NEW YORK (MONEY Magazine) -
Which would you rather have: more time off or a $5,000 raise? When the folks at Salary.com first posed this question in 2001, 33 percent of respondents said they'd want more time. The rest said, "Show me the money."
But when the Web site asked again last year, the number of people opting for time off had jumped by 20 percent.
What we say and what we do, however, are two entirely different things. Many of us -- professionals in particular -- don't even take the time that's officially coming to us from our employers, let alone press our bosses for more.
Take vacation days, for instance. According to a survey by Expedia.com, working Americans last year forfeited an average of three vacation days, up from two in 2003.
Even when companies try to make it easier to take vacations, many people can't bring themselves to go. At the Kellen Co., an association management firm, 52 out of 138 employees ponied up last year when they were invited to buy extra vacation days. By the end of the year, though, almost three-quarters had asked for refunds.
What's the deal? "I think the planets need to be aligned for me to take a vacation," says Holly Koenig, a vice president at Kellen with 17 years' tenure who doesn't buy extra vacation days because she never uses the time she already has coming. "How can I get away when I've got so much work to do?"
Koenig is certainly not alone in this feeling. The waves of layoffs that have rocked the economy during the past four years or so have left fewer people to shoulder the same amount of work.
The thought of the bulging inbox that awaits one's return from a few days out of the office is enough to make people like Koenig vacation-shy. And when they do grab even a 48-hour breather, they often fudge the fact that they're out of the office with "away" e-mail messages that avoid the v-word like the plague.
In fact, Bill Coleman, Salary.com's senior vice president of compensation, says he doesn't believe more vacation is really what people are looking for.
"What they want is a break," he says. "They're saying, 'I'm sick of running from event to event, of trying to get one last thing done at work before dropping Timmy at soccer and Julie at basketball, then rushing home to my wife so I can see if she looks the same as the last time I saw her.'"
I agree. And I believe that getting that break is possible -- if you can get yourself to take the following few steps.
Stop measuring productivity in hours
"I didn't leave work until 4 a.m. last night," my friend Heidi said recently, wearing her tenacity like a badge of honor. If you're going to try to take back some personal time, that sort of unconscious one-upmanship has to stop.
Why? Because you want people to focus on the end result of your work, not on the road you took to get there. And the only one able to redirect their focus is you.
So make it a point instead to talk about your accomplishments. If asked what time you left the office last night, give the best answer: "When I was done."
Get a life
Before I had my first child, I used to routinely work until 7:30 or 8 at night, obsessing over the drafts of my stories and schmoozing with colleagues. But after Jake was born, I left the office by 5:30, even though I was writing just as many stories.
And despite a lack of time to obsess, my drafts were cleaner. What made the difference? I wanted so much to go home that I stepped up the pace.
Executive coach Laura Berman Fortgang, author of "Now What? 90 Days to a New Life Direction," notes, "People are typically more productive in less time than in more."
The key is having a compelling reason that pushes you out the door on time. Make dinner reservations, sign up for a yoga class, make a movie date with your kids. You'll be amazed at how much more efficiently you accomplish your work when you're truly motivated to do so.
Turn off the technology
"Our 24/7 life is out of control," says Mary Lou Quinlan, author of "Time Off for Good Behavior." Instead of using technology to help you work around the clock, use it to train colleagues and clients to understand that you're sometimes not working.
Start with an away message on your e-mail that says you'll be unreachable after 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. one night a week. Do the same with your voice mail. Use both messages to tell people precisely when you'll be back in touch.
Once they see that you keep your word, they'll feel more comfortable letting you have some downtime.
Use business trips to regroup
Kellen's Koenig was in Atlanta recently on business when her colleagues rallied for drinks at the end of the day. Koenig passed. "I was in a hotel with one of those Heavenly Beds. There were so many movies I hadn't seen. To me it was a mini-vacation."
You may also want to think about tacking a few days of leisure on to the end of a business trip. That way the company picks up your air fare.
Make your schedule flexible
Sometimes the answer is as simple as working from home occasionally. You gain more time when you lose the commute, get more done when you're not caught up in meetings and office gossip and can use your lunch hour to run a few errands.
I routinely write from home one or two days a week, and my bosses know that the loyalty that comes with granting flexibility is well worth any mild inconvenience to them.
The key is to make visible the fact that you're really working while you're out of sight: Send e-mails as needed, and respond promptly to the ones you get; call colleagues, and answer quickly when they call you; try to accomplish a specific task or two that show you were incredibly productive that day.
Ask your company to help
I do believe that the onus is on you to take time off and make it work. But companies should be helping. Managers need to understand that when employees get a break, they come back with more brain cells charged than when they work all the time.
So my challenge to employers everywhere is to follow in the footsteps of Ernst & Young. Two years ago the consulting firm launched a campaign strongly discouraging employees from e-mailing co-workers on the weekends, except in an emergency. It may not be a week at a spa, but it's a start.
No excuses: Squelch that inner nag and take a real vacation
Vacations are not only good for the soul, your family, your marriage...they're good for your health too. Studies show that women who take at least two vacations a year are 50 percent less likely to develop heart disease than those who go rarely or not at all; men cut their risk by 30 percent.
So, go, go! And don't let any of these three excuses keep you in the office.
"I'll come back to 400 e-mails." You probably will, if you don't let people know that you'll be out of the office until a particular date. A carefully crafted "away" message will take care of the problem.
"They can't function without me." As soon as you've firmed up your plans, let your colleagues know. Then, a month before you leave -- a week is not enough -- ask everyone on your team: What do you need from me before I go?
"I'll lose my [choose one] job, promotion, status." This is the fear lurking behind all those other excuses: that your bosses will find out they can, in fact, function without you. Keep telling yourself you'll come back so energized that you'll be an even bigger star -- or star-to-be -- than you were before you left. You'll find that it is actually true.
Editor-at-large Jean Chatzky appears regularly on NBC's Today. Contact her by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.