The thought of taking a weeks- or months-long sabbatical may seem ludicrous.
After all, a recent study found that Americans take only about half of the vacation time to which we’re entitled, so taking months away from work is impossible, right?
Not so fast, says Dan Clements, author of Escape 101: The Four Secrets to Taking a Sabbatical or Career Break Without Losing Your Money or Your Mind, which he co-authored with his wife, Tara Gignac.
An experienced sabbatical-taker, Clements says that many people could actually plan an extended period of time off to work on a project, learn something new, or simply step off life’s hamster wheel for a while. Some companies even have formal sabbatical programs. But even if yours doesn’t, it’s possible with some planning.
“Sabbaticals are fundamentally an inside job. In other words, it’s the kind of desire and the commitment to do it that really makes it happen. So, regardless of whether your company provides for it or there’s a precedent for it, it’s kind of important to take the bull by the horns and believe you can do it,” Clements says.
Ready to plan your time off? Here are the steps.
First you have to get clear about why you’re taking the time. The last thing you want to do is end up with an approved two or three months and then have the time tick away with nothing to show for it. Do you want to write a book, travel, or learn a new skill? Plan an appropriate amount of time to accomplish what you plan–or at least to get a running start that you can continue after you go back to work–and set interim milestones or goals.
If you’re timid about the amount of time you should take at first, Clements recommends doubling the length of your longest vacation. Cathy Allen, cofounder of Santa Fe, New Mexico-based Reboot Partners, LLC and author of Reboot Your Life, says a sabbatical is typically between one and six months.
Set a date, and start saving. If you want it to happen, you have to commit, Clements says. That means picking a date and sticking to it. He also recommends creating a budget and savings plan to ensure you’ll have enough money to get you through the time off and fund your activities.
When Allen and her team consult with companies and individuals about sabbaticals, they look at the benefits to both sides. The employee should be prepared to explain how the time off will enhance his or her work experience or effectiveness. For example, if you’re planning to travel, learn a new language, or write during your time off, explain how improving your knowledge of the world, language skills, and writing ability can benefit the company. There can be hidden benefits for the company, too, she says.
“Intel tells us that one of the best benefits to them is not only do their employees remain loyal and come back refreshed and renewed, but it helps employees have a broader-based skill set, because while an employee is gone the others in the department have to cover for that employee. It helps them to learn more about different functions and actually it helps develop skills, she says.
Once you’ve convinced your employer, work with him or her to plan your exit, Allen recommends. Train fellow employees in what they’ll need to know to cover for you and leave written instructions for anything you handle regularly.
Sometimes, it’s unavoidable to keep in contact during your sabbatical in case questions come up, but Clements says it’s usually better if can disconnect entirely. If you must keep in touch, try to limit contact to specific times–say, Friday mornings–so you’re not constantly on call.
When you get back, Allen says it’s normal for people to be curious about what you did and learned. Be prepared to discuss those subjects and don’t feel defensive–you’ve done something unusual, so it’s natural for others to be interested. Also, think about how you’re going to apply what you learned or the insights you gained to your work.
“Reentry may take longer and be harder than you think. You will have changed more on your time away than you might have imagined, so be prepared for that,” Clements says.