Should you take a personal sabbatical?

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In 2015 I did something no one suggested that I do. Something everyone warned me against. I quit my job without having anything lined up and spent 10 months funemployed.

Four years later, it’s a thing. It even has a name now: a personal sabbatical.

In fact, I’ve seen headlines that say taking a personal sabbatical is actually good for your career. Ironic, isn’t it?

If you’re reading this, chances are you’re considering it. Maybe you’re burned out or close to it. Maybe you’re realizing you picked the wrong career. Maybe you’re having an existential crisis about the meaning of your life. Or maybe you just have too much on your plate right now, and you wish you could spend those 40+ hours a week focusing on other priorities in your life for a while.

Whatever your reason, you have a guess that taking time off will be good for your life.

Five years later I have not regretted my decision to take a personal sabbatical even once. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself, and my life has completely transformed as a result.

But it’s not for everyone.

Many factors go into deciding on and planning for a personal sabbatical. I go over only three of those factors in this article. If you’re on the fence about taking a personal sabbatical, thinking through these three factors might help you reach a decision.

Those factors are:

  1. Your why.

  2. Your numbers.

  3. Your timeline.

Let’s dive in...

Your Why

Taking a personal sabbatical is a rare privilege. Most people cannot and never will afford to take several months off from work.

Even though that is the unfortunate state of our culture and economy these days, I believe all of us deserve to take time off from work. And no one can tell you whether your reason is “good enough” or not.

That said, it helps to get crystal clear on your Why for yourself.

In my case, I was burned out. I felt like the walking dead. I was 30 and clueless about who I was and what I wanted. My dreams and passions felt like distant memories. I had forgotten the feeling of simply being alive. A mid-life crisis was imminent.

I wanted to discover my authentic self. And intuitively I knew I could not do that while working under the influence of authority figures and the power dynamic of being paid to perform.

So my why was: I want to experience my authentic self in the absence of any external expectations.

A personal sabbatical can be like investing in an education of yourself: Your make-up. Your character. Your constitution. Your neuroses. Your unaltered truth. For once as an adult, you have the chance to see the shape of you unmolded by those gravitational forces created by work and money pressure.

Why? Because you think there’s something valuable in knowing that shape.

You think that shape will show you new ways to live, and transform the way you relate to work and money for the rest of your life.

Now, you may have a different Why entirely, but knowing what it is will help you weigh the costs and benefits of embarking on this unconventional, uncertain and expensive endeavor.

So take some time to reflect for yourself: Why is it necessary and/or important for me to take a personal sabbatical?

Now hang onto that intention because everything else will be weighed against it.

Your Numbers

What will my friends think? How will I explain this to my boss, my parents, my partner? What if I can’t get my job back? What if I become irrelevant? What if it’s just a big waste of time? What if I screw up my life? What if I regret this forever? What if I go broke and become homeless?

If you’re seriously considering taking a personal sabbatical, your brain is likely on overdrive calculating all the worse-case scenarios. And not having answers to many big, scary What Ifs is preventing you from making a confident decision.

The truth is that you won’t be able to answer all of those questions before you take the leap.

But there’s one question that you can answer today: Can you afford it?

The sooner you can stop ruminating and start looking at your numbers, the sooner you will reach a confident decision.

In my case, it didn’t take much to figure out that my answer was No. I could not afford it at the time I was considering taking time off.

If you’re in the same boat, this is not a dead end. It’s an opportunity.

Looking closer at my money situation forced me to address my money issues. Being raised by immigrant parents that grew up poor instilled in me a scarcity mentality and fear of spending. Instead of being taught how to manage finances, I was taught to “just make enough money so you don’t have to worry about it.”

Wanting to take time off motivated me to learn how to budget and save. And for the first time ever, I started to feel in control of my finances.

So when I committed to saving up enough to take time off, I committed to my sabbatical, too.  And unwittingly, my journey began in that moment.

Many people assume the first step to taking a personal sabbatical is quitting their job.

But the first step is actually deciding to take a personal sabbatical, then committing to do what is necessary to make it happen.

So take some time to look honestly at your numbers. Do you need to do some financial housekeeping before you feel secure enough to take a personal sabbatical? Or are you surprised by how much you’re actually able to put on the table?

