Once upon a time, the concept of a sabbatical was the privileged domain of pastors, physicians, and academics. After a period of intense teaching and ministering, institutions would offer these employees paid sabbaticals as an opportunity for rest, personal enrichment, and professional development.
Over the last ten years, sabbaticals have become more widespread and commonplace. More and more businesses from finance to healthcare to tech are offering paid and unpaid sabbaticals to their employees as corporate incentives, wellness perks, and antidotes to employee burnout.
COVID has prompted many in the workforce to step back, reconsider and realign the foundational values upon which they build their lives and careers. The question of how to remain physically healthy, mentally well, and creatively engaged among the chaos and busyness of modern-day life is a salient one, and many workers are using sabbaticals to rejuvenate themselves and to explore their own answers to these questions.
I took my first sabbatical in 2009; it was more of a necessity than a choice. At the time I was teaching elementary school in Hawai’i. I was working long hours for very little pay and racking up debt. I was young, deeply invested in my students, had little sense of or skill in boundary setting, and was always “on.”
Given the demands and stakes of my job, I had no time for hobbies and little energy to invest in social connections and intimate partnerships. While I was doing work I believed in and was good at, I was also perpetually exhausted. My body was breaking down. My mind was constantly ruminating and unable to rest; my spirit felt malnourished. One day, I found myself laying on the floor of my apartment, cheek pressed to the tile, thinking “I can’t do this for the next six decades of my life.” And that’s when I decided to take a sabbatical.
At the time I didn’t call it a “sabbatical”; I called it “a trip to figure out my life and get my shit together,” and it took the form of a three-month road trip up and down the East Coast. I had very little money at the time, so I gave up my apartment, stored my belongings at a friend’s place, and took a job teaching summer school in Atlanta. The school district I worked for paid for my flight to the Mainland, as well as my summer housing, and I ate toast all summer to save up enough money to rent a car and buy a tent. Come August, I teed up Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now on my rental car’s CD player and packed myself, my journal, and a stack of books that amounted to at least a dozen courses in psychology and mysticism into a little red Ford Focus and started driving. My two major design constraints: live cheaply and don’t allow yourself to plan anything more than a day in advance.
Three months and over three thousand miles later, I turned in the keys to my rental car at the Atlanta airport and boarded a plane back home to Hawai’i feeling more clear, confident, and self-assured than I ever had before.
This first sabbatical remains one of the richest periods of personal growth and transformation I’ve experienced to date, and, in retrospect, I can see how much ground was cleared in my life as a result of it and how many seeds were planted within me back then that have since matured into ways of being and doing which animate how I live my life today.
My 2009 sabbatical was where I first made contact with the sound of my own inner voice. It’s where I first began to grapple with my childhood trauma, decouple my self-worth from the expectations and perceptions of others, unwind my relationship with busyness, and consciously articulate my boundaries and values. It’s where I first encountered the idea of presence and realized how very far away I was from truly inhabiting my own life. It’s where I first realized how much I love teaching and coaching and began to consider what it might mean for me to build a life that centers my gifts and passions.
Now, decades later, I’ve built sabbaticals into the fabric of my life. I’ve come to see periods of rest and exploration as critical to my mental and physical well-being and to my personal and professional evolution. Regular sabbaticals are part of how I learn, grow, and remain in an active dialogue with life and with my life as it unfolds.
As a life and leadership coach, I now work with people in times of transition when they are at personal and professional inflection points and are asking the important, perennial and often formidable questions of “Who am I?” “What matters to me?” “How do I make sense of my life?” and “How do I make sense of this thing called life?”
Sabbatical design has become a hot topic of late. People don’t want to just take time away from work; they want to take intentional and strategic time away to rest and rejuvenate themselves, to explore passions and possibilities, and to discover what’s next for them. So in that vein, here are five tips from the field to support you in designing an intentional sabbatical
Tip #1: Clarify your why.
Look inside and around you for your why. What are the circumstances, events, inner impulses, wonderings, and longings that are prompting you to take a sabbatical right now? Think about how you want to feel at the end of your sabbatical and what you want to walk from your sabbatical having explored, experimented with, accomplished, or learned. Remember, when you are clear on why you are taking a sabbatical, you can make decisions about how to structure, schedule, and resource it that are aligned with your ultimate intentions.
Tip #2: Identify your design sandbox.
