Bethany Butzer, Ph.D.


5 Tips for Taking a Work-Life Sabbatical

Posted by Bethany Butzer, Ph.D. on May 10, 2015 at 9:40 AM

At the end of May I'm leaving my job at Harvard Medical School to spend two months in a cabin in the woods. As I've been announcing this decision to friends and family, our conversations inevitably circle around the question of why.

  • Why would I give up a perfectly good job at one of the top academic institutions in the world to go do nothing in a forest?
  • Why would I choose to sell most of my belongings (and put the rest in storage) to live on a piece of land that you can't even access by car?
  • Why would I willingly put my professional connections and career at risk by "disappearing" from the real world for awhile?

Then come the questions about how.

  • How am I going to afford to take 2 months off?
  • How am I going to accomplish regular tasks like getting my mail and/or groceries?
  • How is my husband going to manage to come along with me?
  • How am I going to explain this to my work colleagues?

These questions sound complex, but the answers are surprisingly simple.

Why am I doing this? Because I feel like it.

How am I doing it? By planning ahead and being brave enough to trust my intuition.

The Why

My extended answers are more nuanced, but I think the nuances are of interest. Let's start with why. My simple answer ("because I feel like it") is surprisingly accurate. I once read a blog by Janice MacLeod-Lik (author of Paris Letters) who, when asked why her and her husband were moving from Paris to Calgary after she'd spent years building her dream of being an artist in Paris, replied: "I'm still not exactly sure except that we felt like it, which seems good enough for us and not good enough for whoever is asking."

I love Janice's response because, really, what ever happened to just doing things because we feel like it? Why do we always have to consider our career track and our retirement funds and our social status?

I recently read an article about a woman who gave up her $95,000/year salary in New York City to move to an island to scoop ice cream. Mostly because she felt like it. She said, "If you're constantly thinking you need a vacation, maybe what you really need is a new life." Touché.

"Because I feel like it," sounds like a flippant response, like I didn't give this decision much thought. Which I suppose is true on some level. I didn't think a lot about this decision. But I felt it with all my heart.

I'm not leaving my job because it's too stressful or because I'm incapable of keeping up with the Harvard rat race. I'm leaving because the deepest part within me - the part that feels instead of over-analyzing - is telling me that I need to unplug for awhile and spend some time in nature. I don't know if I will emerge from this work-life sabbatical with any enlightened wisdom or a new sense of meaning about my life. All I know is that this is what I need to do. Because I feel like it.

The How

Now let's move on to the how. We're such a financially-focused culture that in many cases, people don't really care about why I'm doing this. They want to know how I'm going to afford it. I've often thought the same thing when I read blogs by self-help types who suddenly pick up and move to California for the winter or decide to spend a month in Australia. So I'm going to be honest and get into the actual details of how I'm affording this adventure.

The first piece is that the universe has been preparing me to make this decision for awhile. Not by giving me a 6-figure income and making my life a piece of financial cake. Instead, for the past 2 years, the universe has been stripping me bare. I was forced to sell my house, my car, and a good chunk of my belongings. Other responsibilities, like my cat, were also taken away. This has been a grueling time emotionally, but it has given me the freedom and space to make different choices about how I want to live.

Selling my house, and deciding to rent instead of buying a new place, allowed me to pay off all of my debt. Having no car means that I don't make monthly car payments (or gas payments, or insurance payments). Removing my debt allowed me to save some money - even though my postdoctoral salary barely covers the cost of living in Boston. Some of my financial decisions have also been conscious ones. I don't have children (by choice). I don't buy a lot of fancy clothes or other material things.

Fewer responsibilities + more money in the bank = more freedom. So, over the past several months I made a conscious choice to save up enough money to buy myself 2 months off.

Again, I don't want to sound nonchalant, as if this was the easiest decision I've ever made. Nor do I want to suggest that this is something that everyone should do. Rather I want to share that these types of decisions are often easier to implement than we think. And when we start making decisions that come from our Soul, the universe inevitably supports us (even if the "support" doesn't always feel like support at the time).

