How to plan your sabbatical like a pro
Updated: Jan 25
So you’re thinking of taking a sabbatical and you have a million questions.
What will you do?
How long can you take?
Can you afford it?
This is your cheat sheet for what you need to think about to create a rock solid, rock star sabbatical plan. And this article is just the beginning. There are more downloadable tools, tips and guides for you
There are three main dials at your disposal when you’re coming up with your sabbatical plan: Money
You can dial each one up or down depending on your dreams and your reality.
Everyone thinks about money first. But it's not all about the money! Money is important and we’ll deal with that, but you must start with what you want out of your sabbatical – so let’s start with Activity!
Deciding what you’ll do on sabbatical is going to determine how much money you need and the timeframe for the sabbatical. Your ultimate dream may be challenging in reality and you may need to make compromises, but if you immediately dismiss your dreams because you think you can’t afford it or you won’t get the time off, you’re quitting before you even started.
These are the most common types of Sabbaticals
Travel – More than 60% of sabbaticals involve travel to immerse you in new experiences.
Volunteer – Taking time to give back is a rewarding experience of a lifetime.
Learn – A study allows you to dive into an enriching learning environment.
Create – Pursuing a creative project can fulfil a life long dream.
Remote work – Doing your job remotely for some of your sabbatical is getting popular and gives you the financial freedom to extend your break.
It’s important to know your why and plan the experience around that. There are three things to make sure you include to get the most out of your sabbatical.
1. Plan time to unwind
In the 11 sabbaticals I’ve taken, I’ve noticed my own pattern. As I leave my frenetic life and enter my sabbatical, for the first couple of weeks I rush around getting things ticked off my mental list. What I need to do is slow down and stay in one spot with a long period of unplanned, unstructured time laid out in front of me. This doesn’t mean I do nothing – far from it. It means that my days are not all planned in 10 minute increments (shout out to all recovering management consultants and lawyers!). I choose a place where there is lots to do if I choose to, but where I can find peace and quiet as well. Then I take each day as it comes – wake up and decide in the moment what the next moment will hold. Bliss.
Plan some unstructured time into your sabbatical. If you rush around for your whole sabbatical, you won’t get the restorative benefits and the recharged energy when you return.
2. Do something fun!
Sounds obvious right? But so many people do what they think they “should” do, not what they actually want to do. What would be fun for you? Cycling across Europe? Learning to Tango in Buenos Aires? Writing your memoir? What’s the thing you’ve been longing to do? Go do that!
3. Do something meaningful
This is about what’s meaningful to you. It doesn’t have to be saving the world. Of all my sabbaticals, there’s only been one where I’ve done an extended period of volunteering. But all of them have been meaningful to me. Think about the thing you’d be most proud of being able to say you’d done, once you return from sabbatical.
Come up with a long list of things you would love to do on your sabbatical. It can be things that are at home or abroad, doing lots of things combined or just one focused activity.
From your long list, come up with a few sabbatical variations. Options for different types and flavours of your sabbatical. You’ll need this when we start getting to reality….. time and money!
Once you have your list of the different kinds of sabbatical options, we need to start thinking about reality. How long will these things take and how much time can you take off. When you’re thinking about the timeframe for your sabbatical, there are three things to consider
1. How long will you be on sabbatical?
For each sabbatical option, how much time do you need to make it happen. For my eighth sabbatical, my dream was to really experience South America. I couldn’t do this with little trips, a week here and there. I wanted to immerse myself in the countries and the culture. To do it right, I knew I needed 6 months. How much time will you need to do it right?
You also need to consider reality of your situation. What’s the maximum amount of time you could take off work? Look at your employment contract for hints. If you’re lucky and your company has a sabbatical policy, then that may indicate your timeframe.
Most employment contracts have provisions for extended unpaid leave, usually for health reasons or to care for a relative. This can give you a foundation for your request. Also look at the maternity leave provisions. It’s common these days for companies to offer a period of paid maternity leave, followed by a period of unpaid leave if desired. This is different country to country, company to company but it will give you a hint about the leave culture and a starting point for your request and negotiation.
