How I take time off in an “unlimited” PTO world

Unlimited PTO can be a double-edged sword. Have you ever worked at a company where PTO was discouraged? The landscape has changed dramatically over the last 20 years. When I started my career, most companies had “sick time” separate from “vacation time”. Vacation had to be approved in advanced. And the concept of a mental health day was nonexistent (at the companies I worked at).

Unlimited PTO is becoming more and more common in the tech scene. I’ve found it difficult to know when I should and should not take PTO. These are guidelines for how I take PTO. I encourage all of my employees to take the time they need, when they need it. Life is too short to be stressed or burnt out.

always take PTO when I need a mental health day.

always take PTO if I’m sick or if I need to deal with a physical health issue. Within reason —  I’m fine to power through some minor cough (as long I’m working from home and not getting others sick), but nobody needs to be a hero when you’re too sick to focus.

try to avoid taking PTO on some critical day (e.g., big launch of a new feature).

strongly avoid the notion of “I’ll wait until after this critical project”. Because everything can become/feel like a critical project. I’ve had previous jobs where there was a lot of pressure from leadership on each project, and the “critical” projects never ended. And then I’m burnt out and overstressed. Life is too short.

used to feel a lot of anxiety about setting up my team for success before taking PTO. That turned into me rarely taking PTO because “I’ve got to finish one more thing”. I would high anxiety about letting down my team.

personally prefer more frequent, short PTOs (e.g., 1 day) rather than fewer large PTOs (e.g. 1 week).

aim for ~4-5 weeks of PTO a year, but I am not a stickler for the exact number. 4-5 weeks is commensurate with SaaS companies who have fixed PTO. If I’m crushing it, I don’t feel guilty about taking more PTO. If I’m behind, I may take less to get caught up.

really enjoyed half days of PTO, or even 3/4 days. e.g.., I’ll take 2 half days in a row. I can pop in for a little bit, stay caught up, but then completely check out the rest of the day. This helps me not come back feeling behind. This is not for everyone, but it really works well for some people (for example, Enneagram Type 3s, which is roughly ~11% of the population, including me).

What are your thoughts? How do you take PTO? What should companies do, and what should they avoid?

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