Things I learned while taking a sabbatical

by Joel - Published June 15, 2020

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Since taking time off of work, I’ve had a ton of epiphanies. Most of them happened within 90 days of quitting my job. But even now, after a two-year sabbatical, I’m still discovering new things about my relationship with “work.”

Let’s rewind a bit …

Thinking about taking a sabbatical from work

It was early 2018 and I was feeling run down, unappreciated, and a little lost. The company I worked for always wanted more from its employees, and no matter how hard I worked, I never felt like I was doing good enough.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly appreciative for the opportunity and time I spent working there (I appreciate every job I’ve had, no matter how crappy or difficult it was). I just wasn’t stoked about the path I was on, and more importantly, I wasn’t proud of the person I was slowly turning into.

I worried that if I quickly changed jobs or joined a new company, I could find myself in the exact same situation again a couple years down the road. I didn’t have a workplace problem, I had a ME problem! So I set my sights on taking a sabbatical. A full reset. A career break. I wanted to discover what my life would be like if I completely removed “work” from the equation.

Planning a year off of work

It’s a gutsy move to leave your job without another one lined up. No matter how much planning I did, there was always a little voice in the back of my head saying, “I wonder if I’m going to regret this later.”

Before handing in my resignation, I considered these three things:

Can I afford this?

How much will taking an unpaid sabbatical set me back in my journey to FI?  I ran several nerdy cost models and calculations. But it’s a tough question to answer, because a lot can happen in an extended period like a year or more! Ultimately, I decided that no matter what the financial cost was, it was going to be an investment in myself.

*I later wrote an article on this topic, “How much does it cost to take a year off work,” that explains the methods of trying to calculate a sabbatical year and why it doesn’t really matter in the end.

Who will hire me after 12 months off?

Am I committing career suicide? Before I quit, I asked old bosses, mentors, professional recruiters, etc. and got a wide variety of responses. Everything from, “No way, I would never hire an employee who just took a year off”  to “You will always be able to find work, Joel. I wish I did that when I was your age!”.

IMO there’s no perfect advice to give someone thinking about taking sabbatical leave. All I’ll offer on this subject is this:

  • When you want to get back to work, be prepared for a longer-than-usual job search NOT just because you will be overlooked quicker than other candidates, but because you’ll have changed so much as a person and will be pickier about any new job you want to take.
  • The most important question you’ll get asked from a prospective new employer is: How did you fill your time during your extended leave? Make sure you’ll have a worthy answer.

What am I going to do with my time?

I’m a list maker, so I compiled a huge list of things I wanted to do and try during my year off. These were passion projects, trips, and even just simple little things that I hadn’t gotten around to because I felt like work was always in the way.

The first 90 days

It was a weird experience going from a full schedule every day to nothing planned during an extended break. Instead of the world telling me how to live and what to do every day, I got to decide when, where, and how I did things. All this freedom got me reflecting on the way I made everyday decisions, like:

  • Before setting my alarm at night, “What time do I *feel like* getting up tomorrow?”
  • Before going to the store to get groceries, “Do I even like this store?” and “I wonder what else is around here?”
  • Before doing something that was on my personal goal list: “Do I really want to be doing this?”

Questioning everything led to a lot of self discovery and several epiphanies …

Epiphany 1: My to-do list was written by the old Joel.

How I thought I’d be spending my time and what I actually ended up doing was very different.

  • I thought I’d be travelling and exploring a lot … Turns out I enjoy my own backyard more.
  • I envisioned myself picking up old hobbies … Turns out that I’d dropped them for good reasons.
  • I thought I’d get bored at home … But unemployed life is just as busy as regular life. It’s just filled with different things.

Epiphany 2: “Finding yourself” isn’t productive. Instead, build your future self.

I felt a little lost when I left work. So naturally, I thought I needed to “find myself” again. You know, re-discover my inner purpose, whatever that means. I was trying to answer questions like “Who am I?” and “What is my purpose in life?”

But then I realized that discovering who I *was* might make me feel better about my past, but it wouldn’t help solve much for the future. Constantly looking backward meant I wasn’t looking forward.

So, I started focusing on who I wanted to be in the future and building ways to become that person. I’ve been more productive since thinking this way.

