Why taking a sabbatical was the best decision of my life
To build up a small freelance business while learning a new language and navigating a foreign country is not an easy feat. At times taking a sabbatical seemed far-fetched if not crazy... and it kind of was.
I can pinpoint the moment when I knew that I had to shift my life direction and spend some time living abroad.
I was in Colombia in 2016 hiking in the mountains on the outskirts of Medellin. It was one of those days when you almost don't want to blink and miss a split-second of the scene going on around you. That scene was grassy mountains, cows grazing, powerful and crystal clear mountain streams and men in cowboy hats greeting me and my two friends as we made our way along the path.
That day we took the city bus up a sharply angled road towards the trail. We nervously gawked at the steepness of the road and ogled at all the lush plants growing all around us. We found the trail and the afternoon was ours to hike in search of a rushing (and frigid) waterfall and eat lunch huddled together in a cave as yet another Colombian storm raged overhead.
It was a spectacular day and as we headed back I regretted two things. The first was that the afternoon hike was over and we were about to come away from that dream-like landscape. The second was more unsettling: I was only in Colombia for two weeks, that time would soon wind down and I had a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach that I really wanted to stay... but couldn't because of life's demands back home.
I didn't know it at the time but that day was a major turning point in my life.
That latter feeling stayed with me and not just in a post-travel blues kind of way. Months down the road, the feeling of wanting to live in South America hadn't waned at all. At the time, I just didn't see how I could make it a reality.
I felt then that extended travel was for recent university grads and that the quit-your-job-and-travel thing was for those much bolder than myself who didn't care about their career. Since I had made a great start in my career in journalism, I felt that my path was too set and if I strayed off course, I'd lose it all.
That's when my older brother, an avid traveler and one of the most adventurous people I know, offered me some of the best advice I've ever received.
Just take a sabbatical, he said.
Sooner or later I'd need a change from my current job and when that time came, he suggested, just have money saved to take off for six months or a year. It was a great idea and one that made such perfect sense. So, I kept that plan in the back of my mind until eventually it became obvious that the time was right.
But what is a sabbatical?
I should probably back up here for a second and explain what a sabbatical is anyway.
In a nutshell, a sabbatical is a period of time off from work that people usually use to travel.
Oftentimes, folks take that time to themselves and return to their same job afterwards refreshed and with better focus. But not always. If you're like me, a sabbatical could be used as time to recharge between jobs. Others might use it as a time of reflection as they prepare to shift to a different line of work.
I should point out too that taking a sabbatical doesn't necessarily indicate a complete hiatus from working but rather the opposite. Many will use this time to write the first draft of a book and maybe to give time to creative pursuits that would have otherwise gone ignored or even start a business.
For me, I'm a journalist and I planned to freelance write the entire time I was away. It wasn't a break from work, but rather a significant shift.
If you work the nine-to-five grind and endure the exhaustion that often accompanies life in the city then I think the question of "Should I take a sabbatical?" is one that, you've probably thought of, at least momentarily, before.
I can't tell others if they're simply in need of a vacation or if they too should make a more dramatic change like I did. I can however, explain how I knew it was time for me to take the plunge.
I was living in Toronto and I was bored. I was bored of winter. I was bored of my job. I was bored of my routine. Nothing felt new, everything felt stale. Elements of the city which I still love had grown old and I found myself looking for something new, no matter how small, in my day-to-day life.
At lunch, I'd head to a Latino cafe for an hour and enjoy different music and listen to people speaking Spanish. In the evenings, I'd watch foreign films. In the summer, I'd escape to the city's island at least once or twice a week and I'd run the length of the boardwalk while gazing out at the mass of freshwater stretched out so far that the line between water and sky blurred.
I'd take in sunsets with friends and on Saturday mornings, I'd set my alarm and get there as early as possible so I could spend the entire day. It only occurred to me much later that I was finding ways to escape Toronto far earlier than when I actually left it and that my favorite part of the city was the block of land most removed from it.
Then when I decided to leave, I religiously counted down the months until my departure for the better part of a year.
If you relate to any of that, then yeah, maybe you too should take a leave from work.
Keep reading: Why taking a career break to travel can improve your career
Preparing to go on sabbatical
I decided I'd go back to Colombia to live and after I made that decision, it was time to make plans. For me, these plans were mainly logistical in terms of work and money.
Here are the three big motivators I used to focus on and prepare for my sabbatical.
1. Keep at your passion
Writing is important to me so in order to continue that, I began to amass freelance clients and work towards my digital nomad lifestyle so that I would have a solid income upon my departure from home. That side-hustling that I did for the better part of a year had a second benefit: I saved every dollar that I made on the side to put towards my travels.
