Sabbatical Suggestions

Before we begin packing our backpack (you may prefer it to a suitcase, really), let us take a few minutes to define this thing. Call it what you want: BreakAway, Sabbatical, Temporary Retirement, Extended Getaway, a Hiatus, the Big Trip, your Big Break. May it be all those things, and more. Meanwhile, here are 14 helpful suggestions for planning yours.

  • Make it yours.
    Make up your own guidelines based on your personal preferences and other realities. In other words, feel free to disregard any or all of the ideas in this suggestion list, or in this book. Above all, feel free.
  • Stretch it out.
    Consider a minimum of three months, and an ideal of one year, or—if you must—even a few weeks. As frazzled as some of us are, it may take a few weeks just to catch up on sleep. If you go somewhere new, it will take days to find your way around (and your favorite hangouts). If you travel–which is hard work–you must fight fast-forward tourism and fatigue. And if you really, truly want to experience something new, give it credit for being complex enough to deserve many, many weeks; and give yourself a chance to find what you’re seeking. Don’t rush your BreakAway–or else it won’t feel like one.
  • Go away.
    In general, farther away and less familiar is likely to be more revealing–and rewarding–especially if there’s someplace you harbor a strong urge to visit. This is your big chance. Getting away from your routine terrain is as close to essential as anything on this list. If you stay on familiar paths, it’s just too easy to get stuck in the same swamps. So go find some new quagmires. Getting lost is part of the plan. And doing so requires getting out of the house, taking leave of the ‘hood. So don’t automatically jump for the family cabin or your uncle’s villa in Spain (should you be so lucky). Find your own bliss. Chances are, you won’t miss.

    On the other hand, and there always is another hand, your objectives may point you toward that cabin or villa. Need to reconnect with your family? A long summer at a familiar cottage may be idyllic. Writing the Great American Novel? A laptop and crash pad is all you need. Been offered off-season house-sitting at a friend’s mountain lodge? Call his bluff and call him soon.

  • Put your job on hold.
    If you’ve been working your butt off, you need a break. If you’ve been working your butt off, you deserve a break–and can use your chits to buy one. If your employer allows for a leave of absence, well, bully for you! The point is: You’ll have a better BreakAway if you leave your work behind.

    At other points in the site, we discuss the two basic ways to approach work: 1) It’s just a job, not the total embodiment of who you are. You’re an independent contractor who seeks a paycheck and stays with a job as long as it’s prudent. OR 2) Your job is your life’s work is your identity. It makes sense to you to commit your time and energy to your work.

    It’s a good idea to decide early in your career (or whenever circumstances change) which mindset works for you, and it’s likely to affect how you approach your Sabbatical too. But for now, let’s just agree that both dispositions are valid, and Temporary Retirement is a good idea for both.

    However, if you’re really so important that the world just won’t go on without you, well then, stay plugged in during your BreakAway. (And say hi to the Pope and the President next time you do lunch with them.) But if you’re that vital, then you must surely be brilliant, and if you’re so brilliant, then you can conceive of a way to unplug for a while. Taking a Tech Break is energizing and expansive, really.

    Try this on for sighs: A sign of a REALLY successful person is one who can walk away from their castle without causing it to crumble. Many real people we admire most lead balanced lives–complete with successful careers, strong family ties, generosity and service, and time off. Many great leaders and executives come and go seamlessly because they’re so resourceful.

    If this section stops short of telling you exactly how to negotiate your escape from your job, that’s because your situation is too unique and complex for such simplification. There is no one-size-fits-all solution—but that also means there may be countless solutions. You may need time to work out this problem. But it never hurts to think. To scheme. And to ask. Your supervisor just might respond, “Wow, I’ve always wanted to do that too…”

  • But take your work with you.
    Whereas your job can stay home, you should surely bring your work with you. You know, your Life’s Work. Stuff like writing, drawing, playing piano, teaching soccer, restoring wetlands, swimming with dolphins, scaling glaciers, homeschooling your children, becoming conversant in another language, becoming conversant in Shakespeare. Whatever! Set one good goal, and go for it. You can have a list of other pursuits too, of course. But make sure there’s one meaningful activity you mean to commit to: That’s your Mission.

