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Building Your Sabbatical Plan

You finally got approval for a sabbatical—or at least an audience willing to consider it—but what’s your plan? How will you spend the time? What are you going to do that will leverage this season as an successful investment in your future?

A sabbatical is a rare thing. Odds are you might only have one or two in your lifetime. You can’t afford to wing it and just hope that something worthwhile happens.

Creating a basic plan will help you avoid binge-watching your way though aimless days and instead give shape and direction to this extraordinary gift you’ve been handed.

True Story. An example of what good sabbatical planning does NOT look like. A number of years ago, someone approached me with a desire to talk about their upcoming sabbatical and opened the door with way. “Hey Gary, I’m starting my sabbatical in a couple weeks. I’ve never done one of these things before. What should I do?”

I wanted to be sarcastic and blunt, “You’re asking that question now? Maybe you should use your magic powers to turn back the clock and ask this question a few months ago—when there was enough time to pull the components of a good plan together.” No, I didn’t say that. But, I did feel my finger nails scraping against my internal chalkboard.

I am not suggesting you create a plan that will drive over-functioning. Quite the opposite. What I’m talking about is a right-sized framework for focus and intentionality that will breathe fresh wind into the sails of your soul. I’m talking about a plan that invests in the full spectrum of your life as a person and a leader.

I believe the foundation of a good sabbatical plan is built on three pillars that provide a solid platform for what will serve your personal needs.

Pillar #1: An Open-Handed Approach

Here’s what I mean. From a pre-sabbatical vantage point, it’s possible that none of us can fully understand what we need from our sabbatical. Until we get off the freeway, slow down, and settle into some different rhythms, the noise of life will make it tough to hear the small quiet voice of our souls.

So, recognize that even as you build your sabbatical plan, you want to hold it loosely.

A good plan will give you rails to run on as you get started and will help you pre-think a lot of what matters, but as you dive in, don’t be surprised when deeper realities of what you need emerge.

That big stack of books might be too big or the wrong ones. That study project that seemed so life-giving, now feels like obligation. That home renovation project you imagined to be an energizing change of pace, leaves no margin for restful or reflective time you wanted. The writing project haunts you like a slave-driver. The travel plans now feel more complicated than enjoyable.

Look, it’s simple. When you discover that some part of your plan needs to change to meet the needs you couldn’t appreciate in advance, change it. Call an audible and adapt. A sabbatical was made for man, not man for the sabbatical.

Bonus Tip: serving as a sounding board to help you know how and when to make adjustments like this is one of the places a sabbatical coach can prove helpful.

Pillar #2:: Holistic Self-Care

Someone once called attention to the fact that we are human beings, not human doings. Attending to that reality in a holistic way is one of the beautiful things a good sabbatical plan accomplishes.

If you are like me, maybe most of us, you probably find it easy to identify the aspect of life that is in greatest deficit as you approach your sabbatical. That’s good. Pay attention to it. In your plans, make special arrangements to address that need.

However, while you are at it, consider the other dimensions of life. In fact, I would suggest that you do some assessment in all four areas of a holistic life.

  • Spiritually

  • Relationally

  • Mentally/Emotionally

  • Physically

Think of these as the four batteries that fuel your personal well-being and take a reading of your “battery status.” Color code each one as Green-Yellow-Red.

Green = Healthy, fully charged

Yellow = Caution, needs attention soon

Red = Danger, discharged or almost so

Now ask yourself or someone who knows you well, “What input, assistance, or experience(s) would help me bring each aspect of life back into the green?”

Articulate specific plans for how you might do that during your sabbatical.

Pillar #3:: Play - Experiment

A sabbatical is temporary.

No one is going hold you to permanent expectations based on what you try during a sabbatical. So, take this chance to experiment. Try things.

Start with experiments in each of the four holistic life categories above. Try some different spiritual disciplines than those normally part of your life. They might not work for you, but then again, changing things up might be a good thing.

Try a new sport, or a new hobby. If you are a left-brained person, try something right-brained. Dabble with painting or sculpture or photography or cooking. It’s an experiment. You don’t have to be good at it and you don’t have to continue with it. But, what if you happen to stumble onto a new endeavor that breathes life into your soul—something that you might want to continue as a taste of sabbatical in the ongoing rhythms of your life?

Do somethings that are deliberately just for fun. Play and fun are some of the first things squeezed out of us in the demands of a busy life. So, bring play back in. If it’s been a long time, ask someone close to you to help you brainstorm some options.


Once you’ve attended to the three pillars, you have a platform on which to fine tune other details to fit your life and your needs.

  1. How Long Should a Sabbatical Be? There is no magic rule. But, I will say that more people consider a sabbatical that is too short rather than too long. How much time you need depends entirely on where you are at in life and what is on your horizon. However, as a broad-brush approach, if you do your on-ramp and off-ramp well, three months can be a good length. It’s hard to imagine a shorter time being fully adequate. If you are in a place where your sabbatical is part of a major life or role transition, a time frame of 4-6 months is not a bad thing to consider. (Remember Israel? They had a sabbath year!)

  2. Do I Have to Go Away from Home? I am a big fan of getting away for some part of a sabbatical. A change of scenery is good to frame a break from every day life. But a sabbatical doesn’t have to be an expensive venture to an exotic location. I’ve taken three sabbaticals in my life. All three had their own challenges yet all three met my needs in unique ways. One was six months long where I was based at home. One was five months long with half of it spent with friends in Australia. My last one was a two month mini sabbatical to help navigate the transition into retirement. I travelled internationally for that one.

  3. Do I Need A Coach? A sabbatical coach is not a deal-breaker, but can be an amazing support. The three primary roles of a sabbatical coach are to: 1.) Help you stay on course; 2.) Help you make mid-course corrections when it’s time to deviate from your plan; and 3.) Help you reflect on what you learn from your experience.

By now, you understand, there is no magic plan or secret formula for a great sabbatical. However, there is no great sabbatical without a plan.

Coming in my Next Post: How Your Sabbatical Can be Good for your Organization


Links to the other articles in the series:


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