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5 guilt-free ways to make sure you use all your vacation

America, take a vacation! A new Oxford Economics report shows that Americans are only using 77 percent of their paid time off. It's gotten so bad that the number of unused vacation days has racked up to its highest level in 40 years. Workers say they're worried about being seen as the office slacker. And in a world of layoffs, they're also worried about keeping up with colleagues and bosses who don't take all their vacation days.

Vacation beach holiday vacation days
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Take planning your play just as seriously as you plan your work, says productivity trainer and Work to Live speaker Joe Robinson.

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"We don't plan our time off, we don't plan our leisure. We think the only thing that matters is performance and output," said Robinson. Ironically, research shows that workers who take breaks, whether 10 seconds on an assembly line or 10 days in Cabo, increase their overall productivity when they return. Reaction times can go up as much as 40 percent.

And for those who feel like taking a vacation is stealing from the company in some way, know this: Vacations weren't invented by employees. The vacation tradition was started in the 1920s and '30s by employers who found giving their workers a week or two off during the year increased overall productivity.

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Robinson offered these handy tips to workers:

Plan your vacations for the entire year in January

At the beginning of the year, discuss with others when the peak periods of work are. Figure out when everyone else is going to be gone. Plan your vacation days in the lulls between and give everyone as much notice as possible. "Then it's locked in and it's much harder to have it not happen," said Robinson.

Set up "I'll cover you" arrangements with co-workers

In Europe they have a strategy they call "cross-training" where various people you work with are trained in pieces of your work, and vice versa. That way everyone can cover for each other during vacation and sick days.

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Take a trip, not a guilt trip

Ignore any dirty looks you think you're getting, which are mainly just projected fear. "Guilt is just manipulation sent by other people," said Robinson. "I don't think living your life is anything to be embarrassed about."

Remember: Vacations make you a strong worker

"The body needs to replenish its mental resources," said Robinson. "If we stay in work mode, we never get to have those resources go up again."

Use 'em or lose 'em

Understandably, people who don't take all their vacation days act that way in part because they're worried about getting laid off — so-called "defensive overworking." But that's the wrong strategy.

"People need to realize that people who don't take vacations get laid off just as much as people who do," said Robinson. "It's your best time to live fully and freely."

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