The 4 psychological phases you'll go through on a long break from work
Updated: May 25
How do I make the most of my time off? This question has been coming up a lot lately.
There are some distinct psychological phases that we go through when we've got a chance to take a long break from work - whether that is going on sabbatical leave, being on furlough, or just taking a time out. Understanding these phases will help you navigate your time off and help you make the most of it.
I've taken 10 sabbaticals - from 1 month to a year each time. I learned this process the hard way. By doing it wrong, messily, sub optimally. Slowly along the way I learnt the emotional and mental phases I was going through when I was taking an extended break from work. This has been echoed by the stories of my clients and other people I talk to about their sabbatical experiences. What's interesting is that I've also stumbled across research from the fields of psychology and neuroscience that also support my personal experiences.
Phase 1 - Break with the past and decompress
The first phase starts on the first day of your leave. (Arguably you could say that there is a pre-phase that is all about giving yourself permission to take time off and the courage to do it. That topic is covered in some of my other articles which you can see here.) Phase 1 starts at day one of your break.
This first phase is all about decompressing and letting go of all of the built up stress and tension that you've been holding in your body and your mind. It can take quite some time for us to let go of our normal everyday life patterns and move into the mode of just being. It’s about shedding the identities that give us status in our normal lives – the job title, the membership status, the posessions we own - so that we can get back to the core of who we are. I always call this the process of getting back my “mojo”. Getting back to the real me without the judgement or labels of the world.
It’s also about slowing down finding a new pace of life. What’s happening in your brain during this phase is the slowing down of our beta brain waves from fast mental activity to a more relaxed state. In everyday life our brains are in the fast beta frequency most of the time but this takes an incredible amount of energy and can lead to anxiety and stress. Our brains need to decompress as well.
The amount of time you spend in this phase is relative to how wound up you've been in normal life and how quickly you are able to let go and decompress. I found this quite hard to do in my first few sabbaticals, but now that I'm aware of the process I'm able to decompress quicker.
You'll know when you're reaching the end of phase one and you're moving into phase two because one day you'll sit back and realise that you haven't thought about work for days, maybe even weeks, and you've never felt calmer and more relaxed.
Phase 2 - Live in the present and be inspired
This phase is all about living in the moment, loving what you’re doing and appreciating the journey. It’s about being present. What this looks like in practice is having the freedom to do what you want with each day and the excitement of being totally absorbed in those activities – creative projects, travel, learning. While there are things that you’re “doing” during this phase, you’re actually in a state of “being” where you’re living in the moment.
When you’re in this mindset, the big questions will start coming up. “Am I happy?” “Why am I here?” “What’s important to me?”. When these questions came up for me and I was in this calm mindset, I felt more comfortable just sitting with the questions and not forcing myself to answer it immediately. It’s about noticing the question, but allowing yourself to be at peace with not knowing the answer.
For me, this has always been where the magic happened. It’s the phase of collecting epiphanies. When you are relaxed and present, your brain to moves from beta into alpha brain waves – a relaxed, present state of mind. Alpha brain waves are associated with increase creativity and allow us to have original thoughts about previously disconnected ideas. This is the state of inspiration.
While you’re taking a stroll, working on a painting or playing with your child, suddenly new ideas and thoughts will pop into your brain. This phase is all about collecting those epiphanies and being open to where they may lead you.
You’ll know when you’re reaching the end of Phase 2 because suddenly, you’ll not be able to get one of these ideas out of your head. You’ll want to dive into it, explore, learn and you’ll have the energy and motivation to do it. This leads us into Phase 3.
Phase 3 - Explore ideas and follow curiosity
You’ve given yourself the time and space to decompress and live in the present. And now there’s one idea that you just can’t wait to dive into. In this phase you may be moving back to the beta brain waves associated with critical thinking and problem solving, but it’s in a way that’s energising and recharging. It’s not leaving you feeling depleted or stressed and you’ve got the calm peace of mind to move fluidly between living in the present and following your curiosities.
This is the moment were you will find clarity on what you want to do next, who you want to be and what’s important to you. It’s the starting point for creating a more purposeful life for yourself.
You’ll naturally reach the end of phase 3 as you’re nearing the end of your sabbatical. As you know your time is coming to an end, your mind will naturally focus more into making some plans for your future and how you want to return to normal life.
It’s really important to manage the re-entry process by giving yourself time, setting some boundaries and knowing what you want to change when you return. And now you’re armed with new energy, motivation and sense of purpose.
To me, I always felt like so much had changed in how I saw myself and what I wanted in life after a sabbatical. The hard thing was slotting back into the ‘old life’ that didn’t feel like it fit me anymore. This is why phase 4 is so important.
Phase 4 - Move to your future with purpose
One of the biggest mistakes I see people make is that they come back into their ‘old life’ without a plan for how they will transition to what’s next for them. When you’re confronted with the 'old you', it’s so easy to slot back into those behaviours and patterns. After all, it’s also the way everyone else sees you and how they are comfortable interacting with you. The world around you also needs to transition in their perception of you.
This is the phase of using the energy, motivation and inspiration from your time away to move you forward into your future. Having a plan for how you’ll do that and mapping that out is critical. It’s important to know the milestones you’ll need to achieve on the path to change. But it’s also critical to get some healthy happy habits into your life that allow you to enjoy the journey along the way. There’s no point being so focused on goals that you forget to enjoy life.
Of all the phases, this is the one I’ve failed at most often – it’s been so easy to slip back into my old routines when the busyness of life took over again. Then, after a while, I’d realise I was back in a hole and needed another sabbatical. Maybe that’s why I’ve taken 10 sabbaticals!
This phase ends when you’re on your way and if feels like there’s no turning back – like you’ve become the 'new you' and your committed to the pathway of getting to your best life.
Parallels with the psychology of change and transitions
There are some strong parallels between the phases I’ve described, and the process of transition mentioned by William Bridges in his book “Managing Transitions – making the most of change”.
Bridges talks about:
Letting go – “letting go of the old ways and the old identity that people had”
The Neutral Zone – “when critical psychological realignments and repatternings take place”
The New Beginning – “When people develop the new identity, experience new energy and discover a new sense of purpose”
The most important thing to remember when you’re planning a long break is that you need to allow yourself to move through the phases at your own pace. You can’t rush it. You can’t force it. You must trust the process and trust yourself in navigating it.
It’s not always an easy journey to make but then, nothing worthwhile was ever easy. And the end result of living a purposeful life you love? – priceless.
Beyond a Break exists to help people and companies use the power of time off to stay recharged and purposeful. Through coaching, consulting and workshops, we help people get more space and balance in their lives to focus on what's important.