Taking a career break is no small endeavor. You may be dreaming of traveling, writing a book, learning a new craft or just recovering from professional burnout. If you are seriously considering taking a career break (do it!), here are some tips to get you started. They are based on my own experiences of taking a break in my mid-40s.
1. Be clear about your goals: feel them, taste them, smell them
You probably have some ideas of what you want to do during your time off, such as traveling, volunteering or just resting.
Don’t be afraid to get specific. For example, if traveling is on your list, ask: do I want to travel fast or slow? What kinds of experiences would make my travels memorable? Food walks? Historic sightseeing? Hiking in nature? Language lessons? Jumping off from an airplane?
If recharging is what you need, what would it look like? Reading a nice book by the beach? A retreat in the mountains? Sleeping in with no guilt? Spending quality time with your family (and what qualifies as quality time)?
Now dig a bit deeper: have you stopped to imagine what it would actually look like? Can you feel it? Taste it? Smell it?
I recommend you journal on your ideas. It will help you gain more clarity, make your dreams more palpable and invite positivity closer to your heart (and you will need a lot of positivity to counter your inner resistance!). Here are some prompts for inspiration:
- In my career break, I plan to (…)
- My ideal career break would include (…)
- My ideal career break would bring me (…)
- My career break would bring me a lot of joy if I am able to (…)
- In my career break I would like to feel (…)
Set a timer for six to eight minutes and keep writing, nonstop. After that, close your eyes, take a few deep breaths and imagine those experiences and good feelings unfolding during your break.
How I gained clarity about my travel goals
I wanted to explore as many countries as possible, but it took me a while to get specific. Ultimately, this is what specific looked like to me during the planning stages:
- My first trip will last three months. I want to see as many countries as possible without feeling rushed. Research tells me that to accomplish that I should spend a minimum of five nights in most large cities.
- I will focus on Europe and mostly countries or cities I have never visited. My trips will include a mix of city hopping and time in nature, so I will pack accordingly.
- I want to sit in charming coffee shops, eat delicious pastries, swim in crystal blue waters, see the countryside from a train window. I can already smell the sweet scent of a chocolate croissant baking, feel the goosebumps on my skin from the cool water, sense the elation from seeing ancient castles and splendid mountains.
I ended up experiencing all of that (and a lot more!). It all started with a simple journaling and meditation exercise.
2. Fold your goals into themes
Now that you are clear on what you want to accomplish, fold your goals into themes. Your themes will serve as North stars for your experiences. Creating themes is part of the framework that my career break coach developed and has given me permission to share with you:
Explore: I deliberately didn’t choose “Travel” as the name of my theme. Traveling abroad was certainly my main motivator, but I wanted to stay open for experiences that would spark my interest on the fly. For instance, I had never heard of biodanza (biodance), but came across it in Spain and took a class. It was one of the most powerful experiences of my life and I am not exaggerating.
Express/Create: I had writing projects in mind, but wanted to leave room for other ways to hone my creative expression (biodanza, mentioned above, could also fit here). Eight months into my break, I’m learning skills that were not in my original list, such as launching this WordPress blog and editing photos in Adobe Lightroom.
Spirituality/Connection to Source: the last couple of years have accelerated my spiritual journey. During my break, I wanted to keep the exploration going. I took online classes (Goddesses of Abundance Circle, anyone?), read books, meditated and added spiritual retreats to my travel adventures.
New Ways of Being: though I have no crystal ball, I knew my career break would change me. I wanted it to change me. Even before my break started I attached post-it notes all over my house to be reminded of the person I wanted to be. Brave, Creative, Loving and Empowering made the list. Today, I feel that I am living by these values, even if at times I need a gentle reminder.
Ultimately, your themes need to make sense to you and no one else. It’s your break!
3. Know what success will look like at the end of your break
You want to look back at this extraordinary time you created for yourself and feel proud/joyful/accomplished/name your feeling. I recommend two things:
Focus on how you want to feel
Sure, external goals are great (sail the Tagus River in Lisbon! Visit lakeside castles in Scotland!), but focusing on how you want to feel engages your senses, becomes less of a to-do list and creates room for miracles. By the end of my break I want to feel free, joyful and peaceful, to name a few. If you’re unclear about how to get started on setting goals with feelings, this book can trigger lots of ideas: The Desire Map: a Guide to Creating Goals with Soul, by Danielle Laporte.
Write a letter to your future self as if you had already lived your break
Write nonstop for six to eight minutes and see what you come up with. Here’s a tiny example to ignite your creative juices: “I’m thrilled that I was brave for trusting my gut and my intuition and taking this break. I visited many countries, met new friends, learned how to cook new dishes and finished the outline of my book. I feel rested, recharged and empowered to look for work aligned with my interests and values.”
4. Have a date range and leave room for re-entry
Re-entry is the transition period when you start preparing to return to work (updating your resumé, reconnecting with your professional network, signing up for LinkedIn updates etc). Doing it too soon can ruin the magic of your career break intention. My coach recommends to budget approximately two months for re-entry.
Re-entry has been a huge lesson learned for me. I announced to the world that I would take a whole year off, but secretly I was very wishy-washy about it, a by-product of my strong attachment to feeling financially stable. On month six of my break, an ill-timed job placement program sent me into job-hunting overdrive. Anxiety tagged along, as I describe in another blog post. Deep inside, I knew I wasn’t ready to return to work. I reviewed my themes, re-assessed my priorities and was able to slow down.
5. Budget accordingly
This one is self-explanatory, so I’ll keep it short. Create your budget based on your break duration, the types of activities you want to experience and your ongoing financial commitments (i.e., mortgage, car payment etc). Make sure to leave a buffer for unexpected expenses. If you plan to take 10 months off, set aside two to four months for emergencies…or for a change of heart! It’s not uncommon for career breakers to extend their time off.
6. Prepare yourself emotionally before you give notice at work
For most people, giving notice at work to embark on a career break may feel both exhilarating and terrifying. This is when you know your umbilical cord to financial stability will be temporarily cut. Your break now feels real. You may be afraid of how your manager and colleagues will react. You may fear being judged. It’s normal to feel this way.
I met many career breakers and heard the same story over and over: giving notice wasn’t as dreadful as anticipated. Once they released their truth to the world, they were met with acceptance and admiration. In fact, it was quite common to hear colleagues say “how brave you are” or “I’m so envious and wish I had the courage to do the same.”
I had a great relationship with my manager and knew that she would ask me to reconsider my decision. Therefore, as personal guarantee that I wouldn’t walk back on my plan, I purchased my ticket to Europe the night before I gave her notice. We must do what we must!
How far in advance you should announce that you’re leaving really depends on your circumstances. I could have given a two weeks’ notice, but opted for three months instead. This allowed enough time to hire and train my replacement.
7. Be flexible
Life happens. You may have everything planned out to embark on a fabulous career break, but life could test you by throwing a curveball. In my case, I learned that I had to undergo a massive surgery just one month before I was scheduled to depart for Europe. I was crushed for a while, grieving in my own puddle of self-pity, but then I let it go. I realized that the surgery was part of something greater in my life and deeply connected to this very special moment of personal and professional liberation. The surgery ended up being a success and only impacted my travels by a few days.
Need more inspiration?
I recommend this 31-minute Instagram video where my extraordinary career break coach Katrina interviews Karin, a career breaker who took time off to restore her health.
Are you planning to take a career break and want more insights? Or have you taken a break and have other tips to help people create a meaningful career break experience? Leave your comments below!