Learning How to Take Time Off

With Memorial Day coming up, I hope you — and I — will dedicate some time over the weekend to reflect on and give thanks for those who gave their lives for the freedoms we enjoy. And if your employer gives you a day off, I hope you take it.

We Americans are good at many things, but taking time off isn’t one of them. In part, that’s because we simply don’t get much paid time off. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, out of 21 wealthy countries, the U.S. is the only one that does not require employers to provide paid vacation time.

Of course, most employers do provide some paid time off. However, according to research from an organization called Project: Time Off, more than 55% of American workers do not take all of the vacation days available to them.

Out of sight, out of a job?

Some people fear that if they take a vacation they may return to find someone else doing their job or a mountain of work that has built up in their absence. But there’s something more at work here. We all know people who talk about how busy they are as if it’s a badge of honor. Surveys have shown that we Americans take more of our identity and satisfaction from our work than people from other countries.

There’s something in the American culture that affirms hard work and dismisses taking too much time off as something only unambitious people do—messages famously amplified by a 2014 Cadillac commercial. Do you remember this?

Why do we work so hard? For what? For this (showing a large swimming pool in the back yard)? For stuff? Other countries, they work, they stroll home, they stop by the cafe, they take August off. Off! Why aren’t you like that? Why aren’t we like that?

Because we’re crazy, driven, hard-working believers, that’s why. Those other countries think we’re nuts. Whatever. Were the Wright Brothers insane? Bill Gates, Les Paul, Ali? Were we nuts when we pointed to the moon? That’s right, we went up there and you know what we got? Bored. So we left. Got a car up there and we left the keys in it, do you know why? Because we’re the only ones going back up there, that’s why.

But I digress. You work hard, you create your own luck, and you gotta believe anything is possible. As for all the stuff. That’s the upside of only taking two weeks off in August. N’est-ce pas?

The commercial was very controversial (Mission accomplished, Cadillac!). Some people were appalled. Others said, “Darn right!”

Bottom line? Even when we do take time away from the office, many of us still work, missing out on opportunities to recharge and make memories with our family and friends.

A work in progress

When I was self-employed, I had an especially tough time completely unplugging from my work. What helped was putting vacation activities on a to-do list so I could check them off as accomplishments. “Blueberry picking with the family.” Check. “Afternoon at the beach.” Check. Not ideal, I realize, but it helped me.

After joining Sound Mind Investing as a salaried employee in 2012, I found it surprising that no one was checking the blog over the weekend and responding to comments. Now I realize that’s a good thing. It’s healthy to draw some boundaries around work time and family time. I’m better at it now, but it’s still a work in progress.

How to leave your work at the office

Work/life balance experts say if you have a tough time disengaging from your work, try structuring your vacation around not working. Leave your laptop at home or intentionally choose a vacation spot with a bad or non-existent Internet connection. As with other goals, it helps to make a commitment and tell someone else about it, asking them to help hold you accountable.

While you’re planning your Memorial Day weekend, start thinking ahead toward any vacation time you have planned for this summer while you’re at it, and see if you can arrange to truly take a work-free vacation. You’ll be healthier and happier, and your family will be happier as well. And guess what? When you get back to the office, you’ll be even more productive.

What have you found helpful in disengaging from your work during vacations?

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2 Responses to Learning How to Take Time Off

  1. Jon May 17, 2017 at 8:49 AM #

    I use every vacation day given to me because if you don’t, you are essentially working for free on the days you don’t use. When we go on vacation, I leave my laptop at home and only check my phone late in the day but more importantly, I use my other vacation days one day at a time to go on field trips, attend kids school sporting events, etc. Using them one day at a time allows for work not to pile up but gets me a break away from work and let’s us be with our kids on days that matter to them the most.

    • Matt Bell May 17, 2017 at 2:06 PM #

      That’s a great point about working for free on days that could have otherwise been vacation days, Jon. And I like the idea of spreading your vacation days out so that work doesn’t pile up. I will say, though, that the one time in my life that I took two weeks off was amazing. Paid a bit of a price for it when I got back to the office, but it was worth it.

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