Very few of us live in a world absent of relationships and responsibilities, and most of us experience some form of resource constraints. Though it doesn’t always feel this way, in the world of design, constraints are actually a gift! They help us focus our attention, strategically direct the resources that we do have, and keep us grounded in the world of both possibility and practicality. Thus, it’s important to identify the parameters of your sabbatical upfront so that you can design within them.
Identify pre-existing commitments you may have like loans, travel, relationship commitments, etc. that you need to honor during your time away, in addition to pre-existing commitments that you might want to punt or negotiate. Honestly assess the resources you can put towards your sabbatical, and try to think in ranges – the range of time you can spend away from work, the range of money you will need to meet your basic needs, the amount you can spend on fun, exploration, and learning.
Also consider what you might need to temporarily give up or change about how you currently direct your resources now so that you can make the most of your sabbatical. Think of these “constraints” as your “design sandbox.” Then make a plan for your sabbatical that lives within your sandbox.
Tip #3: Operate as a learner, not just a doer.
When designing a sabbatical, it’s easy to get busy making a list of the things you’re going to “do” and, in the process, to lose sight of your intentions or even work against them. I once coached an individual who identified the purpose of his sabbatical as “resting up and taking time to explore what’s next professionally,” yet he packed his schedule so full of travel, friend commitments, and curated activities that he quickly became drained and overwhelmed and had no time or space for rest and reflection.
Take the time upfront to identify how you hope to learn and grow as a result of your sabbatical. What questions are you exploring while on sabbatical? What new knowledge or skills are you developing? What mindsets, habits, and practices are you challenging or cultivating? What experiments are you running? What are you practicing “unlearning”?
Remember, the most powerful sabbaticals aren’t just vacations, trips, or lists of tasks to accomplish; they are intentional learning and growing experiences that support our personal evolution, professional growth, and creative engagement with the world.
Tip #4: Make outlines (not plans).
Once you are clear on why you are taking a sabbatical and what you want to explore, experiment, and learn during your time away, outline the arc of your experience. Think in chapters, each with a focus. For example – you might begin your sabbatical with a chapter of rest where your focus is on physically and mentally decompressing and resetting. Then you might move into a chapter of exploration and experimentation centered on your learning questions where you’re reading, taking courses, traveling, engaging with others, etc. Finally, you might move into a chapter of synthesis and application where you’re sense-making what you’ve learned during your sabbatical and discerning what’s next for you.
After you’ve identified your chapters, sketch out a few ideas for how to spend your time in each chapter. Consider formal or informal learning experiences, travel, people to connect with, practices to try out, books, podcasts, or other media you want to engage with.
Make sure that your outline leaves space for rest, play, and emergence, and avoid overscheduling yourself. You don’t need to know exactly how your sabbatical will play out nor plan every detail of it before it begins. In fact, doing so can actually work against you. Because sabbaticals are, in part, about exploration and discovery, there is a high likelihood that while on yours, you will experience insights and learnings that you’ll want to use to inform how you spend your time. If you are overcommitted at the outset of a sabbatical, it can be hard to pivot and adapt. I recommend planning no more than 50% of your sabbatical before you take it.
Tip #5: Design for success and support.
The idea of time off and away from work is often very appealing to people. And, yes, sabbaticals are generally fun and exciting…and they can also activate other emotions in us like fear, worry, and anxiety. Not generating income for a period of time, slowing down, not knowing exactly what’s on the other side of your sabbatical, engaging with other people who might not understand why you are taking time away…these are common worries and concerns that people on sabbatical grapple with. So many of my coaching clients who take a sabbatical at some point find themselves asking some version of the question: Am I doing the right thing? And this makes sense – sabbaticals involve some level of risk. Risk activates fear within us and requires courage and resilience to work through.
If you take a sabbatical, expect that there may be days where you feel anxious and scared (alongside days when you feel excited and joyful)…and plan to draw support around you from the start. Set up daily rituals to ground yourself. Organize your physical space so that it feels conducive to rest and exploration. Take yourself out into nature or into environments that feel creative and supportive. Identify the people in your life who are encouraging and critiquing your decision to take a sabbatical; connect with your supporters and set boundaries with your naysayers. Find sense-making partners to help you manage your emotions and also process your learnings, be that a therapist, a coach, or some other learning community. Remember, while you don’t have control over what comes up for you emotionally while you’re on sabbatical you do have a lot of power to design structures and create conditions that can support you in handling whatever does arise.
If you’re looking for support on how to design a sabbatical that feels intentional and exciting to you, I offer one on one and small group coaching to do just this. Reach out for more information at firstname.lastname@example.org.