What it comes down to is that I need a mental and physical break. And I'm being brave enough to take it.

My Tips

Here's what I recommend if you're contemplating doing something similar:

  1. Simplify. If there are a lot of logistical factors keeping you from taking a leap, do your best to remove them. Obviously you can't sell your kids or abandon your spouse. But perhaps you can start selling a few things on Craigslist. Or consider downsizing to one vehicle in your household. Or eat out less often. The money that you save will give you freedom to make more choices.

  2. Get Real. Take a good hard look at your finances (and your Soul), and figure out: 1) What it is that you want to do, and 2) How much time you can realistically take off to do it. Maybe you would like to spend 3 years saving up for a 1 year sabbatical. Or maybe you can only manage to escape for 1 week. The key here is to stop thinking in abstract terms like, "Oh I really want to go to Bali" or "I'd love to take a cruise around the world." Get into the nitty gritty and find out how much these things will actually cost, and what it would take for you to achieve them. Set a timeline. Make goals. Stop daydreaming about "someday" and start making conscious choices that will make your dreams a reality.

  3. Find Role Models. When you make the decision to escape from the daily grind, there will be naysayers. Your family might worry about you. Your boss might get upset. Your friends might think you've lost it. Be prepared to speak with people who will make you doubt yourself. Then, in your darkest moments, find role models who are living the type of life that you imagine. That's why I enjoyed reading Paris Letters and Noelle Hancock's article.

  4. Trust Yourself. You will want to ask people for advice. And sometimes this is ok. But in the end, you need to spend some quality time with you. What do you want your life to look like? How do you want to feel? No one else can answer these questions for you. If your heart is telling you to spend 2 months in the woods, then that's what you need to do.

  5. Lose the Illusion. We often mistakenly believe that a vacation, or an extended sabbatical, is going to magically erase all of our problems. In reality, when we follow our Soul's calling, we are often guided into deep, murky, and uncomfortable waters. Sometimes we end up with zero insights. Often all of our crap rises to the surface, because we don't have the hassles of daily life to distract us from ourselves. I fully expect to come face to face with some of my demons in the woods. As Clarissa Pinkola Estés describes in her book Women Who Run With the Wolves, I expect to learn lessons from the wise, wild archetype Baba Yaga. I've given up the illusion that my time away will be a walk in the park.

There is, of course, one final question after "why" and "how." The question of "What's next?" What am I going to do after my 2 month sabbatical? For that you'll have to stay tuned. :)

In the end, I'm trying to be brave, I'm trying to follow my heart, and I'm trying to serve as an example to others who might want to follow a similar path. But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't scared. That is the wonder of life. After all, if we don't challenge ourselves, how will we grow?

How are you challenging yourself today? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below!

