When I finally decided to take a career break, it was way long overdue. I had ignored all the signs, put up as many defenses and justifications as possible to extend the timeline, and I was still debating whether or not I was doing the right thing.
I had been going non-stop my entire life: pre-HS years, high school, college, job after job, with not much of a break in between. Raised with the mindset that hard work was what was going to make me someone of worth, and having lived and survived with limited resources but tremendous responsibilities, my MO was about working hard, always thinking about the next step(s) and milestone(s), about what needed to be done and fixed, and about excelling.
I was living out my family’s and community’s dreams – my success and accomplishments had much more than my happiness riding on them. Given this, even the thought of taking a break was initially unfathomable, let alone the considerations that ensued, practical and otherwise.
However, it got to a point where my life and world had shrunk so much that I had no energy, desire, or space for anything else besides work. And I wasn’t even happy at work. I dreaded returning to work after the weekend and didn’t see the value in what I was doing anymore – I was physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually tapped out, and I was dragging myself to push through each hour, each day.
My breakthrough came about from a coaching program (shout out to The Grand!) I started four months before I eventually quit my job. During one of these coaching sessions, we did an exercise that was geared towards facilitating a holistic assessment of our health (including mental, financial, environmental, emotional, cultural, spiritual, professional, etc).
As I answered the prompts and scored each category, a picture started to emerge, one I had denied and refused to face for a while. The exercise clearly reflected the burnout, dissatisfaction, and significant misalignment and imbalance I had been feeling – while my scores were lower than I’d like across the board, there were areas such as professional health, mental, spiritual, and physical health that were considerably lower and pointed to realities I could no longer ignore. This exercise and the realizations it forced me to sit with precipitated a set of actions that ultimately led me to resign and start my sabbatical journey four months later.
I have a sense I’m not alone in the story I’m sharing. I feel there are MANY on similar journeys. It’s now been a year and counting since I went on my sabbatical and the incredible privilege of my situation is not lost on me. It wasn’t the plan to take this long of a break but the volatile global economy and impacted job market had other ideas, so I have had to adjust. Along with this lesson of accepting what I can’t control and pivoting as necessary, my sabbatical has wrought numerous learnings, painful and necessary, enlightening and expanding, and overall requiring deep reflection, reevaluation, and reimagining.
For those of you on a similar journey, a breaking point may necessitate your need for a break, but let me be the first to say (if you haven’t heard it already) that this need for a break doesn’t mean your path or You are broken. It may, in actuality, be a signal for an intentional pause of reflection, reassessment, and realignment.
You may not be in a place (financially or otherwise) to take a full-on, extended break, but I urge you to not ignore your system’s signals – if you can afford it, allowing yourself a fallow period of rest, recovery, and rebalancing can empower you to (re)define your next steps on your own terms. Whether it’s small breaks and adjustments or big ones, do yourself a favor and pay attention to yourself and your needs.
Accepting Your Need for A Break
If you are used to being ambitious, goal-driven, and always working towards the next milestone, whether due to your own expectations, or culturally and family-driven, chances are taking a break rarely occurs to you. You have made yourself believe that it’s not in the realm of possibilities for you; you can’t afford it, and you didn’t get to where you are by taking breaks anyway, so why start now?
However, you’ve been sensing things are off – you feel burnt out, unmotivated, and rarely have the energy or desire to participate in life besides working. Like I said above, I understand – I’ve been there. When you reach this point, the question is no longer, “Can you afford to take a break?” Rather, it becomes, “Can you afford to go on without some sort of break?”
If you have reached this phase of your journey, acceptance won’t come easily, so here are some things you can do to help you get to the core of your truth:
Conduct an honest and holistic self-assessment of your ecosystem: health, happiness, values, motivation, relationships, goals, etc. Be specific enough here and dig deeper than merely asking, “Am I doing well in this area?”. Some helpful questions:
- Do I have the mental, physical, and emotional space to do my best work?
- Am I in an environment where I feel safe? (at home, at work)
- Do I have time and energy to do things I enjoy outside work, develop and nurture hobbies, etc?
- Do I have a strong and genuine support system? (at home, at work)
- Am I eating and hydrating healthily and getting regular exercise?
Values and motivation
- Am I engaged in a work/career that I find meaningful and rewarding?
- Do I feel valued and supported? (at work, in my relationships, etc)
- Where do I spend most of my energy and time?
- Do my activities (work, non-work) excite and motivate me, or rather drain and demotivate me?