2. Budget, budget, budget
I began to budget more strictly to add to my savings account too. Since freelance writing doesn't always pay in the beginning phases, it was easy for me to save money knowing that these stowed-away funds would be used to support myself later as I enjoyed life in Colombia and Ecuador.
I believe that saving money is the best habit any travel-savvy person can take upon themselves. You can continue to travel on the cheap but if an unexpected emergency occurs, you're covered. If there's something you suddenly really wish to splurge on, that's an option.
If you're wondering how to prepare for a sabbatical, my advice is to do that: arrive at the terminal with financial security and with passion, project or way of income.
3. Commit to your plan
On top of that though is emotional preparation and sticking firmly to your plan. When I decided to go, I gave myself a deadline nine months into the future. I had to stick with that and prepare myself emotionally by fully believing that after that deadline, I'd be living in Latin America.
This meant that there were certain things I'd have to pass up. For example, if I went on a date, I knew that relationship could only last so long. If friends spoke of early-summer trips to a cottage, I knew I wouldn't be there. During winter when friends dreamed of the hot months, I knew I wouldn't be present for any of our summer rituals.
Soon before I left my job, I got the opportunity to go on a press trip to England but, sadly for me, it was just a few weeks after that deadline I gave myself. I turned it down.
I stuck stubbornly to the date that I set because I felt that if I made an exception for anything, I'd keep moving my travel date. Soon, I'd never leave. If I'm to give just one piece of advice about planning a sabbatical from work, it's to do the same.
These days, I wake up earlier than I often did in Toronto and when I do, I feel well rested and motivated to start my day (which, for the record, also starts before 9:00 a.m.). I take this as a true indicator of happiness.
I can honestly say that I love what I do and that at 27, I'd satisfied that I've found a way to live that includes balancing work and play by writing every day, working for myself and being immersed in a new culture as I continue to build on my language skills here.
Rather than taking a break from work, I left a job I had outgrown and have been since developing new skills — the ones needed to be my own boss: building new client relationships, invoicing for finished work, following up on money and managing my own time.
To build up a small freelance business from nearly scratch all the while learning a new language and navigating a foreign country is not an easy feat. At times (many of them) this plan seemed far-fetched if not crazy... and it kind of was.
Still, it has been the best decision I've ever made. In fact, that year abroad turned into me indefinitely living in Ecuador and to anyone itching to take the leave from work to explore something else somewhere else, I say do it.
Modern versions of the work sabbatical
1. You're hitting pause on your job but you'll be back
This is a pretty common type of sabbatical. The idea here is that a person is taking a set amount of time off of work to travel but intends to return to their job after. This means that there's usually a specific return date. You haven't quit your job, you're just taking some time to self care and re-group.
2. You're leaving your job but will return home to something similar
This is the sabbatical I originally intended for myself in which I quit my job to enjoy some time off to travel but I fully intended to return and find a new job in my same industry. For people who enjoy this style of sabbatical, there doesn't have to be a return date. It's not like your boss is waiting...
3. You're leaving your job and will start fresh in a new industry
We don't always get it right the first time. Now more than ever people are seeking fulfillment from their work and being stuck at a desk for the majority of the day doesn't always cut it... no matter how big that salary happens to be.
Oftentimes, one might be swayed to go on sabbatical so that they can go back to the drawing board and make a viable plan to go in a different direction upon returning home.
4. You're taking a break from work to focus on other pursuits
Perhaps you like your job but your work life means that other pursuits constantly get put on the back burner. In these cases, many people might hit pause on their nine-to-five job to focus on those goals elsewhere in the world. For example, someone might leave their job as a professor temporarily to hit a deadline for their upcoming book.
5. You're taking a break to start your own business
I unintentionally did this. I left for a year assuming I'd return to job hunt. Instead, I realized that I love freelance writing and now my goal is to use my time abroad to establish a solid foundation for what I've built this far. Someone might to this to create a travel blog, or build a coaching business or startup company.
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Apr 18, 2019
Really inspiring piece, Sinead!
Jul 18, 2019
I love your writing! I’m 32 and quit my career as a social worker in child welfare in Toronto, gave up most of our possessions and started backpacking through South East Asia in May, headed for New Zealand. I hope to find a way to sustain the long term travel and settle down in more than one place for longer periods of time. It is not only possible, but magical. Thank you for the validation, it really resonated.
Feb 15, 2023
I can not agree more with your opinion. Sometimes, we need a break to regain our energy. Drift Hunters is a good choice for you to relax after long tiring days.