top of page

Navigating the 4 Phases of a Sabbatical

You can do all the planning and preparation in the world, but once your sabbatical starts, how you actually navigate it determines the whole ballgame.

I’ve identified four phases to a good sabbatical experience and found that each one is fraught with temptations that can sabotage the best of intentions.

In the fourth installment of this sabbatical series, I want to talk about what to expect, what to do, and what to avoid in each phase as you execute the long awaited plans of your sabbatical.


The essence of this initial phase is exactly what it is called. It is time to slow down and decompress. Breathe deep. Connect with the people that matter most. Let your body catch up to your soul.

This slowing down is not merely shifting gears, it is more like changing transmissions. It used to be that when you wanted to shift from 2WD to 4WD, you had to park your car and physically change the setting on the wheel hubs. These days it’s all electronic, but the imagery still works. Sabbaticals feel like a quantum shift to the low-gear ratios of four-wheel drive.


To support that shift, this phase is the perfect time to take that big trip, pursue some adventure with your spouse or family, or visit places you’ve always wanted to see. Break the normal patterns of work and have some fun. Play is actually good for your soul!


Resist the temptation to prove you’re worthy of this sabbatical by over-functioning on your reading list or diving into a project to support your role at work. This is a marathon not a sprint. Phase one is is about giving your soul much-needed breathing room.


The essence of phase two is a chance to try things that aren’t normal for you. If you do phase one well, you’ll probably feel a rush of fresh energy. Put it to use experimenting with new rhythms, pursuits, etc.


Try out a new hobby; new weekly rhythms; new approaches to spiritual formation; new activities with your spouse, your kids, or your friends that are relationally focused. Invest in self-care by trying things that feed your mind, body, and soul.


The danger of this phase is that you could begin to feel antsy without the normal structure of your work. Don’t try to assuage those antsy feelings by adopting some major project. (e.g. Don’t start to remodel your house or write the next best-selling book.) This is a chance to break the bondage of our 24/7 work culture. The antsy-ness will ease up and when it does, it will open new unhurried vistas for your soul—but, not if you pre-empt it with a demanding project.


The essence of phase three is learning to live unhurried. Slowing down is starting to feel a bit normal. You might even start wondering how and why you kept up the pace you did before your sabbatical. You will probably start to taste lasting value from some of your early experiments.


Enjoy the practice of unhurried time that centers your soul. Evaluate those early experiments and put more energy into those that feel life-giving. Give yourself permission to make adjustments to the content and outcomes of your original sabbatical plan. Now is also time to start considering the focus of the next chapter in your life. What have you learned about yourself, what do you care about most, and what do you long to accomplish? Think in terms of the next logical time horizon. The next 5-10 years. Dream. Take notes. But, don’t force yourself to lock down any conclusions yet.


Resist the temptation to check in on work. In all likelihood, by this time you will feel you’re in a good place and it won’t hurt anything to “just check in.” Hey, you have good people carrying the ball. Trust them. The gravitational pull back into that world you care so much about can easily overwhelm the creative space your sabbatical has created.


The essence of this phase is the work of clarifying what you’ve discovered that should permanently affect the rhythms and priorities of life post-sabbatical. This phase is about closure that seals lasting impact. The pressure you’ll face in this phase is to “get a jump start” on the work awaiting your return. Succumb to that temptation and you’ll prematurely start your re-entry motor. Work mode will take over. In the blink of an eye, you’ll be six months past your sabbatical and any transformative lessons will be lost.


Write a “Memo to Myself.” Capture your clarity and calling for the next chapter, any insights about life or leadership that you learned, any rhythms or disciplines that emerged which you want to continue, and any other convictions about the way forward different than your pre-sabbatical norm.

Specifically, I suggest doing two retreats near the end of this final phase. (1.) Take a solitude retreat where you write that “memo to myself.” And, (2.) If you’re married, celebrate the culmination of your sabbatical with a romantic time away with your spouse.


Don’t start working on work! I know, you will feel the pressure to start getting ready to re-enter the world of normal responsibility, but don’t! This is your final sabbatical chance to “work on you.” As soon as you flip this internal switch, your sabbatical will be over. So, save work for when you are back on the clock.

This challenge is one of the reasons for planning an appropriate on-ramp back into normal life. For more on how this can work in a healthy way read my article on “Sabbatical Off-Ramps and On-Ramps.”

How Much Time Does Each Phase Need?

Fair question, but so hard to answer. Only you know what you need from your sabbatical. And, answering this question obviously depends on the length of your sabbatical.

Assuming you did a decent job on the off-ramp leading into your sabbatical, and your sabbatical is three months long, it could look like this:

  • Decompress: 4 weeks

  • Experiment: 3 weeks

  • Normalize: 3 weeks

  • Re-Calibrate: 3 weeks

This is the fourth in five part series on healthy sabbatical planning. The coming fifth and final installment will be: “How to Make Your Sabbatical Healthy for Your Organization.”

The other articles in this series:


bottom of page