tea and sunny window

It’s the end of the year. Do you know where your PTO is?

A few weeks ago I was lunching with a friend, another working parent running from pillar to post trying to make it look like being a mom of teens and a badass exec was the easiest thing in the world. We talked kids and jobs and family and eventually got around to how we were spending school breaks with our kids. I said that I was taking the week off between Christmas and New Years, but that I had to find a few other Fridays to take off so that I didn’t lose any in my company’s paid time off carry over rules.

“You’re so good,” she said. “I always lose time. I never take all my PTO and I don’t think I even know what my balance is.”

[cue record screetch, time seems to stop momentarily as I look at her in horror.]

I can tell you to the second decimal point how many hours I have banked at any given time, and I assumed that was normal (Apparently, it’s normal for overly analytical control freaks like me, and literally no one else.) But I couldn’t believe anyone wouldn’t take every last hour given to them.

After I left our lunch, I started asking other leaders in my circle about their PTO habits, and I found that my approach was more of an exception than the rule.  And frankly, that was a shocking realization.

Paid Time Off is YOUR time, and your time is money.

Paid time off is a part of your salary. Not taking it – or not knowing your balance is like saying that you don’t know – and don’t care – if your take home pay each month is $2500 or $25,000. The PTO your company grants you is real, actual money. Not taking it is leaving money on the table, literally.

This is especially true if your company has a policy that PTO has no real cash value. That means the only way you get to take that money is if you take your vacation days. Yes, if your company pays out for unused vacation when you leave the job, there is some real cash involved. But I’d wager that you’d be happier and healthier if you used those days along the way vs. getting a few hundred bucks when you leave. (Remember those pesky taxes? They are even worse for bonuses and payouts, which PTO payouts are usually considered).

Be strategic about how you spend your time.

Monetary value aside, this is your mental health we’re talking about, people. Some of those leaders I talked to shared that aside from taking trips with their families on school breaks and over the summer, they weren’t quite sure what to use them for, and that there was more demand for their time at work. Um, okay, sure. If that thought has crossed your mind, I’ll just leave a few ideas for you here.

Have a “clear the decks” day. Line up all the doctor appointments, hair cuts, waxes, colors, and car service appointments that keep falling to the bottom of your list. Be realistic about how much you can fit into a day and ensure you have sufficient buffer between appointments. Then charge up your (personal) laptop to work on your resume, your social media profiles, and all the other nagging items you know you SHOULD be attending to. Even better, leave the laptop at home and bring a good book and unplug for the day.

Clean closets with no one around. I don’t know about you, but nothing makes me crazier than the way the closets in my house deteriorate over the course of a year. But cleaning them with my packrat hubby and kids around is an exercise in futility. Send everyone to school and work, queue up some audio books or podcasts, and crank through the house with no one around. Bonus points if you do it in your pajamas or yoga pants and reward your hard work with a bath and cuppa tea before everyone comes home.

Have a staycation day. Go see a museum exhibit you’ve been meaning to see. Catch a movie your partner has no interest in. Schedule lunch with a friend (NOT one at the office. The one from across town who you never get to see because kids and traffic and meetings always make it too hard to find enough time.) Explore the city as though you were in from out of town.

Get your shopping done. I hate doing errands on weekends because everyone else is doing the same thing. And this time of year it’s even worse. But on a random Tuesday? Total bliss.  Imagine knocking off your holiday gifts AND your backlog of Target items all in a well planned day. The mental space you create will amaze you.

Do Nothing. Stay in your pajamas, binge watch Netflix, get the stack of magazines piling up at your bedside, put your warm socks on, and snuggle in and forget you have a job and a to do list and crazy family life for just one day.

This is your life, people. You only get one time around, so use your days wisely. Especially the days you’ve earned to be out of the office.


Jen S.

Jen Swanson (@jgswanson) a digitally curious designer of experiences, a mom, a wife, a reader, a gardener, a cook, and a little bit of a bad-ass. Professionally speaking, of course.

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