When I tell people I’m taking a sabbatical for the first quarter of 2017, the most common response is, ‘I wish I could do that!’. I don’t work in academia; I’m a digital content producer working in an industry that is constantly evolving and innovating.

It is very scary to step off my particular merry-go-round (pure FOMO, if you want to know), but what keeps most people from taking the sabbatical they secretly long for isn’t about means or opportunity; it’s simply a fear of the unknown.

Paths diverge by Jens Lelie via Unsplash.com

The best defence against that kind of fear is knowledge. A few days after making the decision, I sat down and read around 37 blogs and articles covering every topic from planning a sabbatical to what to do while having one, to re-entering the workplace and explaining the gap in your CV. Here’s what I found helpful.

What is a sabbatical?

Sabbatical comes from the Latin, Greek and Hebrew words for Sabbath. It refers to a rest or break from work for any period from two months to a year.

In contemporary Western society, taking a sabbatical means any extended break from your career taken in order to achieve a goal. It’s a viable way to make time to travel or write a book, broad your education or simply revitalise your passion for what you do.

What a sabbatical isn’t, is an unstructured vacation. At least, not if you want it to add value to your career. Your sabbatical needs a clear goal, but you can make still it fun by volunteering for causes you care about, taking a measured and thoughtful audit of your personal goals and achieving some of them, and taking a hobby to the next level.

Why take a sabbatical?

According to a 2010 study, academics who took a sabbatical reported better life satisfaction and lower stress than those who did not. If you plan it well, your sabbatical can provide you with the chance to:

Make a career change, or find out if your hobby can generate a viable income;
Fulfill a dream, or take a mini-retirement while you are fit enough to enjoy it;
Complete that postgraduate qualification you’ve been talking about for ten years.
What would you do with six months or a year away from the daily grind? What scares you about the idea? What thrills you?

Pre-sabbatical to do list

Set goals. Be clear why you want to take this sabbatical and what you intend to do with it. If you have one primary goal, you may find you can fit a handful of bonus ideas into your plan. It’s much easier to gain the support of your loved ones and colleagues if you can articulate the why and what-for of your sabbatical.
Save! Unless you win the lottery, you probably can’t take a sabbatical without saving up for it. Your goal will determine your timeline and budget. Take an honest look at your spending habits, pay off your debt and then simplify your lifestyle. Get used to living on less before you stop work, and the small sacrifices won’t upset you.
Trust yourself. Not everyone will support your decision or value your goal the way you do. Trust yourself and know that act of stepping out of the daily grind is enriching on its own, offering you unexpected opportunities for personal growth.

Keep your sabbatical on track

Be flexible and open to evolving your plans and updating your goal during your sabbatical, especially if you are taking more than six months. It’s very important to check in with yourself regularly once you are free from the daily grind.

Over the next four months, I’ll be finishing my first book. Here’s how I’ll assess my progress and stay on top of my goals:

  1. I’m using the same project management tool I use at work (ASANA – it’s awesome!), to keep track of my daily, weekly and monthly writing goals, as well as any volunteer work and certifications I complete. This will help me stay on track and keep a record of how I invested my time.
  2. I’m maintaining the structure of a normal work day because I’m prone to procrastination. My best defence against time wasting is to stick to a routine.
  3. I’m used to working in an open plan office with an inspiring group of people so I’m repurposing the time I used to spend on the daily commute (about 120-minutes) into time for getting out of my house – I’ll be hiking, walking, surfing and hitting the gym, all of which add the bonus of feel-good endorphins to my day.

After your sabbatical

I need to return to work after my sabbatical and that means devoting at least an hour a day to maintaining my personal brand online. Luckily, I enjoy blogging so that takes care of keeping my LinkedIn profile and WordPress site fresh and relevant.

I also need to keep on top of developments in my industry, so I’ve chosen a small group of thought leaders to follow and cut down my newsletter subscriptions to a few influential brands. I’ll also be pursuing certification in a couple of disciplines that are relevant but not critical to my work as a digital content producer, so I’ll be adding direct value to my CV while I’m away from formal employment.

If you take a sabbatical, you’ll want to be able to tell recruiters and future employers what you gained from the time away – how has it improved your skills, what did you learn, how has it strengthened you as a potential team member? At the end of my sabbatical, I’ll have the obvious answers to these questions noted in my project management tool, but the more subtle, personal growth aspects are equally important and harder to track. So, I’m also keeping a journal to give myself a reference point at the start and at the finish of the experience.

Good luck!

If you are thinking of taking a sabbatical, I wish you all the best in preparing for it and having the courage to step out of the daily grind and claim the time you need to pursue a dream or life goal.

If you are currently on sabbatical, I’d love to hear how it is unfolding for you.