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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

How You (Yes, You) Can Make a Sabbatical Happen

Most of us find ourselves, at some point, dreaming of changing up our daily routine, doing something out of the ordinary, or simply just taking a break.

And some companies and industries, like academia, government, or research, acknowledge this fact and encourage their employees to take a sabbatical every so often. But for the rest of us, the idea of doing something different or taking time off to learn and travel can be an intimidating prospect. How will you afford it? How will you fit it into your career? What will you actually do during that time?

Well, let me tell you: You’re closer than you think.

I’ve known many people who have made a sabbatical or long-term travel a reality. Like an editor who was tired of editing travel magazines from the office, so she decided to get out there herself. Or friends who used to work at a PR firm who decided they wanted to spend a year traveling the world and learning how to build houses—everything from mud houses to tiny houses—to understand more about sustainable living.

In fact, if you think it through carefully, you may find that doing what you’ve always wanted might actually benefit you and your career. Here are the first steps to turning all the daydreaming from your desk into a reality.

Acknowledge Your Dreams

In my classes, I often ask students about their dreams, and I’ve heard everything from wanting to travel and start a food business to going to Madagascar to research lemurs. These are valid goals, important goals, and goals that can definitely be achieved.

But what I always find surprising is that my students can give me a list of all the challenges or concerns that are keeping them from pursuing their goals, but have trouble talking more about the goal itself. In fact, I think we are sometimes afraid to articulate our dreams out of fear of failure or judgement.

So, the first step is to push those concerns aside for a moment and be honest about your goals. What have you always wanted to do? What kind of experience would enrich your life or put you on the path to the career you’ve always dreamed of? Write them down. It’s only once you give your dreams a chance to succeed that you can start thinking about the transitions you would need to make and what sort of resources you would need to get there.

Consider Your Future

After you’ve spent your time dreaming up what you are going to do during your sabbatical, fast forward to the future, and think about how this trip might help you later. Could you start a travel blog, create a portfolio of your work, or make important new contacts? Might you give yourself time and space to finally write that novella or apply for fellowships or positions? Can you gain field experience or a critical perspective for your career? Maybe you’ll simply get to know yourself better.

No matter what your ambitions are, thinking through how your time off will help you gain tangible skills and how you will chart your growth and development will allow you to market your experience, either now (while you’re asking for a leave of absence), or later (on your resume and during the job hunt).

Think Ahead

One of the reasons sabbaticals sound so scary is that people aren’t sure they can take the time off. Which is why I recommend starting to think about your timeline far in advance—at least a year. Some companies allow for their employees to take sabbaticals, but often require advance notice. Or if you’re going on your own, you’ll need this time to save up or reach your funding goals and have everything in order to take time off (think subletting, pet sitting, and taking care of expenses).

In any case, a good first step is talking to people in your company or industry who have taken extended time off and finding out what they did to make it work. How long were they gone? Did they ask for a leave of absence? Did they do freelance work during that time? Did they take time off during a period of transition? How far in advance did they plan? This can help you think through your own timeline in a savvy way.

Start Researching the Resources Out There

Whether you want to take a massive road trip across Europe, volunteer in Thailand, or hone your cooking skills in Morocco, starting to research your options can get you thinking (and inspired). Explore experiences at sites like HelpX or Workaway International, which focus on offering housing and food for volunteering or working. These experiences range from helping artists restore their houses in Belgium to tending bar at a B&B in Romania. Maybe these experiences will just be a stop along the way, or maybe they will turn into something much bigger, but there are countless opportunities to consider.

Also check out Idealist, which has undergone a huge revamp, not only connecting people to opportunities, but helping them cultivate a network for the causes they care about. To start getting inspired about housing, I recommend checking out Airbnb, VBRO, or Couchsurfing, which not only serve as sites for long term rentals, but also offer information and community networks.

Put Yourself Out There

It could be something as simple as starting to get pricing for plane tickets or articulating your idea for a sabbatical to friends. It could be beginning to send emails to different organizations abroad, starting to research volunteer opportunities, or attending meetups to learn about what other people have done to make it work for them. It could even be as simple as talking to HR and seeing if there are any posts available in international offices. But whatever you do, do something that puts your dreams out there and helps you start exploring the options available to you.

Remember: Taking time off to explore your perspectives and the world and doesn’t have to be for someone else. It is within your reach. And it can be an important time to develop your skills, gain perspective, and begin thinking about all the possibilities out there for you. So, next time you find yourself about to make an excuse for why you aren't pursuing your dreams, replace it with something positive that can get you one step closer to reaching your goal.

At the Women’s Travel Fest, I recently heard from Mariellen Ward, founder of the blog BreatheDreamGo, who shared her experiences in India. She had dreamed about travel for a long time before she decided to commit to her goal. When she finally did, it changed her life and set her on the career path she always dreamed of. Ward writes, “I’ve found my dreams, and they are traveling (especially in India and Asia), writing, and yoga. And I have followed them wholeheartedly for the last few years, because they were buried for so long.”

I encourage you, too, to unbury your dreams. Because once you start planning for them to become a reality, incredible growth and change can happen.

Ready to get away? In the next installment of this series, we’ll explore how to actually start preparing for your sabbatical and how to make the most of your time away.

Photo of plane courtesy of Shutterstock.