Obviously you’re excited for winter break. We don’t blame you. We’re excited too. Personally, I’ve got all kinds of killer plans, most of which involve sleeping late and binge-watching superhero shows on Netflix. In other words, I’ll be using this time to compensate for the rally-car velocity of my everyday life.
If at all possible, I’d like to spend a few stretches of time doing so little that somebody puts a mirror under my nose just to make sure I’m still breathing. I think I’ve earned that, and so have you.
During your mid-semester break, may I advise finding some time to achieve a state of sedentary relaxation so deep as to almost resemble meditation? I promise, it will feel glorious … at least at first.
At first, it will be replenishing, rejuvenating, even energizing — that is, until it feels stagnant, and pathetic, and inexorably bound to result in bed sores. At this point, you are officially vacationing too hard. Get up, dust the cookie crumbs from your pajamas, and remind yourself that at some point soon you will have to return to real life, hard work, and unflinching normalcy.
… Not that you shouldn’t continue to enjoy your vacation. We’re not suggesting you should waste your precious free seconds counting toward your return like the Doomsday Clock is dangling over your head. We’re just saying the off-season is short. You need to stay limber for the next time you take the field.
If you’re not feeling the sports analogy, I’ll say it plainly: after a week of clogging your arteries with buttery goodness, numbing your brain with insipid holiday music, and contorting your face into a polite but emotionally-repressed smile every time you get a crummy gift, you’ll be primed to return to your studies with the intellectual readiness of a honey-glazed ham.
That’s the funny thing about vacation. You’ll never feel more exhausted or run down than the first day back from time off. So without sleeting all over your winter break, allow me to offer just a few tips for staying sharp even as the dull strains of Johnny Mathis waft through your house.
None of this is mandatory (obviously I have no authority over how you spend your vacation, or any other second of your life for that matter), but if you keep a few of these tips handy over winter break, there’s a chance you’ll be more than just a quivering mass of seasonal jello mold on your first day back to class.
1. Read Something Longer Than a Tweet
Your brain is a muscle. Okay, it’s not actually a muscle, it’s an organ. But stick with me or the analogy doesn’t work. Like any muscle, the brain needs constant stretching. Even if you don’t plan to run a marathon, it’s a good idea to go for a light jog. So during your vacation, read something to engage your senses, preferably something that has nothing to do with your studies, your courses, or your assigned reading. Dive into current events and read a few investigative articles. Pore over a few periodicals — ideally those containing more words than ad space. Or you could go the old-fashioned route by curling up with a good paperback (do people really “curl up” with books?). We’re not sticklers for how you get your vacation reading in, but it should be something that actually grabs your candy-addled attention span and channels it for longer than a few minutes. In other words, your Twitter feed doesn’t count. I don’t care if they did expand from 140 to 280 words per tweet. Find something with which you can actually become absorbed and tote it with you wherever you go in the event that a quiet holiday moment should strike.
2. Try Learning a New Skill
Every time you experience something new, or practice a new set of skills, you open new neural pathwys between the brain and body. Get those synapses firing by attempting something you’ve never tried before. Maybe you always wanted to learn culinary knife skills. Perhaps you’ve seen dagger-throwing on television and it’s something you’d like to try. Maybe you’ve always wanted to master cutlery honing and maintenance, but you never had the time.
I mean, obviously, your chosen activity doesn’t have to involve knives at all. (For some reason, that’s all I came up with). Anyway, it could be almost anything. Take a piano lesson. Dissect an old computer. Write that Downton Abbey fanfic novel that’s been burning a hole in your brain. This is an opportunity to engage in an enriching activity with low stakes. You’re really doing it for the opportunity to experience something, not necessarily to produce something. If, in the end, your Downton Abbey fan-fiction novel becomes one of the great pieces of Western literature, to one day be studied in classrooms graced by your portrait, that’s a total bonus. For now, just do something for the love of engagement.
3. Game Competitively
Getting a group together for a few games is a really excellent way to find out which one of your friends is a competitive jerk with really serious anger-management issues. More importantly, it’s a great way to keep your brain in problem-solving mode. I’m kind of traditional in this regard. I like a game of Trivial Pursuit, or Scrabble with just enough rule deviations to allow for the occasional insertion of humorous profanity. Those are my house-rules. You might play differently.
Anyway, whether you prefer head-to-head backgammon, epic Stranger Things-level Dungeons & Dragons, or a night of Texas Hold ‘Em with your closest buds, get a few friends together, come up with a game, and get the gears turning in your head.
If you’re an advanced board-gamer looking for a real challenge, we’d advise checking out these Twenty Board Games To Challenge Your Skills.
4. Let’s Get Physical
Doctors say you should get your heart rate up for at least twenty minutes every day. This is one thing from which there’s no vacation. The connection between your level of physical activeness and your mental acuity is well established. Sedentary behavior slows everything down, including the speed and clarity with which you process information. In other words, if you do plan to veg out in front of the TV watching National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation — and we strongly advise that you do — be sure you’re in the right mental state to get the jokes. (Randy Quaid’s performance in particular is best enjoyed through the eye of a seasoned literatus).