Epiphany 3: It’s not about me. It’s about everyone else.

I was raised to always tithe and give money to charities. But up until a couple of years ago, I had never donated my time. Since I had an abundance of time, and no income, I tried switching things up to do volunteering.

Helping others is one of the most fulfilling things in life. I’ve worked out that the more I focus on others, the happier I am.

Epiphany 4: Respect for other people’s lifestyle is crucial.

Just because I was feeling stuck and needed a break from work, it doesn’t mean that everybody else feels the same way.

Some people really enjoy their career (I envy them). Most people can’t afford to take a sabbatical. It’s unfair for me to encourage others to quit their jobs and take time off work like I did. Instead, I need to respect everyone’s individual situation.

Epiphany 5: Going “back” to work doesn’t mean going backward.

At first I assumed that after my break, I’d go right back to the same job in sales that I left. Even if I started in a lower position than I held before, I would approach it with a fresh perspective, new attitude, and work my way up again.

But time away made me rethink my priorities in life. It got me discovering and developing new skills I never thought I’d have. I stumbled across opportunities I never thought were available to me. That’s how I’m blogging here right now (talk about a career change)!

Epiphany 6:  Coast FI, here we go!

This one should probably be explained in a blog post all on it’s own …  I’ll get working on that! :)

Basically, my wife and I realized that there’s no point in racing to achieve FIRE if it makes us miserable along the way. We will cross the finish line in due course, whether we hit FI in 5 years, 10 years, or even 20 … we’re not in a rush to retirement anymore.

Joy is our north star, not money.

Epiphany 7: Maybe I could have had all these epiphanies without even taking any time off work at all!

I can’t go back in time and change the decision to quit my job. But, my theory is that 90% of the personal development that a sabbatical brings can be gained by simply:

  • Changing your mindset
  • Changing your attitude toward “work”
  • Reassessing your priorities (spending more time on #1 and less on #10)
  • Doing more of what makes you happy
  • Slowing down and just enjoying life more

I could have done these while working. And, you probably can too. Something to think about before pulling the trigger on a sabbatical yourself!

Welp, that’s it for now. Would love to hear if you’ve taken unpaid time off and/or have come to similar conclusions about work life … and does anybody work at a place where they pay for employee sabbaticals? If you do and you haven’t taken one, why not? If you have taken paid leave, what’d you do?

Cheers! And have a wicked week ahead!

– Joel

*Photo up top by Simon Migaj

{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

1 DJ @MyMoneyDesign June 15, 2020 at 6:36 am

Hi Joel,

Some great lessons here! I truly believe that if we all spent a little more time asking ourselves what’s really important in our lives, we could have more of these “a-ha moments”, with or without a sabbatical.

I especially like Epiphany 2: “Finding yourself” isn’t productive. Instead, build your future self. Most people don’t realize how much their jobs and responsibilities define them as a person. If you stop working temporarily and remove that part of your life, all you’re going to find is a big hole that will need to be filled by something else. Instead, you should treat this like a clean slate and put in the hard work of becoming the person you’d like to become.

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2 Joel June 15, 2020 at 9:26 am

Hey DJ. Yep, it took me ages to figure that one out (and thb I still fall into old thinking traps like this, even though I know better!).

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3 Gene Roberts June 15, 2020 at 6:46 am

I am lucky enough to have worked for a major semi-conductor manufacturer for the past 23 years which offers paid sabbaticals. For every 7 years you work, you are eligible for an eight week fully-paid sabbatical. About 8 years ago, they also started offering the choice of a four-week sabbatical for every 4 years worked (just a slightly less-generous option for the added frequency).
I have taken 3 sabbaticals: two 8-week, and one 4 week.
Nothing is more sad to me than seeing co-workers come back from a sabbatical having done “nothing” and gone “nowhere” because they didn’t save for the planned time.
I do save and plan and here are some of the things that has allowed me to do:
Though I no longer fly, I used to own my own airplane (tiny, and older than I am). I took two separate cross-country adventures from Phoenix to Florida and up most of the eastern seaboard visiting family and friends.
I’ve taken two, week-long Caribbean cruises. One was with my wife (now ex), on the other I took my mother.
My most recent sabbatical (4 weeks in 2017) saw me on a 6,000 mile motorcycle solo cross-country ride to see my first total solar eclipse with a re-located ex-neighbor in North Carolina.
I am currently eligible for another 4 week sabbatical right now. This will upgrade to the full 8-week in 2022.
I’m likely to use this next one to take some sailing courses and/or a sailing trip in preparation for my retirement plans.
The one after that (2026-“ish” @ 55 years old) I will take and retire afterwards.
The only “difficult” part of a sabbatical for me is having to come back to reality (work) afterwards. So that last sabbatical will be the best one ever!

