We like to remind people of the importance of taking time off. That means booking yourself a day, week or more, and taking some time to forget about work. There’s plenty of reasons why you should get away from work, for the sake of your physical, mental, social and spiritual health.
But when you do go on annual leave, it can sometimes feel a bit disorientating. Time works differently on holiday. Sometimes you can come back feeling like you never left.
Here’s what’s really going on - and what you can do about it.
The holiday paradox
This weird feeling often appears after you’re back in the office, reminiscing about your trip. Even though at the time, when you spent the afternoon lazing around on the sun lounger, things were going at a nice relaxed pace. So what’s going on?
It comes from the disconnect between the experiencing self and the remembering self - a quirk of our brains that selectively chooses what to remember and what to discard. The neuroscientist Daniel Kahneman explains it while discussing what makes us happy:
“[there’s a difference] between experience and memory… it’s the difference between being happy in your life, and being happy with your life. And those are two very different concepts.”
Basically, what you experience and what you actually remember can be very different.
Because of this, the Holiday Paradox is a very real thing. Psychology writer Claudia Hammond explains it in her book Time Warped:
"The Holiday Paradox is caused by the fact that we view time in our minds in two very different ways — prospectively and retrospectively. Usually these two perspectives match up, but it is in all the circumstances where we remark on the strangeness of time that they don’t.”
In daily life, we have a range of ordinary things that pass the time. Alarm clocks wake us up, traffic gets busy at the same times each day, we work for a certain time period, go home at a set time, and have a pretty regular bedtime. Simple.
But when we’re on holiday, all of these usual markers of time disappear. It’s an overloading buffet of new sights and sounds with a totally different routine. If you travel far enough, the passage of sunlight will be different too. And that’s not even counting the effects of jet lag. So it’s no wonder we can’t get a good grip of time while we’re on leave.
(It’s even worse if you end up in a casino in Las Vegas, where you’re cut off from the outside world as much as possible so you forget how long you’ve spent there. That’s why you never see any windows or clocks in a casino!)
There are two ways of tackling the Holiday Paradox - seeking variety, and pausing.
How to remember more of your holidays
Memory is fuzzy, weird, and deeply linked with your emotional state.
If we have two experiences that are basically the same, it’ll always be difficult to remember them as two separate events. Especially if you weren’t in a heightened emotional state at the time.
So if you spend your whole holiday on the same deckchair each day, just letting time pass, you'll have a hard time remembering it, because there's no memorable happenings or milestones during that time.
That means, even if it seemed like a long time while you were experiencing it, when you look back, it'll seem much shorter. Even though you were probably doing a great job of resting.
Maybe, Claudia Hammond suggests, you need to liven things up a bit to appreciate them afterwards:
"You are most likely to remember the timing of an event if it was distinctive, vivid, personally involving and is a tale you have recounted many times since."
Sounds like a good excuse to go skydiving. Or maybe sit on a different deckchair each day, at least.
Remember to pause
If you’re unable to constantly seek out novel and exciting experiences - which is probably the same for most of us - there’s another way you can reclaim control over your time.
A pause is a little bit different than a break. A break implies you’re attempting to recuperate before getting back to work. A pause, however, is aimless and undefined; an open time in which to playfully see where the winds of fate take you.
Whatever happens in a pause just happens, really. You don’t have to do anything in particular.
It can involve just pausing to take a breath. A single pause as you’re walking from one room to another. You don’t have to have a particular intention for it, but it will bring you out of your head and back into the moment. If you’ve ever meditated, you’ll know that sense of thinking nothing - that kind of thing.
I came across this great idea in Robert Poynton’s book Pause: You Are Not A To-Do list. He explains:
“Our perception is not so at odds with reality as we might imagine. It feels like an invitation (from the universe?) to shake off the straitjacket of clock-time and its mean-spirited partner, efficiency, and play around with time for ourselves, to make of it what we will."
A pause can also be an extended period of nothing-in-particular - hours, days, even months. Unplanned, beautiful time. I think we could all do with a bit more of that.
So if you spend every holiday doing the same sort of thing over and over - intentionally trying to rest (while secretly thinking of work) or trying to fit in as many sights and activities as possible - maybe try the third option. Pause, and just be, for a bit. You might find time flows a bit slower than usual.