Before I started my company in 2015 I was working a corporate job, traveling a ton, finishing my MBA and thinking big about my next steps. I worked all the time — it was hard to “shut off” and my health was suffering. Not because I didn’t eat well or exercise — I somehow managed to find time for exercise. I planned hikes during the weekend, I had a lunchtime workout buddy and I found time for other types of self care.
It was my mental health that was suffering. Could the addiction to “busyness” be any more clear? The moment I stopped marking items off my to-do list, acing a test, launched a product, had a successful business trip was the moment that I felt lost and adrift. The addiction ran deep, it’s something I’d been doing since I was a kid — since high school at least. I don’t think I was ever specifically trained that busyness = achievement, success, etc. but that’s the message I got and I honed the skill perfectly. But after a while it didn’t FEEL good.
I started realizing there was a limit to the benefits I felt by achieving and that it wasn’t enough of a motivator anymore. I wasn’t happy and I wasn’t fulfilled. It didn’t help that I felt like there wasn’t a real career path for me at my job despite all my hard work. After my MBA experience I was really looking to create, build and make a difference rather than be a cog in a wheel on a bigger corporate bus.
I made a gut decision. I quit my job. The day before I finished my final presentation for my MBA I just quit. Did I have a plan about what I wanted to do? Loosely. Had I done any of the work to make it happen yet? No! Who had the time? So I decided I would take a break from work, and I called it a sabbatical.
I provided myself with unstructured time with the specific purpose of doing nothing. I provided myself the ability to feel what it was like to do nothing (it had been decades since I felt that). Let me tell you — it was a challenge. I’m an introvert. But the first thing you realize when you have unstructured time alone is that even introverts like to be around people — at least a little.
The second thing you realize is how strange and uncomfortable it feels to do nothing, have no plans, no assignments due, no boss to impress. The uncomfortableness was necessary. I started taking daily walks and just thinking creatively. I met up with people I hadn’t been able to visit with in a long time. I kept some of my normal workout schedule because it felt good to breathe and sweat.
I originally said to people that I was taking 6 months to decide next steps. Really, I took about 2 months before I started doing the work that would ultimately lead me to starting my own financial planning company. I started with interviews. I wanted to see how traditional wealth managers and financial advisor companies worked. Was there a company existed out there in my area serving young professionals? Maybe those who wanted to start businesses? Woman – owned? I found that all those things were rare — some of the firms I spoke to weren’t actually interested in growing at all. Most weren’t interested in seeking young professional as a clients and most were men.
The conversations I had were invaluable — I learned so much from the firm owners I interviewed. But I realized that the job I wanted didn’t really exist yet and I would have to make it. I was going to start a financial advisory business. If I hadn’t taken a sabbatical, I don’t think things would’ve ended up the same way. I fully credit the time off I took to my early successes.
If you’ve been wondering what’s next in your life in or in your career, you should strongly consider taking a break from work. It can feel unsafe and uncertain, but here are some ways to reduce some of those uncertainties.
Here’s Why I Was Successful.
Luckily, even though I didn’t have the headspace to make a fully formed plan BEFORE I left my day job, I did have a nice cash cushion. I credit my success to being a good earner and saver for several years. I had enough funds to keep my personal expenses afloat for 3 years.
I was able to give myself (and my mind) plenty of runway to be creative, to build what I wanted. But more importantly I also didn’t have to take action out of desperation. I didn’t have to find clients immediately or beg for business. Ultimately I was successful. It took me ~9 months to make my first dollar after I left my corporate job. It took me another 3-4 months to break even on my original and ongoing business expenses. I didn’t actually need 3 years covered, but it sure felt good to have that cushion.
How much you need to save depends on how frugal you want to be during your work break. Some people are fine cutting down expenses dramatically. Others will want to keep living expenses the same as while working or maybe increase them to allow for more travel while you have time off.
You’ll also need to cover health care. If keeping COBRA coverage doesn’t make sense and you’re not already covered by a spouse, then consider getting health insurance from the exchange. The costs should be rolled into your monthly needs estimate.
Side rant ahead: I typically don’t recommend “raising money” to initially fund your venture. It’s a huge myth that there’s magic money floating around to help you achieve your business dreams.