    Perhaps some people think their life’s work is to shop. To dine in every trendy trattoria in Tuscany. To craft the perfect tan. To sleep in 100 different countries with 100 different lovers. Not to quibble, but such people probably won’t get much out of this book. On the other hand, if you’re not sure what your life’s work is, a Sabbatical is the perfect time to start thinking about it. Your Mission for the journey might be to figure it out.

  • Bring the whole family.
    If you have a family, by all means bring them. The BreakAway may be the days you remember most when the years fast-forward and begin to blur. If you’re married, go together and vow to renew your commitment. Sharing the experience of planning and actualizing a dream of this magnitude can be stressful at times, but the payoff is glorious.

    For some people, perhaps even a few who have a spouse or family, going alone may be an option. But if it causes damage to loving relationships, it’s not worth it. If you’re used to being alone, though, and you aren’t afraid of wandering solo, you’ll certainly have some advantages.

    But for the rest of us, it’s good to make these escapes a family affair. Children of any age will get an education no school can offer. Grown children can reconnect with their parents. And naturally, friends and relatives can always visit, and they’ll probably want to. Don’t get carried away though, or your hideaway may become a hotel; you could become tour guide on your own journey. And in the end, your own Getaway may feel like it got away from you.

  • Accept your mission.
    Early in this book, you got permission—if not a requisition—to elevate your Sabbatical into a quest to do something specific. Otherwise, it’s just too easy to take it easy. And since you’ll have plenty of time to do that, you also need to counterbalance your down time with something that perks you up—makes you productive and passionate.

    Please don’t underestimate the importance of this suggestion. Truth is, you’ll probably feel better about the whole experience if it includes a focus—something whole, wholesome, and experiential. It makes good defensive sense; you’ll have less days of thinking, “What am I doing? Am I bored? Shouldn’t I be…” It makes good offense too; you’re planning to do something important to you that there’s been no time for.

    A couple more suggestions. Focus on one idea—so you don’t overburden yourself by trying to learn Spanish, master SCUBA diving, and buy a winter home all at once. Determine up-front what weeks, days, and dayparts are dedicated to this project—so you don’t feel guilty the many times you’re ignoring it. Set a goal of completion or closure—so you have something to shoot for, and a reward awaiting.

    In the end, you’ll be very glad you took advantage of this big chance to work on your big idea. Most likely, you’ll be grateful forever—and have something to show for yourself.

  • Escape your hates.
    If you’re human, there are things you despise. Things you’re tired of. Need a Break from. Don’t ever want to see again (or at least not for a few months). Write them down. And also your fears, your limitations, your allergies, and your nemeses. No one can promise you a rose garden. Even Nirvana didn’t last. But if you’re tired of city life, maybe you should retire to the countryside. If you’re sick of always cooking, get out of the kitchen. If you hate cigarette smoke, stay out of France. If you’re only human and thus have hates, take a holiday away from them.
  • Balance structure with spontaneity.
    Is this not one of life’s more cosmic challenges? Together, structure and spontaneity can combust into serendipity. If you desire village life, you should probably pre-select the right villa(ge); but be sure you take some explorational train trips. If you just want to rock and roll all night (and party every day), outfit your crash pad accordingly, and then go out to do your funky wild thang. If you want to experience New Zealand (and learn to design web sites), arrange a house with WiFi, and then tour the island by campervan for the back half of the stay. (Cyberstops are available.)

    Set up the comfort and stability you need. Then seek the adventure and frolic that you crave.

