Being able to take a vacation is the ultimate privilege. Really, being able to take any amount of time off work is a privilege — either you have a salaried job that’s going to pay you for the days, or you’re not salaried but can afford the lighter paycheck that comes with taking off a few days.
I love vacations, and I don’t think anyone needs to apologize for being in a position to be able to take them. But sadly, a big faction of American office culture doesn’t encourage us to take the time off that we need to — in fact, over half of Americans didn’t use up all their vacation time in 2017. (Part of this, in my opinion, has to do with an unhealthy — and wholly capitalistic — obsession with productivity, and the fear that taking time off will set us back, which people far more qualified than me have written about to greater and lesser extents.) And when we do actually take time off, some of us don’t use it to fully relax, leaving vacations or staycations to lack the rejuvenating effect they’re supposedly for.
I realized that the thing keeping me, personally, from being able to fully relax on a vacation wasn’t the way I was spending my time while I was away — it was that I didn’t fully tie up loose ends at home before taking time off. Instead of fully chilling by a lake, sleeping in, sightseeing, etc. without worry, I’d spend much of my time being anxious about both the things I’d potentially missed and the things I knew I’d be coming home to. I finally realized that I was getting in my own way of being able to fully replenish my energy during my time off, solely by not preparing before I took it. I’m hardly an expert, but I also know that if I’m going to spend money on a vacation, I want to milk it for everything it’s worth — and that means making it so I’m not dreading the tasks waiting for me on the days I return. Here are some small (but important!) things I always try to do before taking a vacation so I can truly allow myself to chill the hell out.
1. Deep-clean your home.
This is number one because it! is! important! To me, nothing is a bigger vacation buzzkill than knowing I’m going to be met with dishes in the sink and piles of clothes to fold upon my return home. Simply tidying up so I’m not immediately met with chores is crucial to being able to enjoy every last minute of that vacation, including the glass of white wine and shitty airplane movie on my return flight. And taking it a step further makes me — dare I say it — actually excited to get back home. I can’t control what the cat does or doesn’t decide to do while we’re gone, but I can make sure the counters are cleaned, bookshelves dusted, baseboards wiped, clothes and shoes actually stored in their designated spots. I suggest cleaning more than you normally would before you leave for a trip, because it makes coming home feel so much better.
2. Set your deadlines earlier than they actually are.
If you’re a procrastinator like me, this definitely helps. I set my deadlines for the work and home/personal housekeeping tasks I need to get done before vacation weeks and weeks ahead of time, and I set them earlier than I actually need to. That way, when it comes to actually getting around to them, I will feel like I have less time than I actually do, and everything will get done in time for me to set that out-of-office email.
3. Use a system that’s just for prepping what you need to get done before you leave.
Of course, I don’t mean spend your precious time trying out a whole new project management system before you set off. That would mean more time spent planning just for the sake of it. But I do suggest using a Google doc or a spreadsheet that’s just dedicated to the things you need to get done that you’d normally do on the days you’ll be off. When I take time off, I need to make up for those days ahead of time so that I don’t get behind on work. That means I’m doing my usual workload and then some, and without organizing what needs to get done, I would definitely miss something.
4. Do an extra load of laundry.
I hate coming back from vacation only to have to immediately do a load of laundry because I ran out of underwear. I try my best to avoid this, so I do an extra load right before I leave. This way, I can make sure I still have a three- or four-day laundry buffer when I come back. (Full disclosure: this doesn’t always happen. But it feels fantastic when it does.)
5. Pack several days early.
I am a big fan of the packing spreadsheet (though I generally write my lists by hand), and I also think it’s a good idea to pack several days early, especially if you’re leaving for a while. That way, you don’t risk accidentally wearing/dirtying something you were excited to wear on your trip — vacation outfit-planning, if that’s what you’re into, is IMPORTANT, and deserves better than you scrambling last minute to cram everything into a carry-on.
