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How to Plan for and Take a Sabbatical

Back in the day, paid leave sabbaticals were almost exclusively for university professors and church leaders of certain Christian denominations. They usually occurred once every seven years and could last from one semester up to a full year. Today, sabbaticals have evolved to include more diverse activities, time frames, and career paths.

A more current definition of a sabbatical is pursuing a passion, new experiences and skills, research and knowledge, and/or travel to enrich your personal and professional life.

Who can take a sabbatical?

Anyone! Industries like academia, government, research, and theology are more likely to recognize the benefits of a sabbatical and already offer them as a benefit. Other careers may require more planning, saving, and boss-convincing to make it happen, especially if a sabbatical isn’t traditionally part of the career path.

For the best chances of securing permission for a sabbatical with a company that you hope to return to, begin planning the outline and reasons for your sabbatical in advance—at least a year. Craft a pitch for your boss and HR that explains what a sabbatical would bring to your skill set, how it could advance your understanding of a relevant topic, and how you plan to apply what you learn to the job when you return. Next, you’ll want to outline the logistics of transitioning your responsibilities while you’re gone.

Consider talking to anyone in your company or industry who have taken extended time off and learn how they made it work, what mistakes they made, what lessons they learned, etc. You could also talk to HR and see if there are any available positions at an international office, if your company has any.

If you’re a freelancer, give at least six months’ notice to your clients about your plans. Consider referring them to trusted colleagues or limiting the types of projects you’ll accept. Perhaps you want to use this sabbatical as a transition between careers, in which case you won’t need to worry about convincing someone to hold a job for you when you get back!

What do you want to do, see, and accomplish on your sabbatical?

Now’s the time to be honest about your passions, goals, and curiosity. A sabbatical should enrich your life—ideally in multiple ways. Consider answering these questions to help you plan what a sabbatical might look like:

  • What have you always wanted to do but felt your career, lifestyle, or free time didn’t allow?
  • What would put you on a path to the career you want or have always dreamed of?
  • What experiences can’t you get at home?
  • What activities would give you unique field experience or a critical perspective for your career?
  • What opportunities are currently available that might not be in the future?
  • What tangible skills do you feel you’re lacking in work or in life?

Once you answer these questions, hopefully you’ll begin to get an idea of what types of activities will help you grow and achieve your goals. Here are a few ideas of what can be done while on sabbatical:

  • Volunteer
  • Create a portfolio of your work—writing, photography, film, or any form of art, really
  • Apply for fellowships or positions
  • Travel, perhaps learn a new language
  • Start a new business venture
  • Achieve a physical feat, like hiking a mountain trail, sailing, etc.
  • Learn new skills to enhance your resume
  • Build houses for an impoverished population
  • Teach
  • Conduct research
  • Become fluent and comfortable in a foreign culture

Once you have a list of what you want to achieve by the end of your sabbatical, find organizations that will allow you to do these things and reach out to them.

Consider where to go

With your list in hand, it’s time to decide if you can take your sabbatical at home or if you need to travel, either for short periods of time or for your entire leave of absence. If you do decide to travel, research what type of work/travel visa you will need, what types of currency exchanges you’ll need, and how travel will affect your overall sabbatical budget (more on that below). It may actually be more cost effective to spend most or all of your time in one place.

Calculate the cost and save, save, save

Once you’ve decided where to go, how long to stay, what you’ll be doing, what bills you’ll still need to pay at home while you’re away, and if your sabbatical will be paid or unpaid, you’ll have an idea of how much you need to save. Most people will need at least a year to save up, you may need more or less time. Consider taking on a side hustle to save faster. Or set up a passive income stream to give you some cash flow while away, like subletting your home or car while traveling.

Look into fellowships, grants, or other organizations who might invest in you or give you funds for your travel or certain activities. If you plan to stay at your current employer and can prove how the experiences you’ll gain will benefit the company, they may give you a stipend.

Prepare the rest of your life for your hiatus

Just because you’re away doesn’t mean the world stops spinning at home. Or bills stop coming in. Here are some things you’ll need to address if you plan to travel for your sabbatical:

  • Cancel or suspend subscriptions.
  • Plan for pet care.
  • Will your family be traveling with you for all or part of the time? Will that determine when you travel, e.g. if you have school-age children?
  • Who will look after your home? Consider subletting or renting it out. Have a family member or friend manage the rentals for a cut of the income.
  • Decide which personal items will need to go into storage.
  • Plan for regular house and lawn maintenance.
  • Put your car in storage, rent it out, or end your lease.
  • Tackle what insurance coverage you’ll need while traveling and what policies you can change while away—like coverage for a car in storage. Will you still be covered under your employer or parents? Will you need to pay for a private plan or COBRA?
  • Figure out how to receive mail. Put snail mail subscriptions on hold.
  • Make sure you’ll have access to prescriptions you need.
  • Make sure you’ll always have enough money in any accounts that have auto-withdrawals.

If you’re staying home on sabbatical, figure out what needs to change about your everyday life to allow for more time to achieve your goals—read, research, write, etc. Consider setting up a new routine that prioritizes your goal so that everyday chores don’t end up filling all of your time. To be effective, your sabbatical time should be protected and respected, like going to the office every day.