Americans aren’t using their vacation time. Research by Project: Time Off found that we’ve shaved off roughly a week of average vacation time taken between 2000 and 2015.
While the importance of taking time off to rejuvenate is well-documented, that "lost week" also has the potential to positively impact your big-picture pursuits. By reclaiming that time and turning it into a mini-sabbatical or immersion experience, you can enhance your skills, make progress on a goal, or create the plan for your next big endeavor.
To do this right, you need to put some thought into it, says Jaye Smith, cofounding partner of Reboot Partners, a career consultancy in Sag Harbor, New York, and coauthor of Reboot Your Life: Energize Your Career and Life by Taking a Break. "Really think about your own professional goals and personal goals, and what you need most to help you to be better, happier, more engaged, more satisfied," she says. Then dive into making your lost time off a new opportunity.
Two types of planning go into a trip like this, says writer and speaker Chris Guillebeau, author of Born for This: How to Find the Work You Were Meant to Do. First, you’ll brainstorm about what you want to do, then you’ll begin to lay out the actual steps. "[Break] down your Next Big Thing time into some milestones," he advises. If your goal is to create new revenue streams in five days, your task list might include:
- Identify specific people you hope will help with your new venture
- Work out the financials of the trip
- Book classes or sessions you hope to attend
- Write a list of the materials and information you’ll need for your mini-sabbatical
- Make the necessary personal and professional arrangements for taking time off
- Work on the list of tasks or activities you want to accomplish while away
"Some steps will be fairly simple and others require a lot of work, but by outlining this way, you'll be able to see specific progress as you go along," Guillebeau says.
Choose something measurable and achievable—yet also somewhat challenging. After all, the chance to get away and work on something don't come around very often, so you should take good advantage of them, Guillebeau says. "’Figure out my life’ or ‘erase my $40,000 student loan debt’ isn't necessarily a realistic goal for a week. Instead, ‘start a side hustle so that I have more opportunities in the future’ is a great goal for a week. So is ‘write the first dozen posts of the new blog I'm going to launch’ or ‘master a requirement of the job I'm trying to get,’" he says.
Once you’ve decided what you need to get done, map out the timeline for doing so. It can be risky to wing it, Smith says. Without a game plan, you risk wasting your time as you figure out how to organize what you need to do.
One of the challenges you’ll likely face is the temptation to be distracted by work, social media, or other activities, says lifestyle design expert Dan Clements, coauthor of Escape 101: The Four Secrets to Taking a Sabbatical or Career Break Without Losing Your Money or Your Mind. Put limits on email, social media, and device usage if possible.
If it's in your budget, a change of scenery might be a good idea, because it gets you out of your routine and inherent distractions, and stokes creativity by exposing you to something new.
Chicago-based psychotherapist Kelley Kitley uses her family’s semi-annual visits to the New Jersey shore to work on her goals and take stock of where she is. She visits with her husband and four children for two weeks twice a year—once in December and once during the summer. In recent visits, she has done business and marketing planning for her practice, Serendipitous Psychotherapy, LLC, built her social media following, and written big parts of her forthcoming book.
But she also makes time to sit on the beach, giving her mind and body a rest. "The December trip is a great time to reflect on the goals that I’m setting, and the summer trip lets me see how far I’ve come," she says.
Whether you’ve taken a class or spent some serious time planning a new venture or career move, don’t let the time you’ve spent go to waste, Smith says. Make a plan to follow through. As you work on your goals during the mini-sabbatical, create a list of follow-up tasks. For example, if you’re launching a new venture, assign deadlines to the steps you’ll need to take to do so. Accountability partners—one or more people with whom you check in on a regular basis to report progress—can be invaluable here, she says.
"It’s such a precious thing to clear your time," she says. Be sure you apply the skills and insight you achieved after you return to your daily routine.