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4 Joel June 15, 2020 at 9:20 am

Now that’s making the most of your paid time off! Amazing! Planning and saving money makes a huge difference in how much you can do while off work. I’m excited for your ‘final sabbatical’ – it will be the best for sure :)

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5 J June 15, 2020 at 4:06 pm

The 2017 Solar Eclipse was awesome! My husband, best friend, and I live in North Carolina. We actually drove down to Furman University in South Carolina so we could see the total solar eclipse. That is something we will never forget. The traffic getting back was INSANE, but so worth it. When I close my eyes right now I can still see that ghostly white corona.

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6 Joel June 15, 2020 at 4:12 pm

Amazing!

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7 Backpack Finance June 15, 2020 at 6:48 am

You basically shared all of my thoughts from the past year or so. I was contemplating for a very long time if to quit my job or not. I was just burnt down completely. At the end I decided I was going to quit. My company then convinced me to just go on a few months of non paid leave and see if it helps.

Then Corona came alomg and non of that happened

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8 Joel June 15, 2020 at 9:13 am

Corona has actually given a lot of people a good opportunity to re-think priorities and change their mindsets. I know some people who used to complain a lot about their jobs, now suddenly they are so thankful and happy to have them. Nothing in the work activities has changed, just the mindset towards the work. :)

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9 Timias June 15, 2020 at 8:37 am

Joel, thanks for your insights on this topic. I think about getting out of the 9-5 quite often but your epiphanies were great to put some things in perspective.

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10 Joel June 15, 2020 at 9:09 am

Great to hear. It’s certainly a tough decision, so reading and talking to others who have taken time off may give you a clearer picture. Specifically ask about the benefits, then question yourself if you can achieve those without quitting. I wish I considered this more before handing in my resignation.
Cheers! Joel

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11 Lisa O June 15, 2020 at 9:05 am

This truly inspired me to take a look outside the box. I have worked full time in the 8 – 5 world for 36 years. Now that the kids are on there own it is a lot easier for money to be put away. I look forward to retirement but I really need to be 62 -64 (another 7 or so years)! I would say that with the pandemic it has slowed a lot of lives down to spend time thinking about what is important.

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12 Joel June 15, 2020 at 10:01 am

Yes I agree. This pandemic has given many people a fresh perspective. For the unemployed it’s a very sad story, and my hope is that they emerge out of this in a better work situation than before.

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13 stephanie t June 15, 2020 at 11:32 am

Lisa O, I completely agree. Like you, I’ve been working 35+ years. Once I knew almost exactly how much longer I am going to be working my mindset completely changed. My retirement date is approx 4 years away. I’m very comfortable knowing how much thought went into my decision, and the steps between today and then.
I’ve been on a 7-month medical leave, which was supposed to be 3 months. It’s fully paid but wow! How my eyes have been opened to opportunity to consciously and carefully use my time. Many things I always gave great importance actually have zero place in my life now. I suppose this wasn’t the best way to have time away from work but the result is the same as a sabbatical-I have much to learn about myself and my true goals.
Excellent post Joel. Thanks!

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14 Joel June 15, 2020 at 1:09 pm

Thanks, Stef. Yeah this has all made me re-think recommending time off to people. If you can achieve the same benefits/happiness by just making a few small mindset changes, then I recommend trying that instead! :)
Thanks for sharing, and have a great week!

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15 Natalie June 15, 2020 at 10:22 am

I was thinking about taking a 6 month backpacking sabbatical in 2022. It’s weird, that a lot of things in my life are on a two year contract and ending all at one time: grad school, apartment lease, time on a board of directors…I’ll have been at my job for two years so might be time for a change there, too.

