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Last year, California native Jessica Waggoner relocated to Chicago to take a job as an environmental consultant. And for the next seven months she worked hard — almost every single day. “I only took one sick day that whole time,” Waggoner, 30, recalls. By the end of her first Chicago winter, she was burned out.

Desperate for a break, she took a Friday off and decided to spend the day doing nothing but exploring the city. “I fell in love with Chicago that day,” she says. “When I got back to work Monday morning, I couldn’t believe how much happier and more energized I felt. One perfect day off made all the difference.”

If you can’t remember the last time you spent a full 24 hours liberated from the daily grind of work, errands and chores, you’re not alone. According to Lois Backon of the New York City–based Families and Work Institute, nearly a third of Americans each year use their vacation time for decidedly nonleisure activities — everything from attending to household responsibilities to taking care of ailing relatives, or even working another job. Unfortunately, such pseudo-breaks don’t really deliver the downtime we need for true rest and recovery.

A better approach, as Waggoner discovered, is to take a total hiatus not just from work, but from the daily grind of responsibility. Even if it’s a single day, a break that represents a total furlough from any kind of duty can be enough to recharge your batteries and reinvigorate your passion for living.

The challenge is in allowing yourself to truly unplug — no work email, no household chores — and enjoy an “Ultimate Day Off” in the name of fun, leisure and recreation.

Make Your Day

What constitutes a great day devoted to play? Here’s a guide to building your ultimate day off:

Have a plan. “An ultimate day off of work should feed your soul and your creativity. It should involve doing something that you love but never seem to have the time for,” advises Karen Leland, author of Time Management in an Instant: 60 Ways to Make the Most of Your Day.

Decide in advance what experiences you want to plan the day around. Because if you don’t have a plan, you’re likely to fritter away time doing household chores, running errands or watching TV. Let’s face it: A day-trip to the beach or museum just won’t appear on your do-it-now radar screen the way a reality show or pile of unfolded laundry will. So plot out a loose agenda, or at least a wish list for what you want to do.

“Be intentional in what you do and how you prepare,” advises Leland. “Set parameters and plans, just like you would for a longer vacation.”

Set boundaries. If you’re out of the office, but always checking your BlackBerry, you’re really still working. It’s the same if your coworkers don’t know you’re “out of pocket” for the day and they continue to call and email, expecting a prompt response. Make sure your workplace knows about your day off in advance, and set the auto responder on your email. Then, when the big day arrives, put your laptop to sleep and turn off your BlackBerry — or, better yet, leave it at home.

Embrace the new. The most enjoyable and memorable experiences are marked by their novelty, says psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. “My research finds it’s important to have variety and change in your life,” she explains. “After a while, the activities you once enjoyed no longer deliver the same boost. It’s called ‘hedonic adaptation,’ and you can avoid it by breaking routine.”

Choose experiences over stuff. Certain activities deliver more lasting emotional returns than others. “Research shows that experiences make us happier than possessions do,” says Lyubomirsky. “So if you’re going to spend money on your ultimate day off, stick to experiences like time with friends, fine food and wine, traveling somewhere unique, getting a massage.”

Classes or other educational opportunities also fall into the “experience” category. Sign up for a one-time cooking class or try out a Pilates class at the gym.

Make someone else’s day. Devoting part of your ultimate day off to service can also provide lasting rewards. “It may feel counterintuitive, as if you’re not spending this time on yourself,” Lyubomirsky admits. “But it’s kind of a double whammy, because studies show that helping the community-at-large makes people happier and might have a restorative function, too.”

Take time to reflect. Memorable experiences inspire reflection — a behavior that researchers say can increase enjoyment levels. “Savoring and reminiscing, what researchers refer to as ‘the rosy glow of recollection,’ can be happiness inducing,” explains Lyubomirsky. “So anything you can do to create lasting memories on your ultimate day off — whether it’s taking photos, or mementos, journaling or just making a point to recount the day with others — will enhance your experience.”

Make It Count

However you spend your day, Backon says, the important thing is to take your time off, and then thoroughly enjoy it.

“Fifty-nine percent of Americans say they don’t have enough time for themselves,” she points out. Even higher percentages say they feel they don’t have enough time for their spouses (61 percent ) or their children (75 percent). That’s daunting, she acknowledges, but it underscores just how important it is for each of us to consciously balance our need to get things done with our equally important need to embrace a life of meaning, joy and satisfaction.

“That’s why this concept of the ultimate day off — a short period to nurture yourself and rejuvenate — is so inspired,” she says. A single, great day can help you reconnect with your own best sense of what life is all about.

Eliza Sarasohn is editor in chief of the women’s travel Web site and author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Organic Living (Penguin 2009).

Seize the Day!

Unsure how to spend your ultimate day off? Here are some suggestions:

Explore New Horizons
Stepping outside your usual routines creates a surge of excitement and the possibility of new discoveries. Instead of hitting your usual coffee shop, try out a place with a totally different vibe (and crowd). If you’re connecting with friends, suggest an untried meeting spot and a new activity to do together.

Play Tourist in Your Own Town
Visiting a local museum, monument or festival can be the perfect way to create lasting memories, says Karen Leland, author of Time Management in an Instant: 60 Ways to Make the Most of Your Day. “We rarely take the time to visit the local attractions in our own area,” she notes. Doing so can help us “channel the feeling of traveling without the hassle of the plane or the train.”

Visit a State Park or Nature Reserve
On weekdays, most parks are quiet, giving you an opportunity to enjoy natural beauty and a break from the madding crowd. Enjoy having that oxygen-rich air all to yourself.

Take a Class
Learning something new can make your day more memorable and rewarding. Check the schedules for local cooking schools, yoga studios, arts centers or community-ed resources.

Make It a Group Project
Consider including your partner or entire family in your ultimate day off. Sharing a stress-free day with your loved ones can deepen your connections in surprising ways.

This article originally appeared as “The Ultimate Day Off” in the March 2010 issue of Experience Life.

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