How Summer Vacation Can Drive Us To Succeed

A study on motivation and perception reveals a powerful truth for how leaders can use summer vacation breaks to motivate the best in their employees.

Of all the seasons of the year, summer is without question my favourite and no month encapsulates that summertime feeling more than the month of July. Not only is this the first full month where my girls are officially off-school, but this month also marks the return of one of my favourite summer festivals here in Montreal, the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal (if you haven’t attended this festival, this is definitely something to experience, whether you’re a Jazz fan or not).

Of course, the month of July also marks the beginning of the summer vacation period, and so it’s only natural that there’s much interest right now in exploring the topic of leadership and summer vacation.

While I’ve written in the past about why it’s important for leaders to make time for a vacation break, I wanted to shift the focus in this piece to look at the findings of a recent study that offers some valuable insights into how we can increase our motivation to achieve our shared goals when we return back to work following a vacation break.

Researchers from The Wharton School have been studying what they call the “fresh-start effect” and the impact this has on our motivational drive to achieve the goals we set up for ourselves. As part of their study published in “Psychological Science”, Dr. Katherine Milkman and her team of researchers conducted an experiment where they asked study participants to describe a personal goal they haven’t yet achieved but would like to attain later in the year.

The researchers then divided the participants into two groups and gave each one a different scenario to imagine. For the first group, the researchers asked them to imagine that they had moved into a new apartment after living in the same place for the past nine years.

For the second group, they also asked them to imagine moving into a new apartment, but in their case the scenario was that they had moved every year over the past nine years.

The participants in both groups were then asked to describe how motivated they were to begin work on achieving their goal after moving into this new apartment. What the researchers found was that the study participants who had moved into a new apartment after staying in the same place for nine years were far more motivated to achieve their goal than those who had moved every year.

The researchers concluded that study participants “would be more motivated to start tackling their personal goal after a psychologically meaningful relocation than they would be after a relocation that was less psychologically meaningful.”

So what does this study’s findings have to do with increasing our motivation to achieve our goals after returning from a vacation break? Well, as the researchers pointed out, while all of us are driven to achieve our goals and to do work that matters, “the perceived meaningfulness of a temporal landmark (e.g., a relocation, a desk move, a birthday) can inspire people to engage in an unrelated cause (e.g., being on time, quitting smoking).”

In other words, by changing how we view a return to work from being simply a return to the regular work routine to instead being a ‘fresh-start’ to take on those goals we set up for ourselves and our team, we can actually increase our motivational drive to achieve these goals.

It also reinforces an important point I’ve written about in past articles: that a sense of meaning at work motivates people to challenge themselves to press ahead to succeed [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter].

Perhaps most importantly for today’s leaders, how we view the return to work from a vacation break can also have a significant impact on how our employees approach their first day back on the job from their summer vacation.

In this same study, the researchers did an experiment where they put study participants into two groups. For the first group, they told them that many people find the start of a new year to be very meaningful and then asked them to write three to five reasons why they felt the start of a new year was personally meaningful.

For the second group, they told them that many people saw the start of a new year to be just like any other day and asked this group to write three to five reasons why the start of a new year would feel ordinary to them.

Both groups were then provided with a number of resources to help them to achieve their goals and were tracked to measure their level of interest in learning how to successfully attain their goals.

The group that had been told that most people view the start of a new year as personally meaningful were far more engaged in wanting to learn more about how they could succeed at goal achievement than those who were told that New Year’s Day is just another day of the year.

What this part of the study reveals is that as leaders, how we view our return to work can have a significant impact on our employees’ motivation to achieve their goals. Specifically, that rather than seeing the end of their vacation period as a return to their old work-routines, leaders can help their employees to view this as an opportunity for new beginnings; as a chance to approach our work and contributions from a fresh-perspective.

After all, the reason why we go on vacation is not simply to get a break from the work routine; it’s also an opportunity for us to relax, unwind and reignite our drive to bring our best selves to the work we do.

It’s also why so many of us return to work feeling refreshed and reinvigorated – that break taps into that “fresh-change effect” where we not only have that feeling of doing something that’s personally meaningful, but we’re driven by that renewed motivation to successfully achieve our goals. Of knowing all those hours of hard work allowed us to have this time with family and ourselves to unwind and enjoy our lives.

Of course, the reality of today’s faster-paced, rush to-get-things-done work environment often washes away those feelings within days, extinguishing any internal drive we might have to approach our work with a new sense of resolve and determination.

But that’s why I wanted to share this study’s findings – to demonstrate that the choice is ours to make of when to create those new beginnings that will motivate us to succeed [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter].

As leaders, the question is not if, but when we will see new opportunities on our horizon; of finding moments where we can fuel the drives of our employees to bring their native talents, creativity, and experiences to the work they do.

Indeed, it’s up to us to encourage our employees to challenge what is, in favour of what could be [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter]. It’s that very outlook which has been the driving force behind so many of today’s technological advancements that we now take for granted as being a part of our everyday lives.

These achievements came about because the people who visualized their potential to change the world did so from the vantage point of seeing that there were new doors of possibilities to open. Of new beginnings that would lead to undiscovered opportunities for learning, growth, and change.

Studies have found that when we travel to new locales and visit different cultures, our minds become more open to seeking out new ideas – be it new foods and experiences, or new outlooks on how to see and understand the world around us.

Those kinds of insights we gain while being on vacation can prove to be invaluable for our organization’s growth and development, but it can be difficult to tap into unless we help our employees – and ourselves – to view that eventual return to work as not being the end of a vacation break, but a new beginning towards achieving the shared goals that bind our collective efforts together.

That’s why we should never lose sight of the fact that as leaders, we have the ability to create conditions that bring out the best in those we lead [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter]. And this is exactly what it means to lead by example – that you show those under your care that we don’t have to wait for the start of a new year or new quarter for us to find that inspiration, that drive to begin anew.

In reading this study, I was reminded of the fact that as humans, we don’t experience our lives in a linear fashion like what we would find in a history book. Instead, we rely on the events or moments we’ve experienced to help us chart our lives and put into context what we’ve endured. Of when things were good, when things started to go bad, and when we felt we were driven to do our best.

But the work of these researchers also reveals the fact that the perception of those moments is not limited to the rear view mirror in our mind’s eye – of how we choose to recall a particular event or conversation. Rather, the ability to shift our perception and change the way we see things is something we’re also capable of doing both in the here and now as well as looking ahead.

So while many of us are now eagerly awaiting the start of our vacation period, it’s my hope that in sharing the findings from this study that you’re also inspired to view your return to work as a new beginning. As an opportunity to reignite your drive to succeed in achieving your goals.

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Tanveer Naseer is an award-winning and internationally-acclaimed leadership writer and keynote speaker. He is also the Principal and Founder of Tanveer Naseer Leadership, a leadership coaching firm that works with executives and managers to help them develop practical leadership and team-building competencies to guide organizational growth and development. Tanveer’s writings and insights on leadership and workplace interactions have been featured in a number of prominent media and organization publications, including Forbes, Fast Company, Inc Magazine, Canada’s national newspaper “The Globe and Mail”, The Economist Executive Education Navigator, and the Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center.

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