How To Take A Sabbatical Without Ruining Your Business

Small business owners constantly carry the weight of their companies and rarely recharge. Here's how to break free.
Freelance Writer and editor, Self-employed
June 09, 2011

Last September, Mike Ragsdale and his family boarded a plane for Asia. They traveled through Thailand, Burma and Cambodia, and came home to Florida one month later. The trip was enjoyable and stress-free, which is surprising considering Ragsdale supports his family as a small business owner.

As co-founder of TownWizard, a mobile travel guide company, Ragsdale is familiar with working long days and late nights, and was ready for a change. Small business owners constantly carry the weight of their companies and rarely recharge.

“It is odd, really, because we all got into business to be the captain of our own ship and allow ourselves to do amazing things like spend time with the ones we love…but if we can’t do that, what’s the point?” Ragsdale says.

Pauline Lewis, owner of OOVOO Design, a handbag design company, has also experienced the joys of a sabbatical. Hers was a six-month move across the country, from Alexandria, Virginia to Portland, Oregon.

“It was incredible; my husband and I got to see so much of the country that we hadn’t seen before,” she says.

Talk about a dream come true. Yet the mere idea of a sabbatical usually evokes two thoughts in the minds of business owners: 1. Sounds great, I’ve always wanted to…(fill in the blank); 2. I could never do that. My business wouldn’t survive.

"I totally disagree with that line of thinking—a sabbatical is possible for every business owner,” says H. Jude Boudreaux, CFP, founder of Upperline Financial Planning, a boutique financial planning firm in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Here’s how to do it:

Commit

Ragsdale equates taking a sabbatical to jumping off the high dive. The easy part is climbing the ladder; the tough part is taking the leap. To make a jump a little easier, he suggests committing to the time off by spreading the word to colleagues and friends, buying your plane tickets, etc.

“That commitment puts you on top of the ladder—you either do it or you are stuck with the humiliation of having to climb down,” he says.

Start delegating

Several months before leaving for Asia, Ragsdale sat down and inspected his daily activities and put them into categories: $10-per-hour tasks, $25-per-hour tasks, and so on. He then began hiring people—long before he left—and training them to take on tasks while he was gone.

Automate

Automation is the key to time management. Take paying your bills as an example. How many minutes does it take you to search for your checkbook, find a stamp and send off a bill? Add up that time, and over the course of a year you are talking hours. Automated bill payments give you back that time. And the same goes for other business practices.

"Get to a point where you can run your business with just your laptop and your cell phone,” Lewis recommends.

Do a trial run

Sabbaticals aren’t for everyone.

“If you’ve never gone away for more than a week, you will be in for a culture shock; some people just can’t handle being away for too long,” says Boudreaux.

Test breaks can help your team get prepared, work out kinks and give you peace of mind, he says.

Establish a contact policy

There is nothing worse than going on vacation just to check your smartphone every five minutes. Think about this before taking a sabbatical, Lewis says. When taking six months off, she made herself available for a conference call two hours per week. It helped her stay on top of her business, but still enjoy her roadtrip.

“Every business owner has a comfort level with how far away they can step from their business, so put a process in place,” she says.

Check out these resources on the topic.

The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich, by Timothy Ferriss

Reboot Your Life: Energize Your Career and Life by Taking a Break, by Catherine Allen, Nancy Bearg, Rita Foley, and Jaye Smith

Time Off From Work: Using Sabbaticals to Enhance Your Life While Keeping Your Career on Track, by Lisa Rogak

Freelance Writer and editor, Self-employed