Last week I wrote about WHY I took a year-long Sabbatical and what led me to make that decision. And today, we get to chat about the nuts and bolts of how we pulled it off logistically – and managed to continue to eat and live indoors throughout the year.
My goal with this article is to share what I have learned from taking 6 Sabbaticals of 1 month or more in case you are going to be doing one yourself.
The principles are basically the same – regardless of Sabbatical length.
But let’s begin with 2 key lessons that have helped me develop the systems that made it possible…
1. Learn from the mistakes of others
I do my best to learn what NOT to do from others as much as what to do. Eleanor Roosevelt has a quote I love…
“Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.”
When I was 18 I began waiting tables at a little ‘mom and pop’ restaurant near my home in St. Louis. They had just recently opened up and the owners (a husband and wife team) had spent decades in the restaurant business and they knew what it took to get one off the ground and make it succeed.
I quickly realized that for them, that meant working 12+ hour days…
Every. Single. Day.
In fact, after the restaurant had been opened for 6 months, we (the waitstaff) celebrated with them because they were taking their first day off since we had opened.
At this point, I had some desire to venture out as an entrepreneur, but I hoped that there could be a better way.
And to be fair, maybe that was what they wanted to do. Maybe working nonstop 12-hour days was what they loved doing.
Regardless, the truth is that so many entrepreneurs chase after their dream to build a business and quickly find themselves becoming a slave to it.
They find themselves working crazy hours with no end in sight and seeing no way out.
From the beginning of my entrepreneurial journey, I wanted to do my best to avoid this. I didn’t really know if it was possible, but I figured there was no harm in trying.
2. We find answers to the questions we ask
We all have seen incredibly “successful” businesspeople who maybe achieved all their business aspirations, but it cost them all their time, their marriages, their faith, or relationships with their children.
By changing the questions that we ask, we will have a much better chance of achieving what we really want without having to sacrifice things that are important to us.
Tony Robbins has illustrated this point better than anyone else I have heard and he talks a little about it here…
Because I was so scarred from seeing many business owners in my life working themselves to the bone, I changed the question I always asked myself and essentially created a filter through which to make my decisions.
For those who don’t know, this blog you are reading is my business. And in 2008 after I got laid off, I began the journey to full-time blogging.
As desperate as I was to generate some income from the blog to pay rent, I fought against the temptation to ask this question:
“How can I turn this blog into a full-time living?”
And instead opted for this question:
“How can I turn this blog into a full-time living requiring as few hours as possible of my time?”
This might seem trivial but stay with me here.
What this essentially did was force me to say NO to lots of income-earning opportunities that would have made me money, but would have taken up a lot of time.
And by sticking with the 2nd part of my question, it was easy to say NO because they didn’t fit.
The truth is that it took me a little longer to make a full-time living blogging, but because I had that filter and asked that question, I ultimately found the answer I was searching for – and I was able to create a profitable business, without requiring every moment of my time.
Seeing if the boat floats
The theory of asking better questions is easy in principle, but much more difficult to stick with it.
And after about 2-3 years of running the business, though I had continually worked to create a somewhat passive income approach to it, I had to step out and test it.
I had designed my blog business to not REQUIRE much of my time, but I loved spending my time on it and was addicted to working on it.
Taking 1 week off
I decided to take a 1-week vacation and NOT check email at all. I was terrified that the site was going to break and when I returned Google would have removed us from the search results and many other baseless fears.
I honestly had a hard time enjoying the vacation because I was so nervous. But it was critical that I put that boat in the water to see if it floats.
And it was amazing to see that the site didn’t crash and nothing even remotely urgent came up while I was gone.
The next time, I decided to take a 10-day break and only check email 1x (for 1 hour) to scan for urgent stuff and the same thing happened – nothing!
Could I do a month?
In Feb 2012, I nervously stepped out to take a month off as we went down to Sanibel Island, FL on what I would call my first Sabbatical of sorts in over a decade…
Having two week-long breaks under my belt, I was pretty comfortable with that stretch of time away from the business and had developed some systems to get me through.
But, I had no idea if they would hold up for a month.
Only one way to find out right? 😉
So that February, I did my first no-internet Sabbatical. The only exception was to scan email for one hour or less each Saturday.
By the last Saturday of the month, I was honestly feeling like I didn’t even need to check email; I had gotten comfortable with the distance.
The benefits just flat-out amazed me
The concentrated focus time with Linda strengthened our already strong marriage. Dedicating a good amount of time to prayer and the Bible each day dramatically boosted my spiritual life. On top of that, the mental clarity and clear direction for the year had me counting the days to get back to work.
I felt more refreshed than I had been in years and I had a clear focus and plan of action for the rest of the year.
Why take a month off in the first place?
It had been such a valuable experience that I decided right then and there that I would do this every year going forward.
And for the last 5 years taking a month-long Sabbatical has been our regular pattern.
I’ll get to the details of our 1-year Sabbatical in a bit, but first I want to focus on how to take a month off from your business successfully. Because if you can’t do that, you aren’t going to be able to take a year.
