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Getting Away From It All

How to make the best of your vacation time. Your most important carry-on item? The mind-set you bring to the trip.

When a relaxing vacation seems further away than Timbuktu, here's how to make the best of the little time you have. Your most important carry-on item? The mind-set you bring to the trip.

One of my prized possessions is a key-chain pendant with a heart superimposed on a map of Greenland. It's a cheesy trinket, but it has real power. Each time I unlock a door, the memories come in staccato bursts. A clutch of brightly painted buildings thrown onto a snarl of rocky hillocks. Evening sun reflecting off slate-blue sea. Greenland can surprise even jaded travelers, and it still holds a piece of my soul.

Most of us have our own private Shangri-las—vacation memories that carry us through the drabbest hours of the 24/7 grind. Increasingly, though, we have to make do with memories alone. Americans are suffering from "vacation deficit disorder," in author Joe Robinson's all too-accurate diagnosis. Work hours in the U.S. have increased by more than 12 percent in the past three decades, and the average American is allotted a paltry 9.6 days of vacation per year. Incredibly, many of us don't even take full advantage of this slim window: Travel industry data indicate that about 15 percent of vacation days in the U.S. go unused.

However happy this may make our employers, we pay a stiff price for the lack of quality downtime. In a nine-year study, Brooks Gump, an associate professor of psychology at the State University of New York, Oswego, found that men who skipped vacation for five consecutive years were 30 percent more likely to suffer heart attacks than those who took at least one week's annual leave. Even skipping one year's vacation was associated with an elevated risk of heart disease.

Researchers aren't sure why people who take more vacations are less likely to die of heart attacks, but they have three theories: the time with family and friends; the escape from everyday worries; and the simple anticipation of a few stress-free days.

So what's a wage slave to do? Faced with a scowling boss and a mountain of work, scheduling a soulsoothing two-week trip seems out of the question. The good news: There are ways to make our downsized vacations restful and restorative.

Don't Worry About Meltdown Back Home

On vacation some people are determined to keep the cell phone charged up and ready to rip wherever they go. After all, they say, wouldn't you want to know if the dog runs away or your house burns down?

In a word: No. Sometimes ignorance really is bliss. That's because there's a link between cardiovascular reactivity and vigilance. The former is a laboratory measure of how your heart responds to minor stressors. "It's kind of like being jumpy," Gump says. The latter reflects how much you're on the alert for potential problems. To some extent, being vigilant in an unfamiliar environment is natural, but one type of tension is avoidable: the nagging concern that the office may call at any time. To most effectively reduce cardiac stress, plan a vacation where your employers don't even know how to get hold of you. Leave the phone at home, and resist the temptation to check e-mail.

The Two-Week Elixir

A generation ago multiweek road trips were common, but today more and more people fly—and shorten their vacations accordingly. Half of American travel is now done on two- or three-day minivacations, says Robinson.

Those vacationers don't know what they're missing. In 1986, I bicycled solo from California to Maine, exploring the U.S. at the leisurely pace of 12 miles per hour. About two weeks into the trip, somewhere in the sunburned hills of central Idaho, I slipped into a state of relaxation I'd never known before. Clocks, meetings and schedules were forgotten. I was fully committed to the world of sun, wind and sweat.

But what if you can't spare more than a week? Shorter vacations may not cure a full-blown case of crash-and-burn exhaustion, but they seem to prevent milder episodes of burnout.

The Mindful Vacation

I once spent an entire day sitting in a meadow at the base of a tall volcanic spire. I didn't speak, didn't read—didn't do much but watch the shadows change. I didn't know it at the time, but I was using my vacation to practice what Portland, Oregon psychologist John Christensen calls holiday mindfulness.

Mindfulness is the opposite of multitasking. Christensen describes it as being fully present to yourself, your travel companions and your environment. It's a way of both simplifying your vacation and recharging your mental batteries to better cope with day-to-day stress.

Like any art, it requires practice, but it can provide benefits much as meditation does. In a 2002 journal article, Gerhard Strauss-Blasche of the University of Vienna corroborates my belief that vacations slow down our perception of time, taking the edge off the feeling that everything is always coming at us in rapid-fire sequence. Deliberately mindful vacations can help this process along.

One way to cultivate mindfulness is to do what Robinson refers to as "unpacking" our mental baggage before leaving home. Too often, he says, we treat vacations as we treat our jobs. "We have a big to-do list, and if we don't do everything on it, we're miserable," he says. "Leave that 'production' yardstick at home."

The vacation process starts several weeks before you leave, says Pamela Ammondson, author of Clarity Quest: How to Take a Sabbatical Without Taking More Than a Week Off. Begin by getting enough sleep and some exercise. Then start taking seven-minute mini-sabbaticals in the middle of the day—outdoors or somewhere relaxing such as a flower shop or art gallery. You can also try one-day outings. And of course, it always helps to remember that the upcoming vacation is your time, not your employer's, and hone your skills at saying no to overwork.

So What's The Ideal Getaway?

Some of us have a list with a lifetime's worth of dream trips planned out. Others find it hard to choose. Christensen has several tips for winnowing the prospects:

  • Think back on the best moments of prior vacations. Were you contemplating dawn from a desert spa, or were you whooping it up at a tiki hut? Pick a vacation that has similar elements.
  • If you're traveling with a partner, be prepared to compromise. One of you might want to do nothing but lie on the beach, while the other wants to hike, shop or visit art galleries. Be frank about your differences, Christensen says, and even spend time apart if that helps.
  • Be open to surprises. Generals know that no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. Similarly, no vacation unfolds exactly as planned. Maintain your sense of humor and try to view unexpected events as opportunities, rather than obstacles.

Even with the best preparation, some vacations don't live up to expectations. Perhaps you just can't slip into that mindfully relaxed state you were hoping for. Perhaps once you reach the beach, you realize you'd have rather gone to Europe. "You can't guarantee the weather—externally or internally," Christensen says.

Three years before my Greenland outing, I took another dream vacation—a three-week adventure tour of Iceland. For two weeks, it rained. And then, I got one beautiful day—so perfect that my eyes still water when I remember it. Did that one day make up for the preceding sogginess? Probably not. Is the memory ingrained forever in my list of private Shangri-las? Absolutely.