an insight into what you value, which you can then leverage to your benefit or build into your everyday life.

To help clarify, here are some examples of things I’ve learned about myself while on vacation and how I’ve applied them:

I love to do nothing. I value having time to sit and contemplate life, and don’t really feel like I’ve had a break unless it includes at least some time doing literally nothing. Learning this about myself allowed me to ensure my weekends were restorative as I know I need to plan in a little ‘nothingness’ time or else I’ll head back to work on Monday feeling like I haven’t had any time off.

Given the chance, my body will sleep until noon, but I’m happiest if I’m up early and productive. This seems counter-intuitive to my need for ‘nothingness time’ but I’ve learned that I HATE to waste my vacation time. I need to feel like I was productive and making the most of it. By getting up early, I’m able to achieve getting stuff done AND have time to relax doing nothing. Knowing that my body won’t naturally wake itself up before noon, I have to make sure I set an alarm and make a conscious effort to get up and get stuff done in the morning, so that I can relax and do nothing later in the day.

I love spending time with people, but struggle around large groups for any extended period of time. I always thought I was a bit of an extrovert and loved going out spending time with my friends and meeting new people. On a trip to Africa in 2005, I was with a group of 20 volunteers for three months working out in Kenya. We were together 24/7 – all day, every day. I began finding myself needing to withdraw and unable to be engage socially with the group constantly. It was exhausting, and I needed down time away from everyone. I learned that actually I’m quite an introvert, and that my energy for social interaction is limited. I had never really noticed before; I hadn’t realized being able to go home after a night out and spend time alone was so important for me. I needed to rest and recover so that I had the energy to expend with my friends the next time I would see them. Learning this about myself has been invaluable in helping me manage my energy around relationships, enjoy time with friends and family, and ensure I am able to sustain positive social interactions whenever I need to.

These three things may seem pretty simple and obvious, but it was the conditions of being on vacation that allowed these aspects of myself to show up. Having the freedom to choose how I spent my time and how I reacted and adapted to various situations let my true self come though, not the version of myself that is constrained by the professional expectations of work.

What can you learn about yourself from how you spent your vacation time? How can you take that knowledge and apply it to make things better/easier for yourself moving forward?

2)     Use as a fresh start to review your goals

Just like we use the New Year as a time to renew our goals, treat going back to work as a fresh start and a chance to reflect on your progress so far. Going back after a break is a great time to think about your overall career goals and what actions you could be taking to move you towards them. Perhaps there is an opportunity to direct some of your post-vacation enthusiasm into a new project, or rebuild some relationships that have become strained by stress throughout the year. Perhaps it’s time to think about that next promotion or career change, or recommit to giving 100% in your current position.

It is also a great opportunity to think about other life goals that you might have and start working towards them. It is all too easy to allow work to become all-consuming, and to get stuck in a pattern of ‘making it to the weekend’ and letting everything else slide. Take some time to think about other goals or things that are important to you (perhaps things you identified while on vacation!) and figure out ways to build them into your daily, weekly, or monthly schedule.

Refocusing on your goals and planning out changes and action steps can make returning after a break seem less like getting back on the same old hamster wheel and more like a step forward towards achieving your dreams.

3)     Reframe your negative thinking

No matter how positive you try to be, there might still be the odd few negative thoughts that slip through. Unless you are lucky enough to be employed to cuddle puppies, it is likely that you will encounter stresses, frustrations, and annoyances during your work day. It is very easy to let these minor annoyances and frustrations build up and spill over into some major negativity, resulting in you losing your post-vacation glow, FAST.

One of the most well-known frameworks in positive psychology comes from psychologist Martin Seligman’s work on learned helplessness and optimism. Seligman identified three major differences (the 3Ps) in the way that optimists and pessimists view a situation which you can use to transform your negative thinking into a more positive frame of mind.

The first difference is permanence – the degree to which you see the situation as permanent or temporary. Pessimistic individuals tend to see bad situations as permanent, believing they will never change. Optimist individuals see situations as more temporary, believing that ‘this too shall pass’ and that things will not always be like this.

The second is pervasiveness – how widespread the situation is and how many areas it impacts. Pessimistic individuals view bad situations as widely pervasive, feeling that ‘everything sucks’ or ‘I’m awful at everything I try’. Optimists tend to see the situation more specifically, such as ‘that was a bad meeting’ or ‘I made a mistake on the last report’.

The third is personalization – the degree to which you are responsible and have control. Pessimists typically see things as out of their control, and that nothing they do will be able to make a difference. Optimists take responsibility and look for where they can exercise control and make changes in their experience. Even in situations where the optimist has no control over the eventual outcome, they are still able to exercise control over their mental and emotional experience and how they respond, choosing not to allow the stress and negativity bring them down.

Recommended reading to learn more about the 3Ps framework: Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin Seligman, PhD.

Using this framework – permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization – you can begin to reframe your negative thinking to a more positive outlook. When a challenge or negative situation presents itself, try to adopt the more optimistic approach of viewing it as a temporary situation, as only affecting this particular issue, and as something that you are able to actively do something about (even if all you can realistically do is let it go and not let it bother you!). Bringing this framework of thinking into play as you head back to work can help sustain your positive mindset and motivation far beyond the first week back.

If you found this valuable, please share it with others on social media! I’d also love you hear your thoughts in the comments below!

Louise xxx

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