The realities of the work sabbatical: How and why you should take weeks, months, and sometimes even years off

What do you do when you’re facing a hard issue at work? If you’re like most people your first instinct is probably to put your nose to the grindstone, pull up your britches (or some other outdated metaphor) and get to it.

But more work doesn’t always equal better results.

So here’s another idea: Walk away. No, I’m serious. Just take off for a bit.

In academia, the idea of a sabbatical has been around for years. When a scholar needs peace of mind to focus on a challenging issue, they can ask to take a leave of absence from their day-to-day work and visit a new institute to try and force out inspiration and insight. (While still keeping the security of their job when they come back).

Studies have found that academics who take sabbaticals report higher levels of satisfaction and lower levels of stress than those who don’t. It’s not a vacation in the lying-on-the-beach-sipping-margaritas sense. But rather an opportunity to refresh your mind and body while continuing to do your most important work.

Yet while taking off long stretches of time might make sense in the world of universities, it probably seems like a big ask to tell your boss you’re going to take off for a few months to “rethink” some big issues.

But why not? In fact, today, a quarter of Fortune’s 100 Best companies to work for offer their staff sabbaticals. So, what exactly is a work sabbatical and how can you justify taking one?

What is a work sabbatical and why should you take one?

The concept of the sabbatical has its roots in the Hebrew bible. Every seven years, a sabbath (or rest) year was commanded to give the land a break from agricultural activity. In a similar way, our minds, like the soil, need rest to be able to continue to grow and provide.

But few of us take that kind of time off. If any at all.

Despite U.S. workers taking more vacation days in 2018 than any other year in the past decade, 52% of workers finish the year with unused time off according to research from Project: Time Off.

The reasons for this are probably obvious to everyone. We’re busy. We take on more work than we can handle. And most of all, we’re afraid that we’ll fall behind if we leave the workforce for any period of time.

But rest isn’t necessarily a recipe for regression. In fact, it can be the exact opposite.

In his 2009 TED talk, The power of time off, designer Stefan Sagmeister explains how he decided to start closing the doors of his New York studio for a full year every 7 years:

“Like many things in my life that I actually love, I adapt to them and over time, get bored by them. And in our case, our work started to look the same.”

Sagmeister first got the idea to take a work sabbatical when he started to think about the typical flow of our lives. By his estimate, most people spend 25 years learning, 40 years working their career, and then 15+ years in retirement.

Work sabbatical - normal life

But, Sagmeister thought, what if we cut off five years of retirement and interspersed them in between the working years?

Work sabbatical - split up time

When he experimented with this new schedule, the result was both creatively and professionally beneficial.

As he explains in his TED talk, in that first sabbatical year, Sagmeister created a film, explored new design styles and materials, and experienced new cultures and ideas.

“The work that came out of that year flowed back into the company, and into society at large.”

Sagmeister isn’t the only professional finding success through some form of sabbatical.

Ferran Adria, one of the best chefs in the world, only keeps his restaurant open for 7 months a year. The other 5 are spent experimenting with his full kitchen staff. At the time of Sagmeister’s talk, Adria had 2.2 million reservations requests.

Daniel Day-Lewis—one of the greatest actors of our time—regularly takes breaks for up to 5 years between roles.

While at 3M, they’ve been giving their engineers 15% of their time to pursue whatever they want since the 1930s. Both Scotch Tape and sticky notes came out of these sabbaticals.

A 5-step plan for preparing for and making the most of your work sabbatical

Deciding to take a work sabbatical and actually taking one are two very different exercises. And while it’s easy to get excited about taking time to refresh your mind, the realities of planning a sabbatical can be daunting.

First, you’ll need to understand whether your current working situation will allow it. Does your company have a sabbatical policy or are they willing to discuss it? If you’re a freelancer, can you afford to take that time off and potentially lose clients? There’s always a fear that if we’re out of sight, we’ll be out of mind.

Beyond that, there are the specifics of how the sabbatical will work. What you’ll do. And how you’ll support yourself while you’re not working.

