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8 ways to take a real holiday from the office

Are you taking vacation time at the end of this month? Good for you. According to a recent Expedia survey, most of us will fail to use two precious vacation days this year. Overall, that adds up to 226 million lost days, or $34.3 billion, left on the table by the U.S. workforce.

You've earned those days to recharge, regroup and spend time with your family before plunging into the new year. But to avoid getting constant emails, phone calls or even the dreaded call to come in, you'll want to prepare your office properly. Because holiday time should be spent sitting by a fire with hot cider in your hand (or perhaps on a beach with a margarita, depending on whether or not you're into the whole White Christmas thing). One place you should definitely not be? Sitting in your home office (or worse, in your cubicle) with your usual caffeinated brew.

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Follow these eight tips, and you'll be dreaming of sugarplums -- not work -- by the end of the month:

Think before you send. The day before you leave your office, be stingy with emails. Electronic messages are like boomerangs -- they come right back at you. "Typically for every email you send, you can expect double the responses in return (thank you, FW, RE, CC and BCC)," says Yahoo! Web Life Editor Heather Cabot.

Organize your office. "Spend a day tidying your desk so that co-workers can easily find important files or data," says Holly Bohn, creative director at See Jane Work. You should also make any active files accessible on your computer desktop, if there is a chance you'll want to ask someone else to retrieve them.

Thank those staying behind. Nancy Garberson is the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm and spends the holiday in Florida with her family. Each year, she lets her team know that she appreciates them holding down the fort before she leaves. "I always try to give them a bonus, which has been tough the last three years, but I've made it happen. I also write them a hand-written card and tell them why I appreciate them. Then, I make something little for them, like a candle, or something else handmade. I dress up in a Santa suit and hand-deliver them." Go out of your way to show you appreciate your staff, and they'll be more likely to go out of their way for you.

Take a tip from McDonald's. "One of the huge reasons McDonald's is so successful [is] because they have systems in place so that anyone can be put into place and it runs smoothly," says marketing strategist Eric Barton. Clearly outline the way to do things to simplify anything from invoicing to interviewing potential employees while you're away (and while there are more temps than usual filling in).

Leave an automatic to-do list. You'll probably already be leaving a "to-do" list for any staffers you manage while you're away. But make sure it gets done without you checking in with an automatic follow-up email to employees, through Outlook or another similar program, suggests Aprille Franks-Hunt, founder of Women Recharged. "That way you don't walk into a post-holiday mess upon your return," says Franks-Hunt.

Give everyone advance notice. Your colleagues and boss should know you're leaving, but give clients a heads up, too. "Change the answering machine, voicemail, hold music, and/or email line to say/read when the office will be closed or you will be out of town. This will give anyone working with you a few weeks notice on your absence so they can get anything they need you for done beforehand," says Tiffany Powell of Sapphire Bookkeeping & Accounting Inc.

Try a dry run. "Ask your team to operate as if you are on vacation for a couple of days. Then, hold a meeting after the dry run to see how it went. Discuss the obstacles and install procedures to address them," says Jordan Cohen of PA Consulting Group. Dry runs let you show your team (not just tell them) how to operate without you, and it gives them the confidence to follow through on the plans in place.

Don't check in. If you don't call or email to see if there is anything you need to know about, you won't get roped into something that can probably wait. If you've set up the proper systems, you shouldn't have to worry about missing something important. If there is an emergency, you'll get a call. Your team will follow suit: "Lead by example to create a culture where everyone takes a real vacation," says Brad Karsh, president of JB Training Solutions.