Instead of vacation, take a sabbatical

If you're sitting on a pile of unused vacation days, use them as a sabbatical and focus on something that will improve your life

David Harrison/eyevine/ZUMA Press/Newscom/File
The British author Phyllis Dorothy James, known as P.D. James, is shown with her typewriter in this 2006 file photo. When guest blogger Trent Hamm used vacation days for a "sabbatical," he spent the time drafting a novel.

In September 2004, I was about to leave my first post-college job. My boss at that time – who happens to be one of the people I respect the most in this world, even now after my radical career shift – observed that I had a pile of unused vacation time that was basically going to disappear when I left that job in mid-October. He sat down with me and, once he was sure that the things I was working on were in good shape and that I’d be easily available if anything else needed to be finished up, he suggested that I use that remaining use-it-or-lose-it vacation time in order to transition to my new job.

In other words, I had about two weeks of vacation coming to me. I wasn’t really sure what to do with that time, though. I didn’t have children. My wife didn’t have any vacation time coming. So I asked him what I should do with the time. He looked at me thoughtfully and simply said, “Why don’t you just take a sabbatical?”

A sabbatical means a period in which you choose not to work in order to achieve something else that will improve your life. If you take a week off of work in order to re-pave your driveway, that’s a sabbatical. If you take two weeks off in order to take a class, that’s a sabbatical.

So what did I do during that week? I drafted a novel. It was the second novel-length work of fiction that I’ve completed in my life (and, like the first one, I now think it’s pretty awful). It was also a great learning experience for me. It taught me how to organize the threads of a complex story. It showed me that I had the capacity to write such a lengthy thing. It gave me the experience that I can build on with better stories later on.

Since that first experience in 2004, I’ve tried to take a sabbatical once a year or so. I’ll take a week off of work in order to work on some project or increase some personal skill of mine. One year, I used the sabbatical to take a Photoshop course. Another year, I spent the sabbatical working on my finances and, eventually, laying the foundations for The Simple Dollar. I plan to use a sabbatical in the fall of this year to “woodshed” on the piano, focusing squarely on mastering a couple of piano pieces.

What can you do on your sabbatical? Complete a personal project that needs a lot of focused time. Teach yourself a new skill that you know will be valuable in the future. Take a compressed course to pick up a skill.

The specifics depend entirely on you and what things you wish to accomplish and learn in your own life. Building a skill that you can use professionally is almost always a strong idea, as is a class that leads directly to a professionally useful skill. Completing a large personal project is also quite valuable, as is setting up the infrastructure for a side business or a larger personal project.

I could write a very long list of such ideas. Learn how to use a particular computer program like Photoshop. Learn a computer programming language like Scheme. Start an online business. Write a novel. Clean out every closet and nook and cranny in your home. Re-shingle your roof. Give a number of speeches and presentations to improve your public speaking skills. Take a compressed course on a topic valuable to your career at the local college. The list goes on and on.

The key is to make sure that you’re either doing something to improve your skill set or doing something that improves the value of the things in your life, particularly something that you can’t quite accomplish while working.

Why not just take a vacation? For starters, sabbaticals are easier to propose to supervisors. My experience – and the shared experience of others – is that it’s much easier to sell a supervisor on using vacation time for a skill-building exercise than it is for an actual vacation. Why? When you take normal vacation time, you’re not really increasing your value to the company during that time spent. If you’re building skills during that time, then you typically do increase your value. Even if you don’t build a skill that’s of value to the workplace, knowing that you’re local in case of an emergency can again make vacation time easier to sell to a tough supervisor.

For another, after a sabbatical, you have a genuine accomplishment. You learned a new skill or you took care of something significant that needed finishing. That sense of accomplishment is incredibly valuable, as it fills you with confidence as well as the rewards of whatever it is that you’ve accomplished.

After a sabbatical, you’re in a better place. That in itself is a tremendous reward and a strong source of good feeling which you can use to fuel your return to work. Good luck.

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