There's nothing like stepping out of the office for a few days or even a week over the holidays to recharge and and check some much-needed tasks off your to-do list... that is, until your vacation is up and you realize you didn't do any of those things.

Taking some time off from work is critical to prevent burnout, and stress-related illnesses. But it's also a great excuse to pick up a creative project you never have time for, or keep yourself feeling mentally sharp. Whether you have one week or one day off, here's how to schedule your holiday break so that you come back feeling refreshed. 

1. Don't let the things you need to do outweigh the things you want to do.

"The key consideration is to have realistic ideas of things you would like to do during that time," says time management expert Laura Vanderkam, and author of I Know How She Does It. Vanderkam says when faced with some time off, people will often fill their to-do list  solely with long overdue tasks--fixing the bathroom sink, finally cleaning the garage--rather than things they want to do. 

"The problem with having these long to-do lists is that you're not able to complete them and then you feel bad, but you'll just watch a lot of TV you didn't mean to watch," says Vanderkam.

Instead, Vanderkam suggests finding some balance. Make a small to-do list of three to five things that you know you want to spend your vacation doing--maybe it's getting drinks with a friend you haven't been able to see in months, or finally checking out that new art exhibit.

2. Add in a few activities that don't require much mental stimulation.

Even if your holiday schedule is packed to the brim with family visits and dinner parties, it's critical that you squeeze in some down time for your brain. According to Scientific American, many of the qualities associated with high-performing employees--they're creative, focused, motivated--depend heavily on one's brain being well-rested.

Since so much workplace anxiety comes from struggling to meet deadlines on time, it's ideal to let your brain rest by participating in some low-stimulation activities  that allow you to focus on the moment. Try meditation, for starters. Countless studies tout the long-term benefits of meditation--improved focus, sharper memory, etc. But a 2014 study from Cornell University found a person can reduce his or her stress levels after just 25 minutes of meditation each day for three days--making it an ideal relaxation activity for a long weekend. 

Picking up an adult coloring book also has similar effects, because it's an event that has "predictable results," according to Medical Daily.  You can let your mind wander, rather than stress about how to finish the task. 

Finally, going for a walk in nature has equally restorative effects on the brain. A July study from researchers at Stanford University found that people who took a 90-minute walk along  a quiet, tree-lined path reported that they felt less anxious afterwards than people who took a 90-minute walk along a busy highway. 

3. Make time for an activity that works your brain in a different way than your 9 to 5 job does.

There's a reason why getting gifts over the holidays makes us feel good--and it's not necessarily because we like feeling appreciated. A number of studies suggest that exposure to new items and experiences makes us more motivated. Exposure to novelty triggers an increase in dopamine levels in the brain, which associates higher dopamine levels with a pleasurable sensation. The brain then knows that something good is about to happen, creating a cyclical effect in which we're more motivated to seek out new experiences.

So test out a recipe, listen to the latest episode of Serial, go ice skating. It's easy to get caught up in a monotonous routine during the work week, which is why a vacation is a great time to pick up new activities that will help your brain recharge.

Published on: Dec 24, 2015