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Yes, all that paid vacation time you’re getting and not using. It’s piled up like a stack of unread newspapers (remember those?), and now it’s December and there’s no way—at least in your mind—that you’ll be able to take the time away from the office.

Stop that. Stop it right now.

I’m the poster child for vacations. Last year I used up all of my paid time off (PTO) offered by my employer and even took five days of unpaid vacation. Yes, I have direct reports and yes, I have a great deal of responsibility at the office, but I still take the time to get away to unplug from work and point my brain in a different direction. Studies have documented that when we take time away from the office we are much more creative people in problem solving and, quite frankly, better at our jobs. According to the study by Scientific American:

“Why giving our brains a break now and then is so important has become increasingly clear in a diverse collection of new studies investigating: the habits of office workers and the daily routines of extraordinary musicians and athletes; the benefits of vacation, meditation and time spent in parks, gardens and other peaceful outdoor spaces; and how napping, unwinding while awake and perhaps the mere act of blinking can sharpen the mind.”

If I feel like I’m going to die on vacation then I’m not thinking about the office

It’s true. As an avid global birder and scuba diver I tend to choose adventurous vacations where my mind is focused on things completely unrelated to work–things like staying alive. I’m the type that if I sit on a beach my mind will wander right back to work issues, but if I’m trudging in the rain on a boardwalk over swamps in the Amazon with anaconda lurking in the waters then I channel my energy and focus on making sure I live.

Of course, that’s extreme and a bit of humor to make my point, but it’s important to disengage from the office whether it’s to connect with your family, clear your mind or to simply stay alive. For the same reason that we look to hire people who are well-rounded and have a broad scope of experiences, we should look to make sure employees are continually engaging in things outside of the office and beyond the scroll of emails in their inbox.

It’s part of your total compensation package

I know many who freelance or work as contractors or consultants and they don’t get “paid vacation.” They would love it if someone was depositing a paycheck into their bank account while they hiked the Andes, went on a cruise through the Panama Canal or visited Pompeii. But you? You who draws a salary and was rewarded weeks of vacation has decided to not use it? You may have even negotiated more paid vacation as part of your offer, which makes not using it even more baffling. By not taking vacation you’ve essentially turned into a volunteer for your organization. Just think of it this way: Rather than volunteering to build water wells in Africa for a week, you’re showing up at the office to answer email and attend meetings.

The office doesn’t need you that much

I get it. You think you’re indispensable. It’s okay to feel that way. In fact, I realize that the higher one goes up the chain in the organization it does, indeed, become more and more difficult to take vacation, especially in very large organizations. You’re a “work martyr” and according to the Travel Effect website, the U.S. Travel Association’s research-driven initiative that researches the positive effects of taking earned time off, you’re not gaining anything by being the good soldier.  In fact, Travel Effect’s article titled, All Work, No Pay: The Impact of Forfeited Time Off the author references a new study by Oxford Economics, which states,

“…there is no link between putting in more time at the office and getting a pay raise or bonus. In fact, employees who left 11-15 days of PTO unused last year are actually less likely (6.5% less likely) to have received a raise or bonus in the past three years than those who used all of their PTO.

“The only thing employees gain by being tied to the office is stress. There was a clear correlation between those who have more unused PTO days and those who reported feeling “very” or “extremely” stressed at work, particularly for those employees who leave more than 11 days unused. “

It’s about planning and imagination

The people I see take vacation are those who plan. If you don’t plan for a trip or vacation you won’t likely take it and then you find yourself at the end of the year holding weeks of PTO, which you either walk away from or you end up taking time off to stay at home and end up working anyway.

The other factor in making sure you take your PTO is to be imaginative. This means do something. Don’t just hang out at home. I see this happen too much–a person decides to just take the week off with really no plans at all and then he ends up at the office. “Oh, I was just too busy so I moved my time off to next month,” he says, and you know what? He never takes the time. Or worse, I’ve seen people schedule time and then say, “Hey, text me or call me if you have any problems,” and then they find themselves attending conference calls and checking their emails every day.”

Whether it’s around your children’s school breaks, or a spouse’s schedule, or just your own desires, plan your time off. Don’t just schedule what days you’ll be out but what you will be doing. Be imaginative. I’ve been known to plan my next vacation while I’m on vacation. Always have plans in the queue. It’s a cliché, but create a bucket list and don’t let anything stop you from achieving it. If you can’t afford to travel away, staying at home is fine, but just don’t tell people in the office you’ll be around. Take notes from Alastair Humphreys’ book, Microadventures, which includes inspiration and ideas for adventures that are short, cheap and take you out of your comfort zone—and more importantly—out of the office.

So do it. Take your vacation. Make plans for 2015 and make them stick. See the world, not your office. Take a break from email. Spend time with loved ones. Recharge. You will have stress in your life, no doubt, but it’s not sustainable without a break. Find a purpose that’s more than your work and take that PTO and focus on that, and as a result you’ll see your contributions at work explode with richness and purpose.

“To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the purpose of life.” 
― James Thurber (from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty)