Pass the chocolate hearts–Valentine's Day is almost upon us! After the winter holidays, it's a competitor with Mother's Day and Halloween for second place among the holidays when Americans spend the most. This year, we'll fork over $20 billion on candy, flowers, small gifts and those luxury cars wrapped in bows and hearts that miraculously turn up in the driveways of delighted women in the television commercials.

But this Valentine's Day, why not try something else? Give the gift of time. The day falls on a Sunday so take the whole day to be with people you love, whether family or friends. Give them chocolates if you wish, but also, a walk in the park, a snowshoe hike through the woods, a stroll on the beach, or coffee in a café. Volunteer to help give the homeless a happy Valentine's Day. Reach out and touch someone. That's what it's about.


And even if you're too late for this Valentine's Day, start thinking about taking a vacation around this time of year next year. Make a commitment to share a week or more with loved ones. It may be fun for you, but it's anything but selfish. It means giving of your time to those you care about. And when you go, leave the office alone–no non-emergency emails or cell phone calls.

February is actually a good time to take time off–not that summer isn't–because you can go to great places with lower airfare costs and smaller crowds, except in the tropics or south of the Equator.

Last year, at this time, my wife and I spent a great week in Tuscany and Umbria. I was lucky–my airfare and our first two nights' hotel were covered by the Tuscan government, which invited me to speak in Florence at a conference on Quality of Life. You can imagine my surprise when I got the invitation!

I told the audience that I felt like I had just been asked to teach Tiger Woods to play golf! After all, the Tuscans invented quality of life. But I wasn't about to let that offer slip away.

While I was conferencing (two days), my wife enjoyed the Duomo and Michelangelo's David sans crowds. Then we explored Florence without lines at the galleries, and went on (using inexpensive reliable public transit) to Medieval San Gimignano, and to Siena and Assisi, the city of St. Francis, which wanted to be sure we knew who the current Pope is and who he named himself for. The weather was brisk–in the 50s and a mix of sun and rain–so time basking at the outdoor cafes was limited. But it was comfortable for sightseeing and hotels were much cheaper than normal.


So this time of year is an excellent time to take a vacation or think about it. If you get one that is–and nearly 30% of Americans don't. Not at all.

On the other hand, I want to congratulate the leaders who give the time and encourage their employees to take it. Not just the unlimited vacation companies like Netflix (these are something of a mixed bag–some managers pile on too much work and employees get even less vacation than they used to–so you need to also have a minimum that you require employees to take), but the good folks like Full Contact and Evernote, who even pay their employees to take the time off and insist that they not check in with the office.

I know it's not a one-way street: employees have to be sure to take their time as well, and too many don't. MasterCard has been on a big push to reduce the vacation days their employees leave on the table, but has only been able to lower them from 4.2 per year to around three and a half. Our culture has to get over the idea that time off is a luxury and only for slackers.

The evidence is clear. A Nielsen poll, conducted for vacation leader Diamond Resorts International® found that vacationers are nearly twice as likely to report being happy, healthy and satisfied with their jobs than non-vacationers. Other studies show important value in reducing heart disease and depression.

Vacations do cost money so this gift of time isn't free like a walk in the park. But study after study shows shared experiences like vacations bring more long-term satisfaction than consumer goods do. Think of them as an investment in your health and happiness.

And just a tip: don't try to do too much on your vacation. Give yourself a chance to relax; it's the only way to cure or prevent job burnout. Don't try to see everything or spend all your time snapping photos. Give yourself up to your surroundings. Meet local people. Leave time for the unexpected conversation in a café or the beautiful walk you never knew about till you got there. And this year in particular, consider spending time in parks: it's the Centennial of the National Park Service.

So for Valentine's Day, give the gift of time instead of stuff. Make a commitment before March 31, which is Vacation Commitment Day, to take some time off and share it with loved ones. Oh, and plan a vacation to Seattle in August! It's beautiful here then and Take Back Your Time is holding a national Work-Leisure Balance and Vacation Commitment Summit August 25-27, including a day trip to beautiful Mt. Rainier National Park. LINK

Finally, print and cut out the coupon below and give it to a friend or family member you like enough to share some real time with on Valentine's Day!

Remember, there's no present like the time!