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Running a business is like riding a roller coaster. Do you ever wish you could pause a little longer before the drop — to stop the grind and just think? You might need a sabbatical.
I had a client I’ll call Chris, who ran a software company until it ran him. When he told me he wanted to sell, I said we can absolutely create a plan for that, but first, take six weeks off to work on that writing project you’ve been putting off. After some hesitation, Chris put someone else in charge to hone his writing and clarify his priorities. It was difficult for him to get away, though it turned out to be essential. Upon return, Chris kept the company and hired someone to take on some of his tasks. He’s since grown the company significantly and reports feeling better as both a leader and a human.
A recent piece in The Atlantic positions sabbaticals outside of academia as lengthy holidays — “life without work.” It’s not ground-breaking to say Americans need to work less, though I’d argue sabbaticals are not extended vacations, but rather structured and goal-oriented time away from routine. A sabbatical is a neurological reset; it’s dedicated learning, not checking out.
The case for (temporarily) leaving your company
Few professionals need sabbaticals more than entrepreneurs, who are at higher risk of mental illness. It’s easy to crack under the routine and weight of running a business, and high-octane habits can lead to burnout, which I’ve come to think of like a repetitive stress injury to the brain. Burnout is the result of using the same neural pathways repeatedly until they’re shredded. Disrupting habits in a new environment carves new paths, essentially healing our minds to help us focus and gain perspective.
Professors take sabbaticals to conduct primary research, write books or publish papers. Typically, academics take between three and nine months off every seven years. Like Chris, your sabbatical project might be directed inward while you contemplate an acquisition or sale. Taking a break from your company to see how you function on the outside is an important first step to imagining life beyond your business. Other entrepreneurs might choose more literal research, studying a topic to write a book or expand into a new market. Big-picture thinking is best done without the restraints of daily decisions.
As a psychologist and consultant, I often work with entrepreneurs to design academic-inspired sabbatical plans. Here are five tips for entrepreneurs looking to take productive yet restful time away from the day-to-day.
1. Set the rhythm
Ideally, your sabbatical is consistent, perhaps six weeks every three years or three months every five years. Regardless, take a sizable chunk of time, no less than six weeks set to a predictable rhythm — during your slowest quarter, for instance — and embed it into the company’s long-term plans. Protect your sabbatical as you would any other important milestone. If burnout is “chronic workplace stress” that remains unaddressed, even the anticipation of rest can provide some relief.
2. Make yourself less essential
Becoming scarce is often the most difficult component, especially for founders who make themselves indispensable by design. It’s also incredibly valuable, helping to position your company for a sale or to hire a CEO in the future. Many founders will eventually decide to replace themselves in the day-to-day operations. Transitions are easier with some practice. In advance of any sabbatical, ensure your company can function without you for a while. Empower other leaders to take over tasks, pre-schedule content, and use systems or software to automate functions that typically rely on you.
3. Plan your “curriculum”
When academics take sabbaticals, they are not on vacation. I can’t emphasize this enough. Your sabbatical is a graduate program of your own design; set structure and goals in the same way you would follow a syllabus in a university class.
Design your outcomes, then use your time to write, read, travel or practice a new skill. A sabbatical is an investment in yourself with clear ideas about what returns look like. Over years, I’ve worked with many entrepreneurs, all of whom are innovative, creative and optimistic. These can be personality traits, but they are also skills that need refining. What knowledge do you want to acquire? How much of a manuscript do you plan to write? Be specific.
4. Find your community
Have a support team around your sabbatical, whether it’s your mastermind group of fellow entrepreneurs or regular retreats with other founders who hold you accountable. A sabbatical is an excellent time to hire a coach or consultant to help you make the most of this opportunity. Like any investment in growth, you would consider outsourcing expertise to maximize productivity.
5. Work and play
Even with a plan and structured output, a sabbatical is still a time to rest and reset. It is a form of disrupting your daily work habits to develop new neural connections, get inspired and recharged. This involves extra sleep, lots of movement and mindfulness — whatever that means for you. Dive into a meditation practice with a six-week course, do yoga, take long hikes or start a journaling practice.
You have acquired many habits in your regular work routine, likely by default. Scheduling new habits with more intention facilitates reflection. This is another area in which a coach or spiritual director might help guide you to determine what parts of your life and career are working and which parts could use some adjustment.
My hope is to normalize sabbaticals for all entrepreneurs and move away from the heads-down grind that causes burnout. Burnout is not inevitable for everyone, but it is more likely when stress goes unmanaged, which means the key is prevention more than cure. Making space for reflection, disrupting old habits and thoughtfully forming new areas of growth are extraordinarily valuable. Dedicated learning always helps your business, not just as thought leaders in your fields, but as humans in the world.