There’s a misconception that taking a sabbatical will leave a stain on your professional record. In reality, a thoughtful-approach to a career break can help you overcome burnout, return to work more energized, step back to better understand what you need from work, and even start generating side income through a whole new career path.
Want proof? Polywork chatted with three multihyphenates about how they used their sabbaticals to actually improve their careers. Read on to learn how they made the most of their time, where it’s gotten them now, and their advice for anyone else looking to take a sabbatical that leads to success.
Laying the groundwork for side projects
When Albert Wavering realized that every day felt like Monday at his marketing job at a startup, he decided to take some time off, without much of a plan in place about how long his sabbatical would be or what he would do at the end of it.
He was so curious about the experience of taking a sabbatical that, a few months in, he started writing about his experience and eventually interviewing others about how they took effective sabbaticals.
After nearly a year off, he was missing some of the elements of work but wasn’t ready to go back full-time. He had done some freelance marketing in the past and decided to try it more seriously as his main gig.
But Albert had another passion brewing. He had volunteered for a permaculture organization for several years, and was curious what it was like to be a landscaper. To supplement his freelance work and tap into this other interest, he also took up a part-time landscaping job.
Now, he’s well on his way to building a strong portfolio career, with a few days a week on the computer doing marketing consulting and his own writing about sabbaticals, and a few days hanging out in gardens doing landscaping for houses around the Boulder, Colo. area.
Much like in retirement, people overestimate their capacity for doing absolutely nothing and underestimate some of the things that they got from a job in terms of social connection and meaning. There are some interesting exercises from the retirement community to help you identify some of the things that you got from work and make a plan for how you’re going to get those same needs met in a more self-directed environment like a sabbatical.
Give yourself the emotional space to really, deeply explore questions that are important to you, like:
• Do I want to return full time to my past industry?
• Do I want to consult?
• Do I want to explore a different industry?
It’s a lot of self-reflection, there are a number of formats that that can take: Journaling, meditation, etc. There are some interesting books that will walk you through the process of journaling, like Your Head is a Houseboat. They aren’t specific to sabbaticals, but they can help you navigate and reflect on that time.
Finding a sabbatical support group, whether it’s formal or informal, was really useful for me. The sabbatical group that I was in was run by an actual sabbatical coach named Lyndall Farley from Beyond a Break. I came to the sabbatical support group late in my sabbatical and I think it would have been awesome to do that from the start. It made a really big difference being able to connect to people who are going through a similar thing. Figure out what your social support system looks like earlier on in the sabbatical so that you’re not going at it alone.
Moving from burnout to book writing
Ximena Venoechea had spent the better part of a decade working as a UX designer and researcher for companies including Pinterest, LinkedIn, and Twitter when she noticed the burnout creeping in. On top of working her nine-to-five, she had become a debut author, a mother, and was dealing with the stress of the pandemic and wildfire season in California—it all happening at once was just too much.
So, she decided to take a month or two off—and ended up never going back to her full-time job. Through her own process of learning to take things more slowly, Ximena conceived a book about the power of rest, which she sold about five months after starting the sabbatical: Rest Easy: Discover Calm and Abundance through the Radical Power of Rest.
Thanks to this experience, Ximena committed to focusing full-time on writing and illustrating. Now, she’s got a book coming out next year and a journal in 2025.
Take your time and don’t overplan it. I had a vision that I would take 4-6 weeks off from the workforce and then start interviewing again. I assumed this would be enough time to recover from burnout and regain my energy and motivation. (I was wrong.) I thought I would fill that time with creative projects that filled my cup, which turned out to be harder than I expected.
I wound up reading a lot, taking hikes, and catching up on sleep—plus parenting—during that time. I had to re-learn how to disconnect and find the right rest techniques for me.
I wish I hadn’t beat myself up so much about how I was using the time. I thought it would be a very creatively-inspiring time, and eventually it was, but the first few months I was still just exhausted and needed to give myself the space to recover.
Learning more about the self outside of work
Spencer Campbell had been working an increasingly stressful job in recruitment for a nonprofit for several years, and was feeling the effects. He tried to address his burnout by taking a 10-day silent meditation retreat—and found himself spending half the time mentally rehearsing how he was going to tell his boss he was quitting. It seemed like a clear sign.
So, Spencer took the leap without a plan. In the beginning, he did very very little: Read the news, played video games, and watched a lot of YouTube. Eventually, he had the brain space to more deeply explore things he was passionate about: Language learning, travel, reading, and writing.
While all of this seems very unrelated to his professional journey, this time reconnecting with other parts of himself helped him better understand his relationship to work—and ultimately helped him shift to launching his company, the Spencer Campbell Talent Agency.
If you think you need a sabbatical, you do. There’s never a perfect time and there will always be a reason not to.
There’s so much more to life than our nine-to-five, and my sabbatical forced me to eventually explore those non-work parts of myself with the same energy I brought to my work life. I realized that my self-worth has nothing to do with my profession. I also realized I just hated having a boss and entrepreneurship was a viable path for me.
But the most important thing was the “white space”—just space and time to really think, which led to insights about myself that I couldn’t get any other way. I think not having a plan was important. I was a workaholic: If I had tried to manage the sabbatical like a work project I think I would have gotten less out of it.
I also wish I could go back and tell 2020 Spencer that it all works out and he doesn’t have to worry so much. I felt a lot of guilt and anxiety at the beginning which didn’t help!
Takeaways for your sabbatical
It’s okay to need—and take—a break in your career. It won’t ruin your professional path forever and might even make it better! Don’t judge yourself if you need rest, and don’t try to make your sabbatical too productive until you feel mentally ready.
Talk to folks who have journeyed this path before you, but remember: Everyone’s needs are different. Take what works for you, leave the rest, and approach your sabbatical with a spirit of experimentation. You might be surprised by the professional paths it takes you down.