I remember when I first entered the full time working world, I was clueless about how to best use vacation, and I followed the herd like the good young sheep I was. Here in the U.S. the annual average is a measly 13 days (Compared to Italy’s 42 and France’s 37): a pittance if you include time-off needed for weddings, complicated mid-week errands, parole violations and the odd humdinger of a hangover. Yet somehow more than 1/3rd of Americans don’t use all their vacation each year. Yikes.
Over the years, like a blackjack player timing his double-downs, I learned which vacation days earned the most bang for the buck, and which were stinkers: it’s not rocket science, but hey, I cherish all the nuggets I know. And now that I’m self-employed all that knowledge is going to waste, so here it is.
In a nutshell: The week between Christmas and New Years, is the worst time to use vacation. It’s when everyone else is on holiday, turning even the most stressful workplaces into calm zones of highly independent and low interruption work time. Spending your vacation dollars to avoid a paid vacation in the office, is the worst bet in the vacation world: sometimes it’s a forced bet, as family plans force your hand, but it’s still a lousy value.
The ideal time to use vacation is when there is peak value, in your own psychology, for escape (say when you feel creative burnout). This rarely coincides with what everyone else is doing (or in the above case, is the exact opposite of what everyone else is doing), as weekend trips with friends or sports team schedules put heavy emphasis on using Fridays and Mondays, regardless of when it is you need relief.
For awhile I found choosing periodic Wednesdays or Thursdays, every few months, was the best possible value for a spare vacation day: like a happy hour martini, they provided a dose of relief at the peak of a stress, and neatly divide up the working life into more manageable pieces. Catching a matinee, having a late breakfast and wandering my favorite bookstore, going for a short hike, or shopping in the calm of a mid-week crowd, were all low key, super mellow, high value vacation days.
Taken to an extreme, this strategy falls apart: it’d be a mistake to take vacation only at stressful events, or to dodge your responsibilities (“Hey boss, are you ready to present at tomorrow’s BillG review?”, “Oh, didn’t I tell you? I’m off tomorrow: it’s all yours”). The goal isn’t to avoid hard work, it’s to maximize the value of time off so you’re of most use when you are actually there.
Consider these factors:
- When do you need stress relief the most?
- Are you, your friends, or your family, driving the use of your vacation days?
- When are other people at work on vacation or away, calming the workplace?
- Can you offset your own schedule, arriving at work before/after your coworkers, to make each morning a semi-vacation, free of interruptions or high stress?
- Can you make part of your daily schedule include time at the gym, the bar, the coffeeshop, or with friends, breaking up every day with some kind of psychological reprieve?
- If work is really so unpleasant that you don’t have enough vacation to survive, perhaps it’s not the vacation that’s the problem, but the job itself.
So what tips and tricks for maximizing vacation days do you know?