Biggest fear is becoming less competitive for jobs, or running out of money when I get back from my trip while still searching for work

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16 Joel June 15, 2020 at 1:16 pm

I had those same fears too… For the money one, I just withdrew waaaay to much cash and had it all sitting in a checking account. In hindsight it was a dumb move and I should have remained invested for a lot of it. Taking a year off for me cost much less than I thought it would.
For the job competitiveness, it comes down to how confident you are and how much you can set yourself apart from others in an interview. Some sectors prefer candidates to have good life experience (not just straight work experience), and I think it goes into how you answer the “What did you do with your time off?” question. If you have a solid answer, and can prove you learned stuff and grew as a person, it could be seen as a positive attribute and not a negative. My 2 cents!

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17 J June 15, 2020 at 4:18 pm

If it helps, when my classmates and I were going through recruiting season (masters of accounting program), one of my colleagues included lines for volunteer trips he took out of the country (South American, Sri Lanka, etc) and another spoke about his time away from the employed world hiking the entire Appalachian Trail with barely any supplies to describe their employment gaps. I know for a fact that first colleague scored several interviews because some of the people interviewing just wanted to hear about what that kind of life was like since they were always stuck in the office. One explicitly told him that in an interview. He ended up with several job offers (and he was not the strongest student academically) during a year when we were still coming out of the great recession and hiring was somewhat depressed. Being on a Board and doing something like a 6 mile hike might actually help you out a bit. Best of luck!

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18 Joel June 15, 2020 at 4:39 pm

A perfect example. Thanks, J. This is very encouraging to read for people that have a fear of not being re-hired after long breaks. It’s in how you explain the lessons you learned while away. Cheers!

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19 Del June 15, 2020 at 5:35 pm

We’re currently planning a family gap year / sabbatical to do some slow travel. Because our kids will be only 4 and 6, we won’t be sight-seeing much, just “slowing down and enjoying life”, getting into nature, trying new foods, and visiting old friends overseas.

I am really fortunate that my empoyer, after a number years of service, will give you a year off and you can come back (we are in Australia where women routinely take a year off after having a baby so well practised at coving long leave). Surprisingly though, not many people take advantage of it, I know one who went to London, and another who wanted to try starting a brewery but I think for most people they just don’t know how to finance a year off or are scared or say “one day”.

Because we just live on my salary and save my husband’s, we are in a good financial position, and the house will be paid off and lots of savings when we go. I also have accrued a few months long service leave (paid leave) by staying at the same great company for over 10 years.

What frustrates me is the lady on my team, who earns more than I do, who says they have no savings and she wished they could pay off their house and travel more ….. and then posts on facebook that they just bought a boat. As I always tell her, you make your choices, I make mine!

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20 Joel June 15, 2020 at 5:47 pm

I love that… a “Family Gap Year”. Your kids are gonna have so much fun and learn a ton I bet. Funny about that lady on your team… It’s hard sometimes to help other people realize they might be their own worst enemy… You just gotta do your thang and lead by example :)

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21 Max @ Max Out of Pocket June 16, 2020 at 5:52 am

I hit the sweet spot at work this year and somehow hit several of these epiphanies. I was feeling a bit burnout in healthcare at one point and thought a sabbatical would be the only way out of the funk. It turned out pulling back slightly did the trick. As you said, slow down and enjoy life more.

Max

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22 Joel June 16, 2020 at 2:15 pm

That’s great dude, I wish I had done the same. I guess it depends on your workplace and negotiating the ‘sweet spot’. In sales it was always difficult to take time off.

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23 Eric June 16, 2020 at 7:11 am

I think it should be “new normal” to take year off from the routine a modern human currently have. We are getting detached from ourselves and it will leads to stress and anxiety into new levels.

Good post, loved reading it!

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24 Joel June 16, 2020 at 2:18 pm

In some countries it’s normal to take long service leave. But, I think this also depends on your job. In an ideal world, if you enjoy what you do, the stress and anxiety never builds in the first place! No reason to take time away if you don’t want or need to!

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25 JoshDoesFatFIRE June 17, 2020 at 2:42 pm

Great article Joel.
Sounds like your sabbatical was pretty good. I think a lot of us spend so much time working that we forget that there are other things in life. I sometimes find it works like that anyway.

