But just as one can't raft down the Amazon in a single day, neither can one shield oneself against burnout with a two-day holiday. To really recharge, people need to take time off in as large a chunk as possible. While we're not exactly talking leave-of-absence here, we are suggesting that you exit the office for - gulp! - two weeks. Before you stop reading in disgust, listen to Dr. Alan Manevitz, a psychiatrist at New York's Weill Cornell Medical College: "Vacations should ideally be at least two weeks, because people in fast-paced positions will require two or three days to unwind at the beginning, when time is still moving at the speed of the workplace, and the same amount of time to re-accustom themselves to the work pace at the end."
Manevitz has evidence. The intense focusing called for at high-pressure jobs causes the body to produce adrenaline, norepinephrine, and other natural chemical "uppers" that are not released when someone is relaxed. Like breaking a drug habit, de-focusing at a vacation's beginning and refocusing at the end is less mentally traumatic - and less likely to cause physical symptoms like increased blood pressure and muscle tension - when done gradually.
We know, we know: Long vacations are unrealistic for many business people today. But, Manevitz explains, there are ways to pare down the transition times. All it takes is a little regular maintenance, which you can do in the time it takes to brush your teeth, presuming you brush thoroughly. "The trick is learning how to relax at work, so you don't have to work so long at relaxing on vacation," Manevitz says. "I think of this mental preparation as 'vacation hygiene.'"
One of the simplest things he recommends is imaging. Just take a few moments out of the workday to imagine yourself in whatever you think is an ideal place. Then relax, and allow your breathing and muscles to relax as your mind does. For a compulsive worker, says Manevitz, this sort of exercise improves the sense of flexibility. It also helps people learn to be "in the moment, meaning to be able to fully experience what you are doing at any given time, rather than being a participant observer who is thinking about what else you should be doing."
And of vital importance, Manevitz stresses, is planning a realistic vacation with realistic goals. Because workaholics often try to cover maximum ground whether working or playing ("All the capitals of Europe in a week? Sure!"), they often take vacations from which one needs a vacation to recover. Just don't do it. If you do, he explains, the vacation won't be the re-energizing experience it should.