Depending on your access to community networks or resources such as coaching programs, this part of the process can be easier if guided by a coach, a self-development program, etc. Otherwise, you can do this on your own by compiling insightful questions like the above and journaling. The goal is to help you come to terms with the reality of your picture, with the truths you may be aware of but haven’t concretized, and with a fuller understanding of where you stand with yourself (accounting for internal and external layers).
Financial, Psychological, and Emotional considerations
The aforementioned acceptance will usually be followed by, “Now what?!?” You’ve accepted, begrudgingly or not, that, yes, you do need to give yourself a break. However, you’re likely then quickly delving into the practical considerations of what it means to be able to take a break. What it can mean for you realistically.
These considerations are not just crutches and mirages that fuel your panicked sense of “I can’t take a break!”, they are real legitimate considerations that you should sort through when considering taking one.
Here are some honest questions I asked myself to help me work through my own anxiety-filled path (and I’ll be real with you: this is not a one-and-done thing; you’ll have to come back to this reassessment and reflection regularly to help ground yourself):
What signals – psychological, emotional, physical, etc. – have brought me to this point?
This helps to center me around the fact that my need for a break is real and not frivolous or over-indulgent. This reminder is especially necessary during some low moments.
What fears, pressures, expectations, insecurities, etc. are making me feel taking a break is not possible or wise?
All the various reasons that seem(ed) logical and justified enough for why I kept pushing off taking a break. These are real (as far as the narrative I tell myself) and vocalizing and investigating them helps to see the logical and narrative fallacies. It helps take away their power and hold.
What are my financial vitals, and realistically, how long can I afford to be without employment? Bills/Responsibilities/Debt/Healthcare/etc.
I had thankfully been working with a financial advisor for a few years by this point and had a good idea of what I could realistically afford financially. Still, I had a meeting with her specifically to map out the financial considerations of my sabbatical and regularly go back to it as needed.
Your practical considerations may include all of the above, more or fewer points. Regardless of how many layers you have to sort through to give yourself a sensible idea of what kind of break you can take, do it. That is the point that matters. Do this (hard) work so you can fully live out and enjoy whatever kind of break you’ll be able to take.
How to Make the Break Work for You
After the above work of accepting and pragmatic grounding, how can you then walk the path of rest, recuperation, and realignment? This path can look different for each of us, but the key point starts with this: REST. This is the signal and command your system conveyed – heed it properly. Fight the urge to manufacture your healing, or insist on your perceived timelines, expectations, or previous working mindset. For you to reset and restore, you need the rest. So, rest!
It was jarring at first for me; to no longer have the structures of work and routine and to have nothing to do. Feeling non-productive, listless, anxious, and facing all this space and time to do with as I wished. It took some getting used to experimenting, exploring, surrendering, and just being. Inviting back and re-nurturing a full being, aligned and grounded, is a challenging journey but one worth taking.
Some things that helped me on my journey and ones you can start with:
- Incorporate rest and play into your day-to-day
- Embrace and nurture your fullness
- Create an intentional practice around what matters to you, what brings you alignment, and what fosters your growth
- Dedicate a focused time of reflection and reassessment, and pay attention to what these insights illuminate about the steps you want to take
I ignored the signals of burnout far longer than I should have, and while my reasons then seemed logical, it was my fears and various pressures that were hindering me from taking a break sooner.
However, despite the difficulties and legitimate concerns, going on a sabbatical was ultimately the right decision for me and it has thus far been transformational. I’m deeply aware of what a serious privilege and a blessing it is to be able to take such a break, and also understand that my experience is not unique to me – considering how formative this journey has been, I hope in sharing my challenges, realizations, and tips, I can help and encourage others along similar paths.
If you’ve found what I shared to be resonant, I encourage you to take some time for a genuine check-in with yourself – reflect upon your levels of happiness, fulfillment, sustained stress and exhaustion, dissatisfaction, and inner and external alignment.
- Notice how you are feeling as you reflect: what emotions are coming up for you and how and where are they embodied? Don’t stay cerebral – engage your whole self.
- If there are signals of burnout and feelings of stagnation, dissatisfaction, and misalignment (with your values, needs, aspirations, etc.), then take those seriously and commit to a re-evaluation.
Post reflection, if you decide to take an extended break and can afford to do so, I hope you do it, and I hope you take encouragement and solace in the knowledge that you’re gifting yourself something remarkable. I’m cheering for you!