Do This One Thing to Have a Livelier Year

Can I throw a wee little wrench into all the resolution planning you’ve been doing?
Oh good, thank you. I was worried you’d be a bit defensive about it.

Instead of planning all the things you’re going to do this year…all the ways you’re going to be on, can I aggressively, with teeth bared humbly and casually suggest you plan what you won’t do? When you’ll be off?

Literally.

I’m suggesting you plan your time off, rather than your time on.

I’m talking about your vacation. PTO. Days off. Holiday. Break. Annual leave, as they so quaintly call it in the UK—as in, Leave it All the F Behind Until I Clock Back In.

I won’t be waxing philosophic here on how much time we’re allotted each year, because I’m already worked up and don’t feel like getting extra pissy about PTO discrepancies between countries. No, this is a focused diatribe; this conversation is about what we do with however much time off is available to us—whether it’s paltry like the US average of 11 days off a year or generous like Bhutan at 30 days. But first…

Pop Quiz Time!

According to a 2023 study, what percent of US workers don’t take all their paid time off?

A) 5%
B) 23%
C) 46%
D) 89%

You’re right, the answer is C. We suck. Almost half of us leave unused vacation days on the table—and by extension of that, since I’m the Grim Reaper’s PR rep and am contractually obligated to mention him, almost half of us go to the grave with unused vacation days that aren’t worth shit in the afterlife.

Research reveals that 49% of the worker bees who forfeit their PTO worry they might fall behind at work if they took more time off. This is a problem, sure. But do you know what’s a potentially bigger problem? 52% of the PTO-skippers don’t feel they need to take more time off. Should we all pause in a moment of horror together? It’s one thing (a horrible thing, to be clear) to not feel comfortable taking a vacation because of an avalanche-size workload…and it’s another (searingly more horrifying, to be clear) thing to not take vacation because we think we don’t need it.

Why do so many of us think we don’t need time off?

  • Have we been brainwashed by The Man? Possible, but not probable—even for those working in “Hustle Harder” tech startups.
  • Do we love our work so much that taking a week off in Cabo seems downright off-putting? Yeah right. Some of us love our work, but employee engagement research is clear most of us are trying not to stab our eyes out on the job; nearly six in 10 employees are quiet eye-stabbing quitting. Also, who doesn’t want to frolic around Cabo for a week?
  • Are we that out to lunch on the research-backed virtues of time off on our well-being? People in white lab coats have proven it: we salivate with anticipation before we go away, our health and well-being tends to spike while we’re on vacation (especially if we participate in physical activities), and then the high plummets after we return (known as “vacation fade-out”—evidence that one great sojourn won’t buy us happiness for long).
  • Are we suffering from a failure of imagination? Oh geez, this is what I think is really happening. When we take less and less time off work it can get harder and harder to fathom how to spend a day here and a week there, when we do step off the treadmill. Our inspiration diminishes when we’re myopically focused on the go-go-go, doesn’t it? People who take liberal amounts of PTO identify as “time taker-offers” and have plans waiting in the wings for their next long weekend, their next winter break, their next sabbatical. It’s simple physics: a body on vacation tends to be ready for more vacation. A body at work tends to look at time off like a deer in headlights.

I don’t presume to know what everyone needs (that’s not true, I think we all need to maximize our remaining Mondays on the planet and I’m quite rabid in my effort to convince you of the same), so if you don’t want to take your “x” weeks of PTO a year, you do you! (*Please know that I’m eyeing you suspiciously*) Could you jack up your joy aliveness if you even took an extra day or two off this year?

I struggle with taking time off because I enjoy work and I have a borderline-unhealthy relationship with productivity. But I know I need to work on pausing and reframing what it means to unplug (“it’s okay to take an afternoon off and read by the pool—my self-worth won’t drown in the deep end if I’m not Taking Care of Business for these three hours”). Might you need to adjust your narrative about what taking time off means to you/ says about you from the outside looking in?

Getting deliberate with our time off ensures we experience more of life.

Novelty is an essential ingredient in a life well-lived. We need that sense of newness to feel inspired, spark curiosity, expand our perspectives, feel gratitude, to FEEL ALIVE.

