You’ve Earned Your Time — Take It.

Looking out over Machu Picchu

I just got back from taking five weeks off from my day job. For Americans, that is a lot of time.

Researchers have consistently found that Americans don’t take time off, even when it is part of their compensation package. Paid time off is typically relinquished, overshadowed by perceived pressure and deadlines. Even as so many leading companies market their progressive workplace culture, unlimited time-off and a work-life balance, Americans still work longer hours than the majority of our international counterparts.

Why is this?

It’s in our culture to spend a certain number of hours working. We are surrounded by colleagues who revel in their workaholic tendencies and it can be really hard not to get caught up in this mindset.

I had a unique situation that afforded 10+ weeks of paid time off and I absolutely knew I was with this opportunity.

Many of my colleagues were in the same position, and as the year progressed, the general reaction to this benefit was actually one of bafflement. How could we, or even who would want to, take so much time off?

Huh?

I am a certified yoga teacher, and I am always looking for ways to further my education in the philosophy and science of this ancient practice. This is a purely personal endeavor; teaching yoga is not that important to me, but deepening my practice is something that I hold near and dear to my soul. So here I sat, with all of this time to take and a personal passion tugging at my heart.

I work for a leading software company that on all fronts would support and encourage this proposed adventure. A company that is proud of the balanced culture it fosters for employees’ health, families and community. We have beanbags instead of chairs, an organic café, ping pong tables and spinning classes. I had all of the ammunition I needed; I was successful, well respected and in senior management, and I had the time off accrued.

So why was I still so nervous to ask for five weeks of time off?

Because I was worried that it would be construed as a lack of commitment to my career. And this perceived lack of commitment would impede my career path.

Even with all of the amenities that support balance and encourage “life,” not just “work,” there is still an immense amount of pressure to prioritize your career and job above other aspects of your life. Why else would asking for a break be so daunting? This pressure is unrelenting, and it’s silent. I can’t imagine the emotional confusion parents have to go through.

I broached this time-off request with my boss back in March. And to reiterate, I was nervous. It didn’t help that my initial request was met with a deflated “oh.” So I retreated. I didn’t bring it up for another two months. I debated bringing it up again, but as the weeks went by, this desire to take advantage of a personal learning opportunity continued to tug at my heart.

So I continued to talk about it. I outlined how tasks would be delegated and created communication paths to mitigate any escalations should they arise in my absence. Doing this made the request seem normal. What was once met with apprehension was now met with support and even excitement. My colleagues were genuinely happy for me. And I could see the wheels in their heads turning — how could they make a personal opportunity happen for themselves?

When I came back, I was asked, “How was it?” first and, “Is it hard to come back?” second.

My answers were a consistent “amazing” and “no,” in that order.

Coming back from time off is notoriously hard. But this time, coming back wasn’t hard; I came back with space in my head and space in my heart. I felt a renewed connection to my friends, my community and my job. Because of this, I feel creative and energetic and I’m applying this energy to my company and my job.

In actuality, the time away had the exact opposite effect of what I originally feared. This time strengthened my commitment to my company and my colleagues. I had a renewed sense of connection with my company, leadership structure and co-workers.

It’s easy to say, “If something is tugging at your heart, make it happen.” But the reality is that this can be hard, due to various circumstances. Traveling abroad for an extended amount of time just may not be a possibility. What I will say, though, is that life is meant to be lived, and this definition doesn’t have to be extravagant, extreme or even that far off your norm.

Find out what balance and rest mean for you. I almost didn’t make this happen because I was caught up in my own perceptions of what I should do and what others would think.

Americans need to not just rest but rejuvenate as well. And we need keep talking about how balance may have different meanings to different people. Balance and rest have the potential to makes us better and more creative, productive & positive.

So my message is just this: Don’t create your own boundaries. The only person that is going to take care of yourself is you, and when you take care of yourself, everyone around you will benefit.