When was the last time you took a vacation? Not a long weekend, but a true break from the office and the other stresses of your daily life.
With summer right around the corner, beach towels and sun block should be the first things on your mind — but chances are, they probably aren't. Why? Because Americans seem to be on a vacation vacation. Despite all the technology we have at our disposals — offering more ways than ever to stay in touch with the office when we're out and about — the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics reports Americans leave about 574 million vacation days on the table each year. That's about four per person — which is not only higher than its ever been before, but huge considering that, on average, most of us only have about 14 paid vacation days a year. Want to remedy the situation? The Families and Work Institute says that in order to fully recharge your batteries, you need to go away for at least three days; a full week is even better. I'd add that no matter how long you're gone, to truly get the full benefit of your time off you need to give the cell phone and PDA a little rest as well. I'm not suggesting it's an easy thing to do. A week off has the potential to leave you feeling even more stressed, especially if you return to a big pile of projects and unreturned messages. The key to a successful and relaxing break is to smooth out any rough edges before you leave the office, so you can return feeling refreshed, not overwhelmed. Here's how. Stop feeling guiltyNot only do you deserve to use those days to your full advantage, but your boss will likely benefit from giving you the time off as well. A vacation can actually increase your productivity once you return to the office, especially if you've been repeatedly denying yourself breaks. Without taking a breather once in a while, your mind can sort of turn to mush, and all of your projects start running together. If you feel like you've hit this kind of roadblock, you need to decompress. In other words: Do it for your job. "Besides the good old fashioned reason that you'll have more energy and feel more refreshed, a break will give you a different perspective," says Rosemary Haefner, vice president of human resources at Careerbuilder.com. You'll return brimming with creativity. Spread the wordLet everyone you interact with on even a semi-regular basis know well in advance that you're going to be out of pocket for a while. That could mean clients, co-workers or both — and of course, it goes without saying that you should include your boss on this list. Be clear about exactly how accessible you'll be by e-mail and phone. Then, set up an out of office automatic reply on your e-mail, and record a new outgoing message on your voicemail. Both should clearly state when you're going to return, and who should be contacted in your place if something comes up that just can't wait. You should also make sure you tie up the loose ends on any projects you're currently working on, if only so you don't think about them constantly. The bottom line is to get ahead of the game before you take off. "If you come back from work and things are not in crisis mode, it's easier to hold on to your vacation mindset," advised Caitlin Friedman, co-author of the "Girls Guide" business book series. The idea is to stay stress-free for as long as possible. Enlist the services of your co-workers
If you have an assistant, make sure he or she is prepared to keep track of your mail and any messages that come in — this person can even keep tabs on your e-mail if it makes you feel better. If you don't, it's probably not a good idea to ask colleagues to open your mail. But you could ask one or two to sub for you with clients or on projects. "One of the first things that I would recommend is to take some time and cross train a few people. It doesn't have to be overly elaborate, but just give them some basic information," said Haefner. Make sure to fill them in on where your files are and any passwords they may need, and leave written notes if possible. Then, return the favor when it's their turn for a break. Set limits
If you have to check your e-mail while you're gone — and I understand that sometimes, you just can't relax until you do — at least try to scale back a little. Laying on the beach with your PDA in hand isn't exactly what I'd call a break. Instead, decide to check it once a day, at a set time that works for your schedule, said Friedman. Look your messages over only long enough to reassure yourself that there aren't any dire emergencies that need your immediate attention. We all like to think of ourselves as indispensable, but the truth is, most of your inbox won't require a response before your return. Still, by checking in once in a while, you'll rid yourself of any lingering guilt so you can let your mind slip back into vacation-mode. Use the same method for voicemail.Build catch-up time into your calendar
Obviously, it's not a good idea to take a 9 a.m. meeting on your first morning back in the office. But how long will you really need to catch up? Be realistic, said Haefner, and allow at least a few hours, maybe even a day, to take care of anything that came up while you were gone. Think about it — you'll probably spend at least half an hour making your co-workers jealous with all the details of your trip.
With reporting by Arielle McGowen.
Jean Chatzky is an editor-at-large at Money magazine and serves as AOL's official Money Coach. She is the personal finance editor for NBC's "Today Show" and is also a columnist for Life magazine. She is the author of four books, including "Pay It Down! From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day" (Portfolio, 2004). To find out more, visit her Web site, .