6. Have the post office hold your mail.
No one wants to come home to an overflowing mailbox with immediate reminders of the real world, and you don’t even have to call or go into the post office to do this! The USPS has an online form for holding your mail here. Of course, if you have a pet and a petsitter coming, it’s just as easy to have them collect your mail for you.
7. Challenge yourself to use everything in the fridge. Freeze any good leftover produce, and throw out anything that’s already going/gone bad.
Both because I want to avoid spending money right before a vacation and because I hate wasting food, I try really hard to use everything up before I leave for a few days. If you have leftover produce, try using it up in pasta dishes, egg scrambles/frittatas, or as toppings on toast. (I find myself eating a lot of grilled cheeses the week before a trip.) Pro tip: if you have extra produce, try freezing it to use when you return — cut fruit up into smaller pieces and lay it out on parchment paper-lined baking sheets to freeze first, then bag it up and stick it back in the freezer. That way, it won’t all freeze together!
8. Call your bank/credit card company and let them know (if) you’ll be out of the country.
I’m sure you know to do this, but I’m putting it here just in case! You don’t want to have your account flagged for fraud while you’re away, preventing you from taking cash out and doing all the fun things you’ve planned.
9. If you’re traveling internationally, figure out a plan for taking out cash the most cost-effective way ahead of time.
There are various apps that let you take out foreign currency with minimal fees, so if you’re traveling somewhere especially remote, definitely do a little research. Also, look into what kind of foreign transaction charges you’ll incur from your bank if you take cash out or use your card abroad. Peter and I have different banks, and his doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees and also reimburses him for ATM fees up to a certain amount. So, on an upcoming trip we’re taking abroad, I’ll be Venmoing him my portion of the vacation budget ahead of time so that he can put all the ATM withdrawals on his card.
10. Pass off any tasks you need to have covered at work well ahead of time.
If you need to pass off certain tasks to someone else while you’re away, don’t just assume they know you’re leaving and are on the ball — politely ask if they’re available to cover your tasks for the days you’re away, and give them plenty of notice.
11. Confirm all of your bookings (especially if you made the arrangements a while ago).
No one wants to show up to a vacation scrambling to find a place to stay because they realized they left that ever-important item off their to-do list, or accidentally booked the wrong days. That is the opposite of relaxing. I personally do everything vacation-booking-wise online if possible, but I still suggest keeping those bookings in the same email folder and double-checking all of them before you leave. If you booked anything over the phone (which we’ve still had to do sometimes, particularly when booking a blocked-off hotel room for a wedding), call a week ahead of time to make sure they have all of your information and dates right.
12. Back up your phone in case you lose it, and free up space for new photos.
Back! up! your! phone!! This is just one of those little things a lot of us might forget to do regularly, but I think it’s especially important to remember to do it before a trip. I use Google photos, which automatically backs up my phone camera so I never have to think about it.
13. Take out all your trash/recycling.
Again, might go without saying, but don’t come home to an apartment/bedroom/house that’s been marinating in garbage smells for days or weeks! No one wants that!
14. Schedule a set amount of time every day (or hour…) that you’re allowed to look at your vacation plans.
Finally, I know how easy it is to distract yourself from work when you have an exciting trip ahead. I really get it. I am a master itinerary-maker and usually have a trip fully planned out (with requisite wiggle room) a month ahead of time. I love opening that Google doc and clicking all the links to the restaurants I’m going to visit dozens of times over the course of a few weeks. But when I have a lot more work to do than usual, this is an unwelcome distraction. It’s especially easy for me to get distracted when I know I work remotely and can technically get my tasks done whenever and from anywhere…but that is the opposite of the point of taking time off! To stay focused, I let myself look at my plans once every hour. Usually, after the first few, I finally get sick of looking at the same information over and over, and staying on task gets a bit easier.
Do you have any other tips for making the most of your time off? Let me know in the comments!
Holly is the Executive Editor of TheFinancialDiet.com. Follow her on Twitter here, or send her your ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org!