Focus on disconnecting, NOT on having a vacation
This is a big distinction for us. Vacations (fun as they are) tend to fill my schedule to the brim, and since we have kids, tend to also bring a level of inherent stress with them.
We are very intentional about how we use our time on Sabbatical trips. While we will do some fun stuff, the goal isn’t a vacation, but rather decompression, meditation, and connecting with God.
It should go without saying that before we had kids it was much easier: we would both spend most of the day reading, praying (alone or together), goal-setting, and listening to Biblical teaching. And then after dinner maybe watch a movie or just hang out.
Our typical daily schedule
Now that we have 2 kiddos in the mix, we have found what works best for us is alternating days.
So on one day I will take the kids and be responsible for them basically until dinner. And Linda can go to the beach, coffee-shop, library, park or anywhere else to get alone and focused. And then she takes the kids the next day and we just continue to alternate like that. And occasionally throw in a family day.
With 2 kids we obviously have less time alone together, but we try to focus on using the time AFTER the kids go to bed to chat about our goals for the year and where we think God is leading us.
Leaving vs. staying at home
As much as I hate to admit this, I have found that it is a LOT easier to have more and better focused time when I get out of town. I don’t know why exactly, but my hunch is that:
- The familiarity (and established patterns) of our home life creep back in and knock us off our schedule.
- Many of my home life demands don’t follow me to a vacation rental.
They typically have more room to move around, are more comfortable, and have a full kitchen – eating out all day long, every day for an extended time takes its toll quickly.
We also look for places that we can walk to from where we are staying. Ideally a beach or park or coffee shop.
I hate that it seems like we have to have the big expense of leaving home and renting to get the maximum benefit, but for us thus far that has been the case. Your mileage may vary. Logically, there is no reason you couldn’t get the same benefits from home – it is just tough to break those established habits and patterns.
How we keep the business afloat while we are gone
Our business is this blog you are reading. Your business very well may be different, but even if it is, hopefully there will be some takeaways for you in here.
I will go into some detail below, but honestly my strategy is really simple in that I ask myself 2 questions:
- What’s the worst case scenario? (Q1)
- What’s the likelihood that the above would happen? (Q2)
The answer to the first question is often scary, but if the answer to the second question (my best guess) is less than 20%, I go for it.
1. Schedule blog posts
I do a good bit of writing before we leave and schedule out blog posts to publish automatically. This is really easy to do with Self-Hosted WordPress.
Sometimes I even “cheat” and update and republish older content that I wrote years ago. 😉
If I feel like I can’t create enough content to get scheduled out that far, I just post less frequently during the trip.
But what if you post daily? I would ask the same 2 questions above about posting weekly.
- Q1 = a small percentage of people might be upset
- Q2 = 5%
In my experience of doing this the last 10 years, I have never heard of anyone unsubscribing from getting too few emails – it is almost always the opposite; they unsubscribe all the time because they get too many emails.
So the first time I did this, I just let all the subscribers know that I was taking a month-long Sabbatical and would be posting less.
Not a single person complained. And actually fewer people unsubscribed than normal. Lesson learned.
2. Schedule out emails to our subscribers
For a while, our emails were automatically sent every time a new blog post was published, so I didn’t even have to think about this.
Now we write a quick email for each blog post that we create. It definitely helps with reader engagement, but I would go back to auto-emails in a heartbeat (especially just for a month) if that was preventing me from taking a month off.
3. Blog Comments
What happens if I don’t check blog comments for a month?
Q1 = I will have missed the opportunity to connect with some readers.
Q2 = 20%
Let me start by saying that I love reader comments and normally I read all of them. But, I learned many years ago that as fun as they are, they don’t feed the family, and they can (if you let them) try to take over your life.
So, I didn’t check comments for a month. And, not surprisingly, nothing bad happened. Sure, a few spammy ones made it through, but they were easy to delete when I got back.
4. You can’t possibly ignore email for a month – can you?
I think I could. But I haven’t yet. My standard process has been to go to a coffee-shop each Saturday morning and dedicate no more than 1 hour to scanning through my email for urgent stuff. For me, this normally means 1-2k emails to scan through.
I literally just quickly read through subject lines as fast as I can looking for truly urgent stuff. Most times I don’t find anything urgent and ‘cheat’ just a little by responding to a few really important (but not urgent) emails.
Urgent stuff would be like:
- A notice from our main Webhost that our site is down.
- Our business credit card expired and our web host will be taking down our site if we don’t update the payment method.
- Our email provider saying that we reached our monthly limit and they won’t send our emails out.
I mostly ignore really important stuff that doesn’t fall into the urgent category. The main reason being is that I have found most of the time I can take care of it when I get back. And I have yet to have an issue where I regretted NOT responding while on break.
More on my process
Gmail has a cool autoresponder feature that I always use. My standard looks something like this:
Put the burden of responsibility on the sender
The first couple times I took a month-long break, I would get back and spend almost an entire week catching up on email. I would feel the need to respond to thousands of emails.