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Reply Arnolzdaleva
5:32 PM on March 15, 2018 
Hello. And Bye.
Reply Edpahterse
12:22 PM on March 8, 2018 
Hello. And Bye.
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Reply Bethany Butzer, Ph.D.
12:50 PM on June 11, 2015 
Awesome, Joan! These types of adventures never disappoint :-)
Reply Joan
7:16 PM on June 9, 2015 
I love it. In 1993 I decided to drive to The Florida Keys and just wing it. It was the best 6 months in my life! I met many interesting people and found myself so to speak. Enjoy your cabin. Joan.
Reply Bethany Butzer, Ph.D.
12:48 PM on May 20, 2015 
It's so nice to hear from you, Lise! I'm glad you're enjoying my adventures - I will be sure to keep you posted. And I'm certain that our paths will cross again!
Reply Lise Whealy
7:30 PM on May 19, 2015 
Congratulations and celebration on you decision, Bethany!
Love seeing your quote from Clarissa Pinkola Estes - you can go as deep as you like with her and still learn more! I admire your sojourn in the woods and also your practical advice for those who want to take some time "out" (or as I see it forward). As you well know, forward is not usually in a straight line😉.
I am enjoying hearing about your adventures on our parallel journeys in this world and look forward to crossing paths with you again!
Big Summer Elgin County hugs to you!
Reply Bethany Butzer, Ph.D.
7:47 PM on May 14, 2015 
Yes, Hitesh!
Reply Hitesh
1:02 PM on May 14, 2015 
"Not all those who wander are lost."
Reply Bethany Butzer, Ph.D.
9:01 AM on May 14, 2015 
I'm so happy that my blog inspired all of you! It's so comforting to know that I'm not alone in my desire to rest & recharge. I trust that you will all find your own sabbaticals as well, in your own time! I believe there is a shift happening in society...more and more of us are desiring these types of extended breaks. We're tired of time poverty. And the more people who are courageous enough to act, the greater the shift will be!
Reply Judith Dennis
1:01 PM on May 13, 2015 
Reminds me of another creative person who wrote Walden s Pond not a thing wrong with this makes sense to me.
Reply Nichola Brown
11:50 AM on May 13, 2015 
Hi Bethany, Thank you for sharing your life with us. I am a huge advocate of taking regular sabbaticals. I love when other people discover the beauty of rest and connecting with your soul. It's not impossible to do, as you shared; but it is a very scary journey to embark upon. I believe it's actually something that many are called to do, but few of us actually answer the call. Thank you for your example and being courageous. During my sabbatical I wrote began to journal and as a result I wrote my first book about my experience. It's called Sabbath Season: A Call to Rest.

Again, thank you for sharing your journey. It's very inspiring.
Reply Michelle
1:16 AM on May 13, 2015 
I've been writing in my journal for months now, appreciating every bit of my life, including my present job. At the same time, I wanted to attract another career closer to home; to be able to spend more time with my family. I never made the leap to leave my comfortable job, so the universe did it for me. It made me go. I got notice and have until the end of the month until I'm officially jobless. That's what I asked for; that's what I tried to manifest. However, it wasn't what I wanted or expected to happen. I thought I was going to be the one to take this step when I was ready. Well that didn't happen. I was forced into an uncomfortable situation, not knownimg what I'm going to do, or where I am going, or what career path I'm going to choose. Like you, I have a strong desire to spend some time alone - to think and pray about what I what, and what I am supposed to be doing. I have no clue what's going to happen, but I just have to trust that this is where I'm supposed to be. I appreciate your honestly and openness about how you are feeling. I realize that I am not alone in this journey of self discovery.
Reply Cynthia
10:24 PM on May 12, 2015 
I sooo want to do something like this... Maybe go to a monastery for a month or a nature retreat (bare bones type but with water and electricity), and just sleep, breathe and write. The universe is stripping me of everything and I think I will be ready in a year and a half. I Like thAt you talk about how to make it happen instead of just wishing for it. I wonder what you'll do when you get back... I have a feeling it will all work out just fine.
Reply Monique
7:51 PM on May 12, 2015 
I love this article Bethany. I've come to a point in my life where I am making decisions from my heart and not from my head. I'm 30 and I've noticed that those decisions I made from my heart (without a logically sound reason why) have been the best decisions of my life. They have brought me so much joy. Not in the attaining of anything. But in being able to experience the present moment with peace in my heart. And THAT is the ultimate luxury. Living peacefully. I have an etsy shop where I handmake henna inspired home decor, I have transitioned from full time to part time at my current job at the University of Southern California. And this was a temporary position, I might not have this job at the end of the month, or I might have it for a few more months - I really don't know what will happen. I don't have a financial plan for the future. I do know that I want to live with peace in my heart - that, for me, is heaven on earth. Thank you so much for continuing to share your journey with me and the rest of your audience. It truly is a relief to connect with other people who are living in this courageous and freeing way. A life that is free is a good life. You are so wonderful. And I am so looking forward to reading about how it is for you in the cabin in the woods. I would love to do that one day :)