So make sure you get in a jog, a morning stretch, or an afternoon lift on most days of your vacation before eventually hitting the couch. And because it’s your time off, we’ll look the other way if you miss a day or two due to eggnog-related complications.
5. Write Thank You Notes
I know, I know. Thank you notes are such a stupid waste of paper and postage. It’s not that you aren’t appreciative. It’s just that there are more efficient ways to express your appreciation these days. They didn’t have digitally transmissible heart emojis back when the concept of the thank you note was invented.
And guess what, it doesn’t matter to your Great Aunt Hortence that they have textable heart emojis now. Unless she gets a thank you note in the mail from you, she has no way of knowing whether or not you received your gift, how much you appreciated it, or which commemorative stamp you chose at the post office for the one time you had to actually drop something in the mail in like three years.
Point is, you have to write thank you notes. The generations that came before you simply expect it. Lucky for you, any time is a good time to sharpen your writing tools. Think of every thank you note as an opportunity to keep your compositional skills handy. Granted, most thank you notes are nothing to write home about (sorry), but that doesn’t mean you have to be limited by the medium. Use this intimate, handwritten note to tell your Great Aunt Hortence how much she means to you, how thoughtful her gift was and how it represents something greater and more profound in the relationship that you two have shared across generations. Or just slap together some empty boilerplate sentiment about your gratitude and make sure the grammar, diction, spelling, and punctuation are perfect.
I can’t tell you how to feel about Aunt Hortence. But your thank you notes may represent the most writing you’ll do between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Use it as a way to keep your pen moving. It’ll be a lot less rusty when you dive into the first essay of the upcoming semester.
6. Get Your House in Order
There are probably all kinds of projects staring you in the face, from the loose cabinet fixture in your kitchen to that gross sludgy deposit behind the washing machine. And there are all kinds of everyday chores in-between, the ones that tend to fall by the wayside as you blitz through your finals on the way to vacation. These things are a source of distraction, and they may detract from the working environment that you’ve created for yourself.
Use vacation time to reconsider the layout of your workspace, to attack projects long demanding your attention, to give your living space a major cleaning — and possibly a makeover. In addition to creating a better and more optimal work environment, the act of strategically engaging your space will infuse the coming return to work and study with some anticipation, possibly even excitement.
7. Stay Plugged into Current Events
You may be living in a sugar plum fantasy, but events in the real world persist outside of your sweet little vacation bubble. Remain aware of these experiences. I can’t tell you that today’s political discourse is bursting with wit and intellect. I’m not going to lie to you and I certainly won’t patronize you. (I just respect you too darn much.)
But one of the best ways to stay focused during vacation is to follow the news items moving life around you, from policy actions and international conflicts, to major weather events, and important artistic achievements. Sometimes, this kind of attentiveness can pay off in opportunity, from the chance to dialogue constructively about policy to the inspiration to make a charitable donation in the face of tragedy. As long as we’re on the topic, valid and seasoned news outlets only, please. Those that peddle in conspiracy theories do not enhance your connection to the real world. They magnify your remoteness. Fact-checking is, as it happens, another great way to remain sharp.
8. Get Out and About
Travel, day-trip, or simply take long probing strolls in your own neighborhood (just stay off your neighbor’s lawn). Few things enliven your brain like a change of scenery. The cool thing is, you don’t necessarily have to hop on a plane to do it. If you plan to hop on a plane, that’s great. Obviously, that really increases the number of places you can go during your vacation. But if you’re generally staying close to home, all kinds of undiscovered adventures lie within a car, bus, or train ride’s distance. Maybe there’s an amazing Christmas Village an hour away, or a cool micro-brewery that does weekday tours, or a cheerful Main Street town in the next state. Or maybe there’s just a spot in your neck of the woods where the neighbors put on competing holiday light displays. Whatever draws your interest, bundle up in some warm, fleecy clothes and get out of the house. Then, when you’re done getting your stimulation, come home and wrap your frozen digits around a warm mug of something.
9. Get a Jump on Next Semester
I know you’re not trying to think about this right now. You’re solidly in the throes of your vacation and the last thing you want on your mind is the chilly reality of that early January day on the not-too-distant horizon. But your subconscious knows it’s there. It nags at you, reminding you that you ought not to get too comfortable with this life of ease. Part of that nagging sensation is the lack of clarity. You’ll have a new schedule. New professors. New syllabi. All of that uncertainty can be super-stressful, even if you are trying your hardest to suppress it. The best thing we can suggest is to take a moment sometime in the midst of your vacation to peek at your upcoming courses. Familiarize yourself with your schedule. Read up on your instructors at Rate My Professors. Maybe set up a few calendar alerts that include the location of your classes during your first week back. Fill in the uncertainty with the information you have at your disposal. Bringing some clarity to the upcoming semester may help to remove a bit of that impending dread.
The only cure for the rest of that dread is to truly and deeply indulge in your winter break. Once you’ve finished familiarizing yourself with the upcoming semester, file that information away in your brain and get back to stuffing your face, watching the same exact movies you watch every year at this time, and delighting in the warmth of friends and family.
Wishing you good cheer and warmth as the temperature dips.