  • Travel light.
    Most of swear we will, and then schlep an apothecary and a spare boombox. Fuggetaboutit. Try to carry your stuff on your back. Literally. Pack days ahead and practice. Or test-fill your backpack and carry-on(s) to the weight you can handle, and then don’t let it get above that. Just keep saying, “Less is more.” Obsess on your list–especially regarding clothes; you’ll likely not need many cute little outfits. Check out all the great travel gurus and web sites that know more than you do. Listen to them!

    Of course, if you’re off to carve the next Mount Rushmore, pack up your pickaxe and dynamite. But if you’re more interested in learning to fly than maintaining an airplane, travel light.

  • Shape up.
    Please don’t get hung up on this advice; many people have failed to include exercise in their life, and it becomes a real soft spot. Don’t worry: no one will make you go back to P.E. class or run the 600-yard dash in two minutes.

    But you will feel better, and find more balance, and just plain have more endurance if you include some activity. And eat well. And remember to enjoy everything in moderation (including moderation).

    You have time now, and things to see. So get out and kick it up every day. And it’s a good idea to start before you go–even just a walk will work. You’ll sure survive the hardships of travel better if you can avoid exhaustion.

    And don’t forget to get off your tail in the airplane! A cattle-class blood-clot could ruin your trip—not to mention your ability to ever retire again.

  • Make the change–and keep it.
    Research has delved into the difficulties most people have completing a compelling change, and the stages we all go through while trying. In a nutshell, most folks flounder in the middle stages for a long, long time–like a range-bound stock that you hold onto in hopes that it will improve someday, but who knows?

    Really now, if your doctor says lose 40 pounds or risk a heart attack, BreakAway from bad foods and take a health Sabbatical. If your spouse thinks you’re spending too much time staring at spread sheets, maybe spread a few sheets with your spouse. Take up praying, emoting, flossing, or frugality. If not now, when? You’ve got months! And it’s not like you’ve got anything else to do!

  • Record your own history.
    Although this flies in the face of “Travel light,” please cart along your camera, camcorder, laptop, sketchpad, diary, and/or the recording device(s) of your choice. Think it through; less is still more. But punt your wingtips before you leave your camera. You get the picture.

    However you plan to do so, capture your day daily. After all, if you don’t, who will? And if you don’t, you probably won’t remember the details. How well do you remember your own high school prom; it may well have felt like the event of your life at the time. Your BreakAway will be that remote someday.

    Plus, you’ll need the documentation in order to share your experience with others. Although frankly, many people you think will be interested may not give a damn. It’s painful and insulting at first. But then you realize the apathy usually masks a festering case of envy.

  • Celebrate the moment.
    It’s not fair to generalize, but we’ll do it anyway: Americans often have this cocky sense that they’re heading toward something terribly important. It’s usually somewhere out there–in the distance, in the future. Perhaps it’s an end that keeps receding. But it’s out there, just as surely as each of us will get our 15 minutes of fame or a winning lottery ticket. So be it. As a people, it makes us driven, energetic, and optimistic.

    Your BreakAway is a time to both embrace and retreat from life in the fast lane. On one hand, your Sabbatical may be your best chance to think clearly about your future, where you’re really headed, and how to make each day take you closer. This is not the same as driving 80 mph because you’re late for book club. We’re talking a thoughtful purging of your many life visions.

    On the other hand, taking Temporary Retirement allows you to slow down your (over)drive and simply live minute to minute. Savor each moment, don’t let them blur. And have another swim, nap, or glass whenever you feel like it. Stay an extra night–or maybe a week–when you find that peaceful spot you’ve dreamt about.

    You may also catch yourself with time to reflect and reminisce. If you dig up long-lost family in Europe, for example, you’ll certainly think about your departed grandparents who never met the lookalike cousins who lovingly took you in. In that sense, a BreakAway has the potential to be a time when you truly merge your past, present, and future. It sounds corny, if not obtuse. But keep it in mind: You’ll likely find times when it makes sense. For a few fleeting moments here and there, your whole life will coalesce in harmony like a choir of angels.

    Those are the moments that make life beautiful. Those are the moments you’ll never forget, and that you’ll cling to when you go home again.