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  • Writer's pictureRyan Grant Little

How to Take a Sabbatical

Some tips for fellow Type-A personalities on how to take a career time out.


I’ve been part of the work force steadily since high school and, now on the verge of 40, I thought this was as good a time as any for a break. Six months ago I was handing over the reins to my second-in-command at SmileBack, the tech company I was running. My instinct leading up to that moment was to have the next venture or project lined up, with maybe a week or two break in between. But I could feel it was time to recharge the batteries and do something very out of character. Enter: the sabbatical.


Fittingly for the year that travel “wasn’t”, my sabbatical plan was to stay local rather than to fly off to a Thai beach or an Indian ashram. With the exception of a couple weeks in a countryside cabin, I wanted to see how much I could change in my routines right at home. That meant shifting the focus to reading, cooking, learning, hammering away at the list of rainy day projects. Decluttering, organizing, meditating, that kind of thing. After years of always being on the go, it was time to feel grounded.


At the time of writing, I'm slowly easing back into independent consulting work, with a first gig starting next week. But before I do that, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on what I've learned from this opportunity. And, more importantly, to share my best tips with you, in case you're considering doing something similar.

Make a budget


Going cold turkey from the security of a regular paycheck is anxiety-inducing, no matter what. My first few weeks off I kept checking my bank account and was especially stressed at the beginning of the month when mortgage payments and the other big hits would be automatically debited. But what this was revealing a deeper issue: that, when I'm pulling down a good salary, I tend to have only a vague idea of where it goes. Just a notional under-water or above-water feeling from month-to-month.


Here's the quick way to figure this out: assess your fixed costs—mortgage, utilities, car payments—and variable costs—things like groceries, takeout, and entertainment. The total establishes a monthly burn rate. At that point, you can start scenario planning. Start with: savings / monthly burn = number of months you can afford to be on sabbatical. Now, that's probably not your optimal number as you probably don't want to re-enter working life broke. But it is helpful to set your outer boundary and know how long you can hold out without new income. Now ask yourself: any surprises there? If so, why? Do you have the runway you'd hoped for? Do you actually have enough runway to take a sabbatical now? If the answer, is yes, it's time to plan scenarios.


Create scenarios


The exciting and scary thing about a sabbatical is you don't know where it will lead you, especially if, like me, you're using it as a springboard to something new, and not returning to your old job. Once you get into the swing of things, some natural processes will start to take hold that you can't predict in advance. How long you need to recharge your proverbial batteries is very hard to anticipate, especially if you've not been great at listening to your body over the years (guilty.) The right amount of time for a sabbatical ranges broadly—I know someone who took a seven-year sabbatical. Generally, I wanted to plan for a minimum of three and a maximum of six months, but with some variability. Here are some of the different scenarios I considered:


3 months sabbatical, zero paid work, then full time work

6 months sabbatical, zero paid work, then full time work

3 months sabbatical, zero paid work, 3 months, part time work, then full time work

3 months sabbatical, zero paid work, 9 months part time work, then full time work


In order to manage all these options, I had to enforce some discipline on checking in with myself very regularly to see what felt right, and also to acknowledge that that inclination itself was fluid. To keep this flexibility, I needed to be in touch with potential clients all the way through so that I could jump in on paid projects if and when I wanted to. For a lot of people, this might be the antithesis of what they want to be doing during a sabbatical and I can understand that. For me, though, anything less dynamic would create a level of anxiety that would strip away all the restorative effects of the sabbatical. The key is to find the nexus of maximum recharging and minimal professional and financial anxiety. Fortunately too, the potential clients I was keeping in touch with were also people I really like, so it was a pleasure to talk to them.


The key is to find the nexus of maximum recharging and minimal professional and financial anxiety.

Set weekly goals


In my busy working life, my schedule was centered on individual days, during which I'd often have a half dozen appointments scheduled, plus blocks for focused work time. I didn't want to follow such a rigid schedule during my sabbatical, but my brain was screaming for some degree of structure.


Here's what I came up with: In the tech world, many companies live by the sprint methodology. To put it overly simply, they set goals for a week and move cards with tasks listed on them from left to right, from a backlog of "to-dos", usually through some intermediary steps, and ultimately to "done". I adopted this same process in a very basic, analogue way, with sticky notes on the door of my home office. I populated it with weekly activities, like 3x yoga, 3x writing, as well as one-time activities, like filing my taxes. At the end of the week, the recurring activities would move back to "to-do" for the next week, and the one-time tasks in "done"would be taken off the board.


Analogue sprint or kanban board
Visualizing accomplishment = releasing dopamine

That's it, and because I kept it that simple and flexible, I found I was getting loads of stuff done, without the anxiety of having to wring my hands about it. If I wanted to finish everything by Friday and have the weekend off, no problem. If I wanted to do nothing all week then pack it all in on Sunday, that was allowed too. I also found it a nice change to make some of the tasks open-ended rather than outcome-driven. So, for example, instead of "file away all bank statements" I would have a card for "organize 45 minutes". However I felt like using the block of time was fine, as long as I was organizing something. One day it was, in fact, the proverbial sock drawer. Similarly, "write something" as a task is less intimidating during a sabbatical than "write article" which, you know, feels like work.


Get offline


This is really worth specifically pointing out. Most of us spend too much time staring at screens and starting a sabbatical won't correct this without real effort. Here, too, I set a few goals. I had a stack of novels that I was going to work my way through, so that was a good start. And I mean real, bound-paper novels that can't track how much time I spend on each page, can't serve up ads based on my reading history, and don't know where I am.


I also did something I've always wanted to do but never had the time: I got a puppy and spent tons of time training her. I really don't know how I would have managed it, on my own, had I been tied to my desk all the while. There's still lots of work involved in taking care of a dog once she makes it into adulthood, but puppyhood is lots of work, little sleep, and not very Zoom-call compatible!


Puppy lying on a carpet
Gracie is not on WhatsApp

Return mindfully


My last tip is to make a plan for how you want to return to work, whether it's to a new role or the one you had before. Writing down your insights during a sabbatical is very clarifying—I used a daily journal where I'd record intentions, happenings, reflections, and a few things I'm grateful for. I'll keep doing this post-sabbatical as the few minutes it takes each day creates a valuable record over time about what's important to you, both personally and professionally.


I achieved great clarity about the type of work I like doing the most (very early-stage innovation, designing strategies); what qualities are important to me in the people I work with (punctuality, checked egos, risk tolerance); and finally, the people I like working with the most, which I wrote down as a list. Figuring this stuff out helps you to know what opportunities to say yes to, and more importantly, when to say no.


As I write this, it's five months since leaving my job. It took me about two months to wind down and deprogram, clearing the way for these past three months to let the process work its magic. I've learned to slow down and enjoy time on my own—two things that do not come naturally to me. My mind is sharper than it's ever been and all the reading and offline time has been restorative for my attention span, and nourishing for my soul. I'd say it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but actually, I'll definitely do it again.

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