How Long Should Your Sabbatical Be?

July 25, 2008

Reader S. asks:

“How long should my sabbatical last? Is a month long enough? A year? Does it matter?”

We’ve been asked this question more than once, and it surprised me a bit the first time. The truth is, though, it does matter. Whether you’re considering a permanent escape, a full-on sabbatical, or a mini-retirement, here’s why duration is important, and how you might decide how long your escape should last.

Up To 1 Month

At the risk of getting into semantics, breaks of just a few weeks are really just long vacations. But given that many people have never taken more than a single week off in their entire working lives, these short breaks can be an important starting point.

For business owners, it’s a great way to test-drive being away from things. For workaholics and the chronically under-vacationed, it’s a taste of what life might look like when it’s not fueled by adrenalin 24-7. For many, a month off is the perfect catalyst to start thinking about a longer escape.

These short breaks are a great introductory step. Your cat can probably survive a few weeks with a huge bowl of food, a cat door, and an open toilet bowl. Train him well and he might even water the plants. Your boss will forgive you, and you won’t need to auction off the contents of your home.

The bottom line: A month is a stepping stone to something larger. If six months feels too overwhelming for you, and stops you from taking action, then start small and commit to using your short escape as a springboard to something longer.

1-3 Months

For most people, this is getting outside the range of standard vacation, and so for the first time you’ll have to make more serious workplace and business plans. It also requires a little more financial planning.

The cat and the plants are going to need more permanent arrangements, but you don’t need to sell your car, rent your home or quit your job in order to wrangle a couple of months off. For the first time, though, you’re going to get a real taste of what it’s like to shed some of the mental life load you’ve been carrying.

Be prepared for: some eye-opening insights into your life, and the appearance of a strange voice inside your head that asks a lot of tough questions about what you’re returning to at the end of this short sabbatical. And be forewarned – that little voice doesn’t like evasive answers.

3-6 Months

For me, this has always marked the entry into “true” sabbatical territory, although everyone has their own definition.

When traveling, I’ve always found that by the three month mark a place begins to feel more like home. You’ve had an opportunity to make relationships and become involved in a community. If you’re planning to do volunteer work, three to six months is also an opportunity to make a more significant difference. Also, most short term volunteer programs require you to pay to jump on board, but when you get into longer time periods, a lot of new doors can open up.

If you’re relocating to another country, you’ll also discover that your language skills are really going to kick into gear after 3 months. You’ll find your ear warming up to foreign sounds, and you’ll develop solid confidence in your ability to speak.

Watch out: Once you crack the three month mark, that little voice inside your head is going to start making sense. You might never look at home the same way again.

6 Months and Beyond

Once you begin to crest the six month mark, some important changes start to happen. For lengthy escapes like this, you’re dealing with a whole different kind of preparation. Most people can’t just cobble together a year’s worth of time using a few sick days, unused vacation and some good grace from their employer – this is serious time off.

In Escape 101 we used the idea of “big rocks” as symbol of the difficult to shift, inertia-heavy things in your life that might hold up a sabbatical – things like your house, cars and job. The first thing you’ll notice when you plan a longer sabbatical is that you start to look at some of those big rocks differently.

People planning long absences are more likely to sell their cars, rent or sell their homes, and go on indefinite leave or quit their jobs altogether. Business owners make sustainable changes in the people and processes of their companies, as opposed to patching together more temporary solutions.

The result of course, is that the different type of preparation that goes into a long career break tends to create a different type of experience while you’re away. You’ll have fewer ties to your “normal” life, and less mental baggage as a result. The cat, the car, the boss, the house, the banking – in order to escape for up to a year or more, you’ve had to move beyond band-aid solutions for those things.

When you leave briefly, all those things still exist. When you take six months or more off, you need to solve those things,and the result is an extraordinary peace of mind that’s difficult to find any other way.

In the End, A Regular Vacation Won’t Cut It

Sabbaticals are about time. Doing something “crazier than usual “with your standard two-week vacation isn’t the same. It’s great, don’t get me wrong, but you’re not going to get into the good stuff until you’ve really escaped for longer.

The message here is this:

The longer your sabbatical, the greater and more enduring the benefits.

If you’ve never taken a decent vacation, then do it. Book the time now. You need it, or you wouldn’t be reading this. A short sabbatical beats no sabbatical at all. But don’t fool yourself into thinking that a good vacation and six months off are the same thing.

The great thing is that you can start small. Try to double the longest vacation you’ve ever had, and you’ll notice some significant benefits. Double that a couple of more times, and you’re into sabbatical territory and a whole new way of looking at your life.

