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Why you need a vacation


(MoneyWatch) My first professional job was in the corporate HR offices of a grocery store. While those of us in the corporate offices got regular holidays, like Christmas, Memorial Day and the 4th of July off as paid holidays, the stores only closed on Christmas. Otherwise, they were open -- some of them around the clock. Which meant that the work went on around the clock. While everyone, including store employees, got paid vacation time, the culture was such that you didn't take more than a few days at a time.

Next, I moved industries and landed in pharmaceuticals. This was a job where you couldn't get a good parking space if you got there after 7 a.m. because the scientists were always early. And while I loved this job and the company, I also learned that more than 5 days away got you labeled as a slacker. Of course you took your laptop on vacation and of course you answered emails and joined in to conference calls! Why wouldn't you? The world would come to an end if you didn't.

Then, four and a half years ago, my life changed dramatically. My husband accepted a job in Switzerland. I quit my corporate job and took up freelance writing in place of corporate life. The European vacation culture is very different than American culture. First of all, they have more vacation. Second, they use it. Our first summer here, my husband's boss took the entire month of July off. The whole month. He went scuba diving somewhere exotic. Did I mention, it was for a month? And he didn't even take his laptop. (He did take his Blackberry, so he did respond to emails from time to time.)

The craziest thing happened -- the company didn't fall apart. And furthermore, he wasn't the only person who did this. Lots of people did this. My husband started taking whole weeks off at a time. But, I, as a freelancer, don't get paid if I don't work and so work, I've written articles in hotel rooms and on trains. I've done interviews on cell phones late at night and early in the morning. And no matter what, I kept going.

And then, last year I decided that as long as I was going to live in Europe, I deserved a European length vacation, so I took a month off. No one died. My clients didn't drop me. And the craziest thing happened -- when I went back to writing, I did so with a lot of enthusiasm and some great new ideas. Writing every day for years had gotten to me and the break made me better at what I did. And it's not just my brain that benefited -- vacations are good for your physical health as well.

So, this July, I'm taking another vacation. While I'm not "vacationing" and am mostly taking kids to swimming lessons and going to the river, what I'm not doing is writing 6 articles a week. I will do some traveling, but mainly it's called, "not working." I wrote a few articles (this one included) in advance, but, for a month, my brain is getting a rest.

And it turns out, this is good for me, and for you. It's often during that "down time" that we have our best ideas. If we never get any down time, we don't get the ideas that can come during it.

Now, I'm sure many of you are saying, "Must be nice, but I don't get a month's vacation!" It's true, most Americans don't get four weeks, let alone be allowed to take four weeks at once. But, what Americans do have they don't use. Most will forfeit or roll over vacation days by the end of the year. And why? Some people don't because their bosses won't let them. But, others are convinced that the world will come to an end if they take a long weekend just because.

Your brain needs a break. So, take some time off. Make it a goal to use all the vacation time you have allotted each year. If you're a boss, encourage your employees to take some time off. It's good for you.

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