At a recent TED conference, Stefan Sagmeister — a designer with a busy New York studio — discussed how he takes one year off every seven years. (I encourage you to take the 17 minutes to watch him in the video.) He closes his office down entirely, sets voicemail asking his clients to call back in a year (no kidding!), and enjoys a year to pursue his personal projects and interests. Curiously, despite the time off, his business survives — and even thrives — for it.
Is this even possible? It seems counter-intuitive: for us to take (what some may see as) excessive time off from our businesses in order to prosper and grow? Really?
Where the Nation Is Right Now
America in particular has been party to a unique and stringent work ethic. One that has our employees feeling like they can’t take what vacation time is allotted to them without fearing for their job security. A 2009 survey from Expedia found that 1/3 of employees don’t take all of their vacation time, and that one in five employees have actually canceled their vacation for work reasons. (Here's the complete study in PDF.)
What’s worse is that the Center for Economic and Policy Research calls the U.S. the No Vacation Nation. In a 2007 study, they determined that the U.S. is the only advanced economy in the world that doesn’t guarantee paid vacation for employees. That means you can take a job, work your 40 (or more) hours a week, and it’s considered a bonus to be given paid vacation time.
And although you would think that all these hours spent working in the States would correlate to national productivity, recent studies indicate that’s not necessarily the case:
“Americans may take less vacation, but are they really more efficient than their European colleagues? Figures from the World Economic Forum certainly show the US remains the world's most competitive country. Yet other data, including countries' GDP per hours worked, reveal Europe still gives America a run for its money. That means many parts of the Old World are at least as productive as the US, if not more, with the added bonus of up to eight weeks off a year.”
Now that we’ve determined that just plain working hard doesn’t correlate to results and growth (and in fact can be counter-productive), maybe we can consider some alternatives. These stringent vacation policies and practices start somewhere, and every business owner has the opportunity to create a work environment that either supports or eschews this “no vacation nation” concept. I doubt that many employees are particularly happy about not having vacations, so if you have the ability to set an example yourself that helps — and not hinders — your business, why wouldn’t you?
Dan Clements is a business owner and author of Escape 101: Sabbaticals Made Simple. Having moved to Mexico for six months after school and seen the immediate benefits of sabbaticals, he created a life that has incorporated regular sabbaticals as short as one month and as long as 10 months, in places like New Zealand, Australia, Central America, Thailand, and South America. During his most recent sabbatical in Paraguay, Dan and his wife even brought their five year old daughter.
Clements suggests that taking sabbaticals are critical to helping business owners move to the next level. “Most small businesses can’t survive long without daily input from their owners. In order to leave our business, we had to put people and systems in place for the business to run without us. The sabbatical forced the transition from “owning a job” to a true business. When we returned from the sabbatical, those people and processes were still there, which created more time to work on the business, as opposed to in it.”
When to Take Your Sabbatical
You may have an urge to wait until your business reaches a certain milestone before leaving for your sabbatical. However Clements suggests that it is in fact the sabbatical itself that drives change in your business. “Waiting for your business to reach some milestone before you take a sabbatical is a sure way to never get that escape you’re dreaming of. I’m not sure where we’d be if we hadn’t taken that sabbatical, but I’m confident we’d be much farther behind than we are now. It seems counter-intuitive, but we’re much further ahead financially now because we took that time away.”
“It's easy to talk about spending more strategic time on your business or withdrawing from the day-to-day of operations, but as many small business owners know, it just doesn't happen. Taking a sabbatical — particularly one that involves travel — removes you from the business. Period. It forces the transition,” says Clements.
Think of the number of business owners who are torn from their businesses only by a serious illness or marriage breakdown. Sabbaticals are a considerably more enjoyable way to incorporate balance into your life and have the added benefit of taking your business to the next level, by virtue of helping you see the bigger picture.
Not entirely surprisingly are the health benefits from taking a break. “We literally became physically younger during our last escape,” says Clements. “If you believe that your performance in business is affected by your personal health, then the best thing you can do for you and your business is to leave it for a while so you can recharge.”
Taking a sabbatical enhances your ability to think clearly and make more confident decisions. Clements suggests that we have no idea how loud the background noise in our heads is on a regular basis — until we escape.
Family Strength and Business Support
Business owners who immerse themselves entirely in the company stand at risk for alienating their families and losing their support over time. Even when other family members don’t actively work in the business, their support is imperative to the success of both the family and the business.
Clements says, “There's often a lot of resentment from spouses or children — it can be very destructive. When you take a sabbatical with your family, you make them a priority — the strong support that they give when you return to the business is something you can't put a price on.”
Although this sabbatical benefit is a double-edged sword, the ultimate outcome is positive. Clements says it best when he says, “You tend to get real perspective on your life and work when you take extended time away. As a result, there’s this inherent risk that your sabbatical makes you realize that part of your life isn’t working. Once you reach that insight, there’s no coming back — you’ll always be slightly off-kilter until you change what’s wrong.”
These forced changes again tend to be a result of major illness or catastrophe if a sabbatical is not in the cards. By embracing and exploring your need to change before it’s too late, you stand a chance at being able to constructively address what isn’t working in your life.
Sabbaticals at Home and Abroad
When people think of taking sabbaticals, they generally imagine themselves abroad somewhere. This indeed is a brilliant way to remove yourself from your day-to-day life and enjoy a different pace; if you choose to stay at home for your sabbatical, the inherent challenge is to change your routine enough to make the sabbatical a true break from routine. This change can be accomplished by immersing yourself in a new hobby, or taking on a project that changes your regular focus.
Can I Check Email or Take my Phone?
With virtual umbilical cords leashing many of us to social media and other networking and communication portals, some of us are burning out without even understanding the cause. However some business owners will want some contact with the company, even if it is small.
Clements’ parting words to me on the topic are perfect: “If you use technology every day, and have trouble not using it, then it’s worth trying some time without it. The magic of sabbaticals — that gift of perspective — really only comes when you do things differently. That’s why travel is such a powerful sabbatical idea — it removes you from the day-to-day.”
Dan Clements and his family will be taking another long sabbatical in 2012. Until then he is marketing his book Escape 101: Sabbaticals Made Simple, which helps readers to plan their own sabbaticals from start to finish.
What is your own experience with sabbaticals?
Nora Dunn is a freelance writer on the topics of personal finance and travel, as she meanders around the world full-time on her own open-ended kind of sabbatical. You can find out more about her adventures at The Professional Hobo.