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7 Responses to “How Long Should Your Sabbatical Be?”

  1. IT Pilgrim on July 25th, 2008 6:08 pm

    Wonderful post. Thank you this helps a lot. I probably will have to start with “doubling the longest vacation” I’ve ever had, which would bring me to a grand total ….drum roll … of two weeks. Doesn’t seem like enough though. Perhaps its best to hold out for at east a month or more. Oh well, time to quit that JOB anyway


  2. Cris on July 25th, 2008 10:28 pm

    Awesome post, Dan!!
    It’s funny how I can see myself in each of your paragraphs! And they are all SO true!

    For years I’ve been the business owner and the 24-7 workaholic that couldn’t have 1 week off without working full nights and weekends before. 1 or 2 weeks vacation don’t make too much difference in your life, you’ll be back to your work and routine and nothing changed, maybe you’re a bit more relaxed and happy, that’s all.

    When I got to the limit of working-insanity in Brazil, I had a 45 days holidays in NZ… and yes.. more than 1 month away and you have a “ears-opening” (or “mind-opening”?) and that little voice becomes audible. When I went back to my successful business, the big clients were speaking far lower than the voice in my head.

    5 months later I was at the airport moving to another country, business sold, car sold, family crying (but happy!)… a sabbatical without expiry date.

    After living 1 year away, work is now something I have to do to pay my bills and live the life I want… in 45 days I am off to what maybe we could call a “secondary sabbatical” for 6 months.. no work at all.

    I wonder if once into the sabbatical territory, we can leave it at some point… (?!)

  3. Dan on July 26th, 2008 7:48 pm

    @Pilgrim: Go for that month!

    @Cris: Thanks for the comment. Sounds like life has changed a lot for you. Have a great six months, and make sure you check in part way through and let us know how it’s going!

  4. mark on July 29th, 2008 12:28 am

    Dan – what a kicka$$ post! I am in the Caribbean and you got me jonesing to take a nice long trip!

    Thanks for saying that I am on permanent sabbatical, although, I am not sure that’s a compliment. 🙂

  5. soultravelers3 on September 25th, 2008 3:43 pm

    “The longer your sabbatical, the greater and more enduring the benefits.”

    I could not agree with this more! Great post! There really is no greater luxury than time.

    I think people might be amazed at how quickly even a year can go by, and I support going as long as possible and more than a year if at all possible. Once you go through all the prep, might as well make it worth the while, since it is the hardest part.

    One of the greatest things for families, is the time together. Every time I watch my daughter and husband together, I am tremendously grateful for our ope ended world tour. How many fathers and children get this kind of quality and quantity time together?

    It has done wonders for our marriage too, just because of the time together factor. I suppose all the adventures and living in the now helps too, but time is a precious gift. Life is truly meant to be more free than most live it.

  6. Dan on May 14th, 2010 3:31 am

    Nice article Dan,

    thought i’d share my experience, briefly.

    I was a full on over acheiver constantly frustrated at cultural inertia.

    As a corporate Environmental Practitioner i repeatedly recieved hush money ( >$100K in total ) lamely described as redundancy. This happen so often it eventually rocked my faith in people, as individuals and in organisations. It also rocked my faith in me.

    I took a 4 year sabbatical, travelled around Australia twice, learned a building trade, got into some charitable endeavors and even raced off road motorcycles. The gaining of new perspectives was (as it turns out) essential to my being.

    The transformation was subtle but solid and i am now returning to my professional calling a somewhat different person. I laugh more and can be heard singing in the workplace from time to time.

    Since you’re reading this, I challenge you (playfully) to take some time to find some time and cherish it.


  7. M.H. on January 9th, 2011 5:27 am

    Great post, I agree 100%

    I’m in my mid-30’s and just approaching the 1 year period for my sabbatical. My time away was being planned for a few months when I had the chance of taking voluntary redundancy with a good pay-off. Perfect, & so lucky!

    I planned to live in a different country and learn a new language. I wanted a challenge (I was terrible at languages when a kid at school) that would keep my brain active while not working. One year on, I’ve learned a language (not fluent, but at a reasonably high skill level).

    Back home I rented my house out, sold my car, in fact sold almost anything in my house too and it gave an incredible sense of freedom (except when I sold my piano… very sad…).

    Stepping on to the plane, one-way ticket in hand, felt great. The businessman in the next seat asked “why the smug grin?” I explained and he didn’t talk to me for the rest of the flight. Jealous, are we? 😉

    So, now it’s time to get a job to top-up my savings but it will be a case of “work to live, not live to work”…

    In summary: No regrets.

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