- For one, because it seems disingenuous to ask someone else to fund something you’re not willing to put up capital for.
- Despite what entrepreneurial media would have you believe there are very few funding sources available for brand new companies with no revenue. Even banks won’t lend to you unless you back with personal assets. Small business loans are actually meant for established companies.
- Why would you give up decision making power to investors when you just spent all this time escaping “the man” to do your own thing?
- No matter the path you choose to fund a business, if that is your path, you still need cash to fund your personal expenses.
>>Lesson Learned. Having 3 years worth of your expenses covered may be overkill to take a sabbatical. However, I would recommend having at least the length of time you plan to take a sabbatical covered in cash. Plus, I’d recommend having about 6-12 months of your personal expenses covered AFTER your sabbatical ends because it can take time to ramp back up to whatever you do next.
Unstructured Time and Creativity
Aside from my cash cushion, my success can also be attributed to allowing myself unstructured time to be creative and think. For some that might mean journaling, or art projects, or hikes. For me, I actually needed to spend LESS time scheduling and managing projects, even fun ones. I needed to relax and learn to be ok with doing nothing.
So, I tried to take things day by day without planning ahead. I asked myself, “What do I *feel* like doing today?” If something came to me, that’s what I did. What I found is a lot of my thinking and problem solving took care of itself in the background, I didn’t need to structure time to do it.
Part of me being creative was also reaching out to people in my network. I used it as an opportunity to connect, to be curious and to learn from others. In the beginning it was more fun and social. Toward the end of my sabbatical, I connected with more purpose.
Specifically, I worked on developing a new network of other people around the country doing the same thing. Through a financial planner association I joined, called the XY Planning Network, I began to meet people who were building similar businesses to what I was building and could help me answer questions about compliance and websites and pricing structures and billing options and software. Without that I would’ve been lost.
>>Lesson Learned. Spend at least part of your sabbatical being creative and relaxing. Figure out what that looks like for you, but at least some of it should be spent getting creative and curious about what you can learn directly from other people in and out of your network.
Finding Comfort In Un-comfortability
One thing no one will tell you when you decide to take a sabbatical is, you might feel uncomfortable. What will you say when someone asks, “What are you doing these days?” and you don’t have an answer? If you’re like me, simply having unstructured time where you’re not working on something can feel uncomfortable.
Eventually, you will find a way to get used to it. But the only way to get used to it is to stick to your guns. Don’t take on too much. Don’t transmute your magical time off to yet another full time project or job. Just relax. Just be. Turn your expectations of what you will achieve during sabbatical way down. The whole point is to allow space to discover what can be next.
>Lesson Learned. The sabbatical is a way to buy yourself time to pause and widen your options before you decide what’s next. Let that process unfold slowly.
Eventually the sabbatical has to end — what’s your plan?
Depending on how long of a financial runway you have, you can be flexible on the end date for your sabbatical. But it will have to end, eventually. It’s a good idea to have some plan for easing back into what’s next. If you took the time to be creative, curious, and let time work, you’ll definitely emerge with lots of options and ideas.
Be real with yourself to consider how much time you might need to take to explore these options before you take action. It’s going to take time once you do decide what’s next to implement your goals.
If you have a job that allows for a set leave of absence or sabbatical, it will still take time to get back into the swing of things when you go back to work. If you end up choosing to change jobs or careers, the recruiting process could take time. If you end up wanting to set up a side consulting business so you can make a few extra bucks and extend your sabbatical further, it may take time to get a new client. If you start a full-fledged business you will need time to break even. Don’t forget about funding the transition period between the end of your functional sabbatical and the “what’s next.”
>Lesson Learned: Journal, play, explore. But set the expectation now that it’s going to take some time to transition back to real life once your sabbatical is over. If you’ve already burned through your funds and haven’t planned for this transition period, you may have to make decisions that aren’t aligned with the things you discovered on sabbatical.
An Expanded version of this article can be found in Chapter 9 of my book, The Resiliency Effect. Have you been considering taking a break from work or a sabbatical? What are the things getting in the way of taking that action?