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August Is Secretly the Best Month to Get Things Done

Save your precious vacation time. Late summer slow days are perfect for "deep work."

August is the wrong time to take a vacation. Yes, yes, we know, the French get a decadent month-long vacation during August, an incredible luxury that nobody would turn down. But this is America, where almost a quarter of workers get no paid vacation. Even if we wanted to skip work during the dog days of summer, most of us couldn't do it. U.S. workers, on average, get just around two weeks of paid time off, according to a 2013 analysis by the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Given this scarcity, there's no reason to waste precious days off during the best month to work.

The office is pleasant during summer's last, sticky, hot, gasping breath. "Casual" is how one Bloomberg editor described it. "It's August," he said over our office chat. "Anything goes." 

Business typically slows down during the summer. Congress this year scheduled a break from July 15 until Sept. 6. Accountants have little to count. The markets (usuallyslow down, too. Many people feel comfortable asking for and taking a vacation when there's less work to be done. According to one survey, 40 percent of workers take some time off in August.

The smart worker, however, comes into the office on days when everyone else has checked out. With little to do, it's like being on vacation without having to count it as a vacation day. Nobody will notice if you waltz in at 10 a.m., sneak out before 5 p.m, and do nothing but watch the Olympics while you're there. It's chill. 

Not that one would want to sit around and do absolutely nothing for seven hours. That would be boring and guilt-inducing. Luckily, August is secretly the best time to get things done. The lack of work (and people) makes it a good time to do "deep work," to use a term coined by Georgetown professor Cal Newport. The rest of the year, when the office is running at full steam, we're plagued with what Newport calls "shallow work"—such things as e-mail and meetings that we must do as part of our jobs but that don't contribute to the meat of our tasks. Shallow work is a necessary evil, but it's distracting and reviled. With fewer people in the office, this annoying work goes away, freeing up time to dig into more stimulating or long-term projects. 

In fact, working during August provides a competitive advantage, a leg up on the vacationing sheep. Trunk Club, for one, used August to get ahead. "It's one of the most important months of the year," Brian Spaly, its chief executive officer, wrote on LinkedIn in 2013. "Quite simply, we are stacking the deck for a huge autumn selling season. And we are doubling down when our competitors are checking out. We have over 200 team members now, but only two are on vacation this week." Clearly, the strategy worked. Nordstrom bought the men's subscription retail service for $350 million in 2014.

This isn't a case for leaving vacation days on the table, something too many Americans do. One survey, commissioned by the U.S. Travel Association, estimated that U.S. workers forgo five vacation days a year. Don't do that. Take your days. Countless studies have found that taking breaks improves productivity. You also deserve a vacation, even if it doesn't enhance in-office performance. But use those precious few vacation days wisely. Head to the beach the first week of September. It's cheaper, and everyone feeling the post-vacation blues back in the office will wish they were you. 

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