Also look at your vacation leave policy. Is it possible to buy or negotiate more leave? Is it possible to save it up and take it as a large chunk allowing at least some of your sabbatical time to be paid out as vacation?
Think creatively about how you can maximise your request for time off and align it to your companies existing policies.
2. When is the ideal time?
For some of your sabbatical options, there may be a seasonal element. You can’t climb Everest in the depths of winter and you won’t want to be sailing the Bahamas during the hurricane season. Research the optimal time to do your activities.
Also think about your current situation. Are there peak periods of the year at work where it would be harder to negotiate time off? Would you want to be away from your family at Christmas? Combine these things to get a picture of the best time to take your sabbatical.
You’ll most likely have to start making compromises and that’s ok. Be open to flexibility in your plan, without losing the essence of the dream.
3. How long do you need to plan?
The more notice you can give yourself and your work to prepare, the better. If you ask for a 6-month sabbatical, starting tomorrow, you’re facing an uphill battle in getting it approved and you’ll waste a good chunk of your precious sabbatical time just getting yourself in order.
My golden rule is this: The length of planning time should be at least equal or longer than the length of the sabbatical. 6 month sabbatical = at least 6 months to plan it.
Ok so you have this big, bold, exciting sabbatical plan. How the hell are you going to afford it?
It may not be as hard as you think. You need to be open to compromise and you will certainly need to think creatively about your finances. Think about these three things
1. How much money will you need?
Based on your activity and timeframe, cost out your sabbatical. Be careful you don’t fall into the trap of costing a sabbatical like a vacation. The cost of a sabbatical can be dramatically less than a vacation. It’s likely you won’t be living in a hotel and dining out every night. Besides being expensive, that would be pretty boring. Cost it out as if you’d be living like a local. There are loads of tools for this and we’ll go into much more detail about this in the next article about funding a sabbatical so check back here soon.
2. How much money do you have?
Will some of your sabbatical be using paid vacation time? Do you have some savings? Considering what you have and what are you willing to part with? If you’re struggling to let go of the purse strings, consider this to be an investment in your happiness and life goals. There’s no point getting to the end of your life with full bank account, but a life empty of experiences.
Let’s talk about going into debt to take a sabbatical. I hate debt and have never done a sabbatical on credit. But this is an entirely personal choice. You need to think about the pressure of paying for your sabbatical when you return and having a plan to manage it.
3. How can you make the most of what you have?
When you’re on sabbatical, your goal should be to a) decrease costs of your normal life and b) make money from the things you aren’t using.
Normal life is expensive. Utility bills. Commuting to work. Mobile phone subscription. The wedding present for that person you really don’t like but have to buy anyway. On sabbatical those costs go away. You’re aim is to get your life as cost neutral as possible so that when you’re not there, your costs are zero. Think of all your normal life expenses. How many of those just stop, or can be put on hold if you’re gone for 6 months?
If you’re away from home you can make money from your assets. You won’t be living in your home, driving your car or using your possessions. Can you Airbnb or rent your home? Can you rent out your car while you’re away? It’s now even possible to rent out your possessions. Think musical instruments, power tools even your wedding dress! Get creative and monetise your assets.
You can also just sell your stuff. Let’s be honest, do you really need that Stairmaster that’s been sitting in the garage gathering dust? Besides the financial gain, getting rid of stuff really helps if you’re planning on renting out your place while you’re away.
Be practical about costing out the minimum you’d need to make your sabbatical dream happen. Be honest about how much of your savings you want to use or if you’re prepared to go into debt. Be creative about how you can reduce your expenses and monetise your assets while you’re away. The economics of a sabbatical are not the same as a vacation.
Coming up with a sabbatical plan can be daunting, but by thinking through it in a systematic way and getting creative about your solutions, you can and will make it happen. Sure, you may have to make some compromises along the way. But… the sabbatical that you can take is better than one you never do take. Go make it happen.
So… How will you make your sabbatical dream a reality?
Beyond a Break – Recharging sabbaticals for a thriving world