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3 strategies to help you take a sabbatical

If you’re self-employed, the idea of taking off a big chunk of time might feel impossible. But creating a long-term plan can help.

3 strategies to help you take a sabbatical
[Photo: sasint/Pixabay]
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With 18 months of pandemic under our belt, just about everyone’s feeling a little burned out. I attempted to pace my work frenzy by taking every Friday off, but the real prize is a sabbatical: a longer period (it could be a month, a few months, or even a year) away from work to help you reset.

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For my new book The Long Game: How to Be a Long-Term Thinker in a Short-Term World, I interviewed productivity expert Dave Crenshaw, who “walks the talk” by taking two full months off every year. I’ve managed to take a month off —once, a decade ago—but the logistics and planning nearly killed me. I had to understand how Dave managed to pull it off, every single July and December. Here are three strategies he shared, which can help lay the groundwork for your own sabbatical. (Mine’s coming up next January and February, post book-launch.)

Look at your finish line

Start by looking at your “finish line,” Dave suggests. “It’s defining the time in your day at which you will stop. If you’re not able to stop at a consistent time each day, you’re not ready for the marathon.” If you’re currently knocking off at 7:30 p.m. every night, see if you can roll it back to 7 p.m., and eventually 6:30 p.m.. It’s like resetting your circadian rhythms: If you’re a night owl, you could certainly force yourself to wake up at 6 a.m. one day, but you’ll collapse from fatigue, and the practice won’t stick. Instead, you need to adjust gradually.

You have to be firm about it: “I am going to stop work. No matter what is going on in my day, I will stop.” As Dave notes, “You’ll encounter things that you can’t complete within that time. So, you have to start making choices. Either I’m going to start saying no to things that are low value or I’m going to have to start developing systems.” That forced decision making makes you better and sharper.

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Create your oasis

Once you’ve honed your ability to stop work at a certain time every day, you can start to create what Dave calls an “oasis” in your week, which gives you a small break and ability to reset. “Is it an hour every Friday? Is it half a day?” Dave says. In his case, he takes a break every workday to watch short comedy videos.

Even if it’s been a fast-paced, stressful day, he knows he has that respite awaiting him. “You commit to it, and you ask yourself strategic questions. What must I do to make this happen? When you start asking questions like that, it improves your manner of thinking and you start to become more effective in your career. You have to look for systemic improvements.”

Finally, he says, you can apply the “oasis” concept throughout the year: How can you take off a week, or two weeks, or even a month? Stepping away from work for that long may feel confronting for hard-charging professionals (especially Americans, who aren’t used to long breaks). But taking that break forces process improvements that make you, and your business, better. Someone thinking entrepreneurially, Dave says, will realize that “If I do this, I will make more money. I will increase the value of my time.”

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Give yourself a planning horizon

Getting to take a month off—much less two or more—may feel impossible. And it probably is, if you’re looking at your calendar for next month. But, says Dave, “You have to commit to it well in advance, so that all of the choices that you’re making with your time and your priorities are around it. That’s the problem that a lot of people run into. They’re like, ‘Oh, I can’t do this because I’ve got this next week, and this next week.’ Then think further out. Think three, four months out in the future.” (I planned my own month-long sabbatical in 2011 nearly a year in advance.)

Dave’s advice, of course, isn’t just for planning vacations and taking sabbaticals. It’s about accomplishing anything meaningful that we want to do. If we blame our full calendars and say we can’t possibly write that screenplay or launch that podcast or attend that conference, we may technically be accurate. But we’re also being short-sighted. Because we can always make room for what’s important if we plan far enough out on the horizon.

Playing the long game means being willing to think ahead, and even make short-term sacrifices, to accomplish what matters. When we become disciplined about time management—including scheduling our time off—we’re giving ourselves the space we need to restore ourselves and ultimately achieve our goals.

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This article is adapted from the book The Long Game: How to Be a Long-term Thinker in a Short-Term World, by Dorie Clark (Harvard Business Review Press, 2021).

Dorie Clark is a marketing strategy consultant who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and has been named one of the Top 50 business thinkers in the world by Thinkers50. You can receive her free Long Game strategic thinking self-assessment.