What made it worse was that many (if not most) of the emails I was answering, the sender had forgotten about it, already found an answer, or just didn’t care anymore.
It was almost like I wasted an entire week answering emails that didn’t matter.
Then one year I modified my OOO (Out of Office) responder to put the burden of responsibility back on the sender.
Anyone who sent me an email now had 2 options:
- Email me again after I get back (if it will still be important).
- Email my assistant (if it is truly urgent or if she can help).
This one thing probably gave me 4 days of time back. Now, when I got back to work I scanned email again and answered urgent and maybe really important emails and then hit the delete button on everything else.
And I could do it without any guilt because I knew the people would email me again if they still needed to.
Create an urgent email address
Another thing that worked well was having a dedicated email address for urgent stuff. I gave this email address to my assistant and all our contract workers and allowed them to use their best judgment when determining when to use it.
One or two times I included this email address in my OOO responder as well. If you don’t have an assistant helping you that isn’t a bad idea.
I then had that email forwarded to my phone with notifications on. It should go without saying that my main email account was removed from my phone.
In the last 5 years, I don’t think I have had 10 emails sent to this account.
Responding to replies?
For me, this falls into the category of blog commenting, so I just don’t do it when I am on leave. In theory, I could probably batch it with my weekly email check in, but I haven’t yet. If unsure, ask yourself Q1 and Q2 again.
Clean off your phone
I have found the hardest part of the whole Sabbatical thing for me is breaking my regular habits. This is why I delete off any apps that might tempt me. So delete all social media apps off. Since I use the urgent email address, I don’t delete off the email app, but I make sure that my main email account is removed.
Hire a VA (virtual assistant)
I haven’t always had an assistant, but being able to have someone who can check on things daily is a nice perk that helps me feel more comfortable. And it is even better if they can cover many of the areas mentioned above. And with it being so easy to find VAs these days, it is probably worth considering.
Years ago I would just have Linda peek on the site for me daily so I could rest knowing that it was at least still there. 😉
What I learned
Here are just a few lessons I have learned from doing this 6 times now:
- Batching email weekly easily frees up 10+ hours a week.
- The website is far LESS likely to break when I am not touching it for a month.
- Almost everyone is really respectful of your Sabbatical time. Just that word carries a weight of importance that almost everyone respects.
- When I get back I realize how unimportant most of the things I do each day are – because I hadn’t done them for a month and everything has been fine without them. This is a huge help in refocusing my time towards things that matter.
The one-year Sabbatical
It has taken a while to get to this point so thanks for bearing with me. The main reason is that most of what was required for me to pull off a year Sabbatical was learned from taking month-long ones.
When I find myself thinking that something is impossible, I use this trick I learned from Tim Ferriss to help me overcome my small thinking. I ask myself,
“Ok, I know it is impossible, but if it WERE possible, how would I do it?”
It is a simple question, but it removes some of the pressure and it gets my brain looking for solutions, instead of resting on the excuse of it being impossible. Sometimes, it legitimately isn’t possible for me, but it never hurts to really dig in and see.
In this particular case, as I began digging in and imagining how I could pull this off if I absolutely had to (if my life depended on it), I came to the conclusion that most of the systems I used to handle a 1-month break would directly apply.
Not all, but most.
My team ran the show
I am blessed to have some phenomenal people working with me. Lauren and Dawn did almost everything while I was out.
They took care of:
- Sending out an email each and every week
- Republishing some of our most popular content from previous years
- Social media
- Blog comments
- Looking for urgent emails
- And a lot of misc stuff
How much I ACTUALLY worked
I ended up working an average of about 1 hour each week.
Each Monday I would have a meeting with Lauren and she would run urgent emails by me to get direction and we would finalize the weekly email going out that week.
I would then answer questions from our course students that had come in. This often was the majority of my “work time”, but our students had paid for access to me and I wanted to make sure that I honored that.
How taking a year off differed from taking a month off
The biggest difference was just that I was at home for most of it. I have an office (outside the house) that I work from and we decided to keep the rental over the year so it could be our place to go.
Linda and I followed the alternating day pattern that I mentioned above for a good chunk of the year – giving us each some good focus time.
Additionally, stepping (mostly) away from work for that long just really changes how you see things. You can’t help but see things from the 10,000-foot perspective.
All the minutiae gets pushed to the side as the mostly meaningless junk that it is, while you begin seeing the bigger picture, the things that really matter.
Like I mentioned in the previous article ‘WHY I took a year-long Sabbatical’ there is something incredibly powerful about taking a Sabbatical that I don’t think you can fully understand until you do it.
I feel like a Sabbatical salesman, but it has been such a life-changing practice in my life that I can’t help but encourage people to do it!
Regardless the length, my encouragement to you is to start where you are, and stretch a little beyond your comfort zone and go for it!
Any other questions I can answer?
Let me know in the comments!