Your Timeline

How long should your sabbatical be?

Firstly, know that your desire to know how long your sabbatical should be is partly because others want to know. They are worried, or envious, or excited “for you”. But really they are projecting their own feelings about taking time off from work onto you.

The length of your sabbatical can be as long as you can afford it to be. So the question is not “How long is my sabbatical?” but instead, “At what point will I want to start making money again?”

Notice it’s want, not need. I recommend leaving a cushion so you aren’t putting undue money pressure on yourself during your personal sabbatical. That would defeat the whole point of taking time off.

Here’s one way to figure out that cushion:

Based on your industry and experience level, take a high estimate of how many months it will take you to find a job. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean you’re planning to go back to your career. But it’s a reasonable place to work backwards from for the purposes of clarifying your decision.

Multiply that number by your current expenses and you will have a very conservative amount of money below which you shouldn’t go.

I say conservative because your current expenses will very likely be higher than your expenses during your sabbatical. You do much less impulse or emotional spending when you feel happy and free.

Below is a snapshot from my Time Off Fund from the time I decided to start saving up for my sabbatical until I started working again:

I consider this 2+ year stretch my full sabbatical journey.

I consider this 2+ year stretch my full sabbatical journey.

Living in the Bay Area, I was very nervous about running out of money. So I saved up almost $80k before I gave notice. I decided I would not go below $40k.

I ended up withdrawing $21,800 over the course of 10 months. My actual spending was around $31k because I started with about $8k in my checking account and earned about $1,500 doing odd jobs for fun along the way.

That amount included two international trips and three domestic trips. They weren’t lavish, but they were comfortable and strategic: I mostly visited friends and family I could stay with for free.

I didn’t feel the need for luxury because my sabbatical itself felt luxurious.

Bottom line is: I overestimated the amount of money I needed to safely afford my sabbatical. And you likely will, too, which is better than underestimating.

So go ahead and do some rough math:

  • How many months might it take you to find a job in a tough market?

  • Multiply that number by your current average monthly expenses.

That’s your safety net.

When should you leave your job?

Let’s be honest, there is no “good” time to leave your job. Your mind can come up with a thousand reasons why Now or Later is not a good time. Especially if you’re an overachiever, you likely feel guilty thinking about the cavernous void you’ll leave behind. How will they survive without me?

So don’t decide based on what’s happening at work. Decide based on something else you value. Something you want to start valuing and honoring more in your new life.

Could be your family, your friendships, your physical health, your emotional health, your connection with nature, etc. Or simply listen to your intuition and authentic desires.

In my case, I prioritized being physically active and spending time outdoors–values I had been neglecting. So I planned around the warmer months of Spring, Summer, and early Fall.

So what do you personally value outside of work? What values have you been neglecting? How might those values help you determine when you’ll take time off?

Giving notice is part of your transformation.

I gave two month’s notice in January of 2015.

Two months notice? You might assume those two months were hell. That it was super awkward. That I was treated differently or poorly. Or that I was miserably clawing for time to pass faster so I could finally be free.

Surprisingly, those two months were among the most enjoyable I had ever experienced at the company.

I didn’t have to pretend anymore. I could be completely honest about my plans and my feelings. I openly shared my excitement, fears and uncertainty about taking time off, and many of my colleagues were supportive and encouraging.

I had more authentic conversations with my coworkers and bosses during those two months than in the previous two years.

A personal sabbatical is more than just about taking time off and not having to work. It’s about you, perhaps for the first time ever, taking power back over your life.

You’re not waiting to be laid off. You’re not waiting to be approached by another company. You’re not waiting to get burned out and get sick. You’re not waiting for external circumstances to “force” you to make a choice.

You’re exercising your human birthright: free will. And you’re accepting full responsibility for the consequences.

That’s what it means to be empowered.

Taking a personal sabbatical is expensive. But it’s worth it.

Yes you will spend a significant amount of money to support yourself during those months off, but no amount of money can buy what you will gain.

If you’re considering it, some part of you knows intuitively that taking time off will open new doors for you. You’re taking a leap of faith that some of those doors will lead to a better life for you and those you love.

A personal sabbatical might seem impractical on the outset, but it might actually be one of the most practical decisions you’ve ever made.

Eddie Shieh, PCC, MFA