5 Tips for Taking Productive Time Away From Work

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Doing business is like riding a roller coaster. Do you ever want to pause a little longer before the fall, to stop the routine and think? Maybe you need a gap year.

I had a client I’ll call Chris who ran a software company until he ran it. When he told me he wanted to sell, I said we could 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 refine his writing and clarify his priorities. It was difficult for him to escape, although it was necessary. Upon his return, Chris kept the company going and hired someone to take over some of his duties. Since then, he has grown the company significantly and says he feels better both as a leader and as a human being.

A recent piece a The Atlantic situates sabbaticals outside academia as long vacations: “life without work.” It’s not groundbreaking to say that Americans need to work less, although I would argue that sabbaticals are not extended vacations, but structured, goal-oriented time away from the grind. A sabbatical is a neurological reset; it is dedicated learning, not control.

Related: 7 Sabbatical Ideas That Will Recharge You For Success

The case for (temporarily) leaving your company

Few professionals need more sabbatical time than entrepreneurs, who have a higher risk of mental illness. It’s easy to break down under the grind and weight of running a business, and high-octane habits can lead to burnout, which I’ve come to think of as repetitive stress injury to the brain. Exhaustion is the result of using the same neural pathways repeatedly until they wear out. Altering habits in a new environment opens up new paths, essentially healing our minds to help us focus and gain perspective.

Professors take sabbaticals to conduct primary research, write books or publish articles. Academics typically take three to nine months of vacation every seven years. Like Chris, your sabbatical project may turn inward as you contemplate an acquisition or sale. Taking a break from your business to see how you operate on the outside is an important first step in imagining life beyond your business. Other entrepreneurs may choose more literal research, study a topic to write a book, or expand into a new market. Global thinking is best done without the constraints of daily decisions.

As a psychologist and consultant, I often work with entrepreneurs to design academically inspired sabbatical plans. Here are five tips for entrepreneurs looking to take advantage of some productive yet quiet time away from the day-to-day.

1. Set the pace

Ideally, your sabbatical should be consistent, perhaps six weeks every three years or three months every five years. Regardless, take a large chunk of time—no less than six weeks set at a predictable pace—during your slowest quarter, for example, and build it into the company’s long-term plans. Protect your gap year as you would any other important milestone. If burnout is “chronic workplace stress” that isn’t addressed, even the anticipation of rest can provide relief.

Related: How to schedule a gap year without killing your career

2. Make yourself less essential

Scarcity is often the hardest component, especially for founders who make themselves indispensable by design. It’s also incredibly valuable, helping to position your company for a sale or hiring a CEO in the future. Many founders will eventually decide to replace themselves in day-to-day operations. Transitions get easier with a little practice. Before any gap year, make sure your business can function without you for a while. Empower other leaders to take over tasks, schedule content in advance, and use systems or software to automate functions that normally depend on you.

3. Plan your “resume”

When academics take sabbaticals, they are not on vacation. I cannot stress this enough. Your gap year is a postgraduate program of your own design; set the structure and objectives in the same way that you would follow a syllabus in a college class.

Design your results, 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 the returns look like. Over the years, I have worked with many entrepreneurs, all innovative, creative and optimistic. These can be personality traits, but they are also skills that need to be honed. What knowledge do you want to acquire? How much manuscript do you plan to write? Be specific.

4. Find your community

Have a support team around you during your sabbatical, whether it’s your group of fellow entrepreneurs or regular retreats with other founders who hold you accountable. A gap year 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 should consider outsourcing expertise to maximize productivity.

5. Work and play

Even with a plan and a structured departure, a gap year is still a time to rest and reset. It’s a way to interrupt your daily work habits to develop new neural connections, inspire and recharge. That means extra sleep, lots of movement, and mindfulness, whatever that means to you. Dive into a meditation practice with a six-week course, take up yoga, go on long hikes, or start a journaling practice.

You have acquired many habits in your regular work routine, probably by default. Programming new habits with more intention facilitates reflection. This is another area where a coach or spiritual director can help guide you in determining which parts of your life and career are working and which parts could use some tweaking.

Related: Tired of the daily grind? How to prepare financially to take a sabbatical from work

My hope is to normalize sabbaticals for all entrepreneurs and move away from the bottom-up grind that leads to burnout. Burnout isn’t inevitable for everyone, but it’s more likely when stress isn’t managed, which means the key is prevention rather than cure. Making room for reflection, breaking old habits, and forming new areas of growth with reflection are extraordinarily valuable. Dedicated learning always helps your business, not only as thought leaders in your fields, but as humans in the world.

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