Taking PTO off helps us feel autonomous with how we spend our time. “Will I spend the day in bed or go to the beach? It’s up to me!” “Will I go away this holiday weekend or hunker down at home for a self-care extravaganza?”

Not every PTO experience needs to be a week away on a far-flung island; sometimes a day at a local museum is the best way to recharge and feel invigorated. Oodles of time and cash are not necessarily required to enjoy time off.

Retired? Entrepreneur? You’re the boss of your life and time—woo hoo! Except this isn’t always so woo hoo, is it? Sometimes being the master of your own time makes you more susceptible to squandering it because you think you’ll “take time off” or “book that trip” later. People in charge of their own time often need to carve “off time” with more discipline and intention than salaried or hourly employees. Might you need to plot and plan your days/ weeks off, too, just like your friends slogging at a job-with-a-boss?

Inspiring ways to take PTO that don’t involve flying to Fiji:

  • Sabbatical: oh this one’s the dream…the dream you absolutely can plan for and make happen with enough notice. Imagine two months off to tour the Amalfi Coast? Imagine three months off to get that book started? Imagine four months off to take an executive education program and come back to work even more engaged?
  • Week or two off: the classic. If you always book a week off and feel like your blood pressure is only starting to stabilize after day six, might you consider a two-week block of time off to really regroup?
  • Staycation: I know, I know—you killed the Staycay in Covid. But it can still be a cheap and cheerful way to stay close to home and live with width. Why not act like a tourist in your own town? Plan out the meals and activities and neighborhoods you’d like to spend time in, lest your five days off just become a totally un-special week full of housework and stupid errands.
  • Daycation: my new favorite! Plan a day trip, just to spice life up. Fly/ train/ drive somewhere interesting + new first thing in the morning, and take a late flight/ train / drive home that night. It’s a blast to plop yourself in a different state/ city/ town for lunch and then go to bed thinking, “holy cow—we had burgers in Boston today!”.
  • Mental health day: unplanned breaks are important, hopefully when you’re not already at the breaking point. Remember that when you’re feeling on the verge of burnout, it’s better to bow out for an inconvenient day than push through and then need a week-long crispy-fried recovery mission.
  • Long weekend: three days off in a row is 560% better than the two day weekend, right? Hot tip: try to orchestrate a Monday off instead of a Friday and see how much more you love your life.
  • Half-day: never underestimate a morning or afternoon off! As long as you’ve planned something to feel like it’s “time off” and not just a mindless four or five hours, it can put the spring in your step you didn’t know you needed. How about sleeping in, having breakfast in bed, and going to a 10am yoga class…BEFORE going to work? Or how about working all morning and then going to a 1pm matinee followed by whatever the hell you want afterwards?
  • The extenda-vaca: I always forget this one. Let’s say you’re having a blast on your trip, and you think, “I’m just not ready to go back yet.” What if you didn’t go back yet? What if you arranged for another day or two, to extend your fun (and well-being)? Most people won’t get fired for taking an extra Monday off. If you run your own business, it likely won’t fold because you went snorkeling for one more day. It doesn’t always work, but it might be an option on your next trip?

Vacation calendarIt’s all too easy to let our lives get narrow, which is understandable when Work and Chores and Kids and Life Takes Over. Can I encourage us to widen our lives with as many non-working experiences as possible? With days and weeks and months out of the office? Life will pass us by if we let it. No one proactively blocks our vacations and time off for us. Your boss won’t, HR won’t, your doctor won’t, and chances are your loved ones won’t. We need to take a stand for our vitality…we need to give ourselves a fighting chance to live the astonishing lives we long for. Sit down, open up your calendar, and block off every single day that’s owed to you…every single Monday you possibly can.

And can I suggest you set your email out of office message up while you’re out (which hardly anyone does anymore, because we’ve all got one eye open on our inboxes during PTO)? We’d love to know when you’re living it up out there, living like you mean it…because then we might, too.

Jodi Wellman

P.S.: Check out (okay, and maybe preorder 12 copies of) my upcoming book, You Only Die Once: How to Make It to the End with No Regrets! (Or just one preordered copy will do. That’d be nice.)

P.P.S.: Let’s do Instagram together!

P.P.P.S.: Oh and just in case you missed it… I’d love you forever if you took 16 minutes out of your life to watch my TEDx talk!

 

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