Step 1: Decide why you want to take a sabbatical and how it will benefit you

A sabbatical isn’t unstructured time off, but a chance to explore ideas related to your work. As such, you need a strong reason to take one (especially if you have to sell your boss on the idea). Before you talk to anyone about your sabbatical, take time to reflect on your current situation, strengths and areas you want to develop, as well as your future goals.

As Jaideep Bansal writes on the World Economic Forum:

“Before you jump into it, be very sure of what you plan to do with that time. Identifying your passion or aim will really make the sabbatical productive and an experience of a lifetime.”

Step 2: Speak with your boss about what you’re planning

Your employment situation will probably be the biggest point of friction when it comes to taking a work sabbatical. If you want to try to return to the same job when you come back, you’ll need to talk to your boss and explain your reasoning and what you want.

As Reuters senior editor, Helen Coster, explains:

“Don’t complain about being burnt out; instead, spell out the reasons why a sabbatical will benefit both you and your employer. Maybe it will help your company cut costs, give you a better understanding of international markets or improve your language skills.”

This might seem like a lot to ask. But it’s not impossible. In fact, according to the Society for Human Resource Management, 23 percent of companies in the U.S now offer sabbaticals from work, including Adobe, Boston Consulting Group, Autodesk, and even The Cheesecake Factory.

If you work for yourself, this step will be slightly different.

Maybe you’ll have to talk to your clients and explain what you’re doing, why, and how it will affect your availability. Whatever you need to do, make sure you give everyone that is going to be affected by your sabbatical a good amount of notice.

Step 3: Pick your proposed start and end dates and put them on your calendar

Once you start committing to your sabbatical you’ll think of all sorts of reasons why you shouldn’t take it. That’s where committing to a start and end date becomes so important.

A successful work sabbatical relies on pre-planning. The more time you give yourself to plan out what you’ll be doing and working on, the more chance you’ll see real, tangible benefits in the end.

Step 4: Get your financial situation in order

“Money is the first big hurdle for most people,” says Dan Clements, the author of Escape 101: Sabbaticals Made Simple. “But the cost of taking a really great sabbatical can be a fraction of that of your regular life.”

Regardless of whether you’re planning on spending your sabbatical in an exotic country where you can live on the cheap, or sticking close to home, saving early is the best way to ensure financial stress doesn’t disrupt your time of deep thinking and exploration.

Step 5: Bring in accountability partners to help make sure you go through with it

Any major decision like taking time off from work can be a source of stress. And you shouldn’t try to go it alone. Bring in other people you trust and care for into your plan and have them help you stay strong as your sabbatical start date comes up.

If you can’t take a long sabbatical, start with one day a week (or even one hour a day)

Sabbaticals are all about rejuvenating and exploring topics you’re deeply passionate about. But if you read through this guide and still feel like it’s impossible for you, there are ways to get the benefits of disconnected, unstructured time off without risking your job.

Take off one day a week

Sol Orwell, founder of, takes Fridays off. While writer and editor Gregory Ciotti uses every other Friday to take a tech break and spends the day in a new environment outlining new ideas on a piece of paper.

Be unreachable one day a month

Neil Pasricha, best-selling author of The Happiness Equation, talks about “untouchable days” where he is 100% unreachable. According to Neil, these days are how he completes most of his creative and rewarding work:

“To share a rough comparison, on a day when I write between meetings, I’ll produce maybe 500 words a day. On an Untouchable Day, it’s not unusual for me to write 5,000 words. On these days, I’m 10 times more productive.”

Disconnect for one hour a day

According to Harvard psychologist Shelley Carson, one of the best ways to enhance your creative output is to separate work and consumption. As she explains, even taking an hour a day to be in an “absorb” state where you gather information and inspiration without doing any work can be an easy way to get new ideas.

If you’re feeling stressed, unmotivated, and burnt out, there’s no point in trying to just push through.

Instead, our best ideas often come when we’re not working. And a sabbatical—no matter how long—is a fantastic way to rest and rethink how you’re approaching hard problems.

Have you ever taken a work sabbatical? Tell us how it went in the comments below or on Twitter.

Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

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