26 Years of PTO: Musings on Vacation Time

Nothing like being on a career break to make a gal think about the importance of vacations. Consider for a moment the typical American vacation package of two weeks per year. Along with handful of holidays, things like Christmas and Labor Day, two weeks is seen as fairly standard. By the time we get back to California, this Propane Kitchen trip will be one full year in length. Meted out in two-week increments, that’s 26 year’s worth of vacation time. If I’d taken some kind of advance vacation time loan, I would need to work nonstop until I was 59 years old in order to repay all this leisure time. And only then would I get another two weeks off. Rather a grim thought, isn’t it?

What’s worse, the work-work-work mentality is often self-inflicted. When I left Annie’s, I cashed out five weeks of vacation time. I’d like to say that was part of a master plan – save up vacation to give this trip a financial boost – but while that was nice, it wasn’t a conscious choice. Even taking into consideration Annie’s generous benefits policy that was nearly two year’s worth of PTO. That’s MY fault. When I did take time it was usually of the long weekend variety. I told myself it made me feel like I got more vacations, but actually I was cheating myself of real relaxation, and my employer of my freshest thinking. Was I a better employee because I kept working? Was I more efficient? Did checking in on my BlackBerry every weekend make help me manage my workload? Probably not. Studies have shown employees who take real vacations are more innovative, productive and happy. (See articles in Inside Science, Business Week and USA Today.)

Some of the most valued traits – creativity, uniqueness, problem-solving skills –need mental space.  Just as our brains need time to arrive at imaginative solutions, they need time to settle into relaxation. That’s why a long weekend just can’t provide the same benefit as a week-long vacation. We’re not problem-solving calculators; our unconscious forms connections and chips away at issues.

As I understand it, our brains are bit more like cluttered desks than neat filing cabinets. There are bits of information stored in may different areas – a pile of memories stacked next to notes about the latest Farm Bill, a list of US Presidents you memorized in 6th grade and several song lyrics you didn’t realize you knew until you’re singing along to the radio. Given a little time, the research assistant of the Unconscious can create some fantastic connections with all this information. But it’s not going to happen when you’re sitting at a desk staring at Outlook email. I’d like to know where the iPhone was conceived, or Twitter or the first solar panel. I’m willing to guess these ideas weren’t formulated while someone was sitting in a cubicle.

When we tell people about our trip, almost everyone gets a wistful expression or says something about how they wish they could do the same thing. I realize how incredibly lucky we are.Vacations of this magnitude aren’t possible for everyone. I do wonder, though, how each of us can take more breaks? How many of us let vacation time pile up, postponing a trip until after that next project? Or check in on work emails throughout each evening and weekend? Soon enough I’ll be back in the ranks of the fully employed, and I want to make sure I take real breaks. What are your tips for disconnecting and recharging? How do you give importance to personal time?

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