In the UK, we have a scheme for COVID called furlough and I have basically had 10 weeks away from work and it has really given me chance to reflect.

Best wishes from the UK!

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26 Joel June 17, 2020 at 4:20 pm

Hello over there! Yeah I think many people are guilty of focussing on work too much (myself included!). It’s strange thinking that such a horrible pandemic is slowing people down and helping them reflect on the important things in life.
Cheers Josh – have a good one mate!

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27 Suzy Zgorski June 17, 2020 at 3:15 pm

Joel – Welcome to the blog! I have followed Jay for years and all though I was sad to see him move on, I am looking forward to your new posts.

I am in the middle of my second self-funded sabbatical. My first was in 2012 and was a great success. It took lots of planning and thought for me to take the leap and I am happy to say it worked out great. Travel, volunteer work, and lots of self-discovery happened in the course of the year. The best outcome was starting new exercise routines that I still do today!
In August of 2019, I quit my full-time job to begin my second self-funded sabbatical. The fall and winter of 2019 were great with lots of trips and time spent with family. In the spring COVID-19 decided to tag along and it changed my plans of traveling the world but hasn’t put a complete damper on my sabbatical. I am still enjoying remote (Zoom, Messenger, etc) time with family and friends as well as reading, online classes, and lots of golf. I am lucky to be in Virginia where they still allowed golf.
I have no plans to go back to full-time work until the year is completed. In the meantime, I have a small coaching practice and help others with job transitions and to plan their own sabbaticals as well as manage work/life balance.
I would love to see more companies recognize the need and benefits of sabbaticals. Even if your company doesn’t offer a sabbatical, I would encourage workers to fund their own sabbatical. It isn’t easy and well worth the risk and unforeseen opportunities that arise.

Thanks, Suzy

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28 Joel June 17, 2020 at 4:25 pm

Hey Suzy! It’s great to hear you are coaching others and helping them learn a good balance also. I think it’s cool that you’ve got a little income also during your sabbatical – that goes a long way while taking time off full-time work.

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29 Matt June 18, 2020 at 8:12 am

Actually I just did this! I was overworked and it felt like I was spinning and it was having a negative impact on my health so after a few really rough months my wife and I decided that it was time to take a break. Initially, there was more than enough around the house to keep me busy.

I figured that I needed to decompress a little bit, but what I didn’t realize was just how heavy the toll of working the way I had was. I’m approaching a month and a half and I’m still decompressing! I haven’t hit any really defined epiphanies but I’m starting to mentally go in some interesting directions,

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30 Joel June 18, 2020 at 12:23 pm

Sweet! Work/Life balance is a great thing to reflect on, and *how* you work makes a big difference. Sounds like if/when you go back to work you’ll be more conscious about the things that lead to stress and overworking! Good luck with the time off and enjoy the process – let me know how it all goes! – Joel

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31 Kathy June 18, 2020 at 10:17 pm

I took my first 2 year unpaid leave in 2011,moved to Europe where I had such a great time that decided to get anotherjob there. Unfortunately, I lost a loved and was so devastated that I decided to come back to the States where I was offered a job at my old company. It’s been some years and I am thinking of taking another 2 year unpaid leave in 2022, but this time I will go to my home country in Africa where I have a farm. There is already a finished house so I won’t have to rent. I want to try farming full time and see if I can sustain myself. If I can and also manage to save from theland, I may retire early. I have savings which I have been ramping up in preparation. I am also researching some farm related hands on short courses. I am assured of having my job if I decide to come back. Fortunately, I have a pension which I can take as cash as soon as I retire or take as annuity in a few years.

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32 Joel June 19, 2020 at 9:38 am

Sounds like you have some great options! Guaranteed work is a great safety net to have. I wish more companies could offer this!

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33 Daniel Chege June 23, 2020 at 9:31 am

If you love what you do, your work and life will balance automatically. For example, I love web design and travelling, and my blogging lifestyle has enabled me to do both at the same time, while making money.

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34 Joel June 23, 2020 at 12:00 pm

You are living the dream! Sadly, I didn’t figure this out until just recently. But now that I know, I’m doing my best to integrate my “work” and “life”. I think there’s some travel blogging in my future too! :)

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