Should you take a long break from work?

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If you are a quitter, a wannabe quitter, or you’re interested in “nothing,” then this article is for you.

By way of introduction, two years ago I quit my job at Google where I’d been working for eight years, most recently as a product manager. The job was the culmination of decades of hard work, and I generally felt good about it. I respected my colleagues, I liked my role, and Google is a great company to work for. What could be better?

Total freedom!? Maybe that could be better!? Still, it’s a huge decision to quit, so I’ve thought a lot about the reasons involved. In this article I’m going to share five reasons to take time off and four reasons to hesitate.

5 reasons to take time off

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1) Rediscover your true power

Taking time off is a great way to rediscover your personal power, and to break the habit of trying to be “perfect.”

I was happy with my job, but I felt strangely powerless. I wasn’t shackled, I didn’t have a bossy manager, and I wasn’t even bound by financial pressure. With hindsight, I can see I felt trapped by my own desire to impress people.

I was so attached to my resume and my career story, it felt impossible to let it go. I loved having this clean, simple narrative about my life, and I was afraid people would judge me if my narrative got a little messy.

After I quit, I realized just how foolish those fears had been. When I first broke the news, my colleagues were supportive (often jealous), and my family, friends and partner were universally happy for me. When I meet new people, sometimes they’re surprised by my story, but generally my new connections feel more authentic and stronger than ever.

Imperfection, it turns out, has its own gifts. It’s been liberating to have a couple years where I “don’t make sense.” I feel more empowered and free than ever.

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A light-painting I made while traveling in the Lofoten Islands, Norway.

2) Time for family, friends and love

Taking time off gives you the opportunity to reinvest in relationships that may have gone neglected. The break has allowed me to build, heal and deepen many important connections in my life.

For example, since taking time off my father has become one of my best friends. We talk more often on the phone, and I pop up to visit every week or two to have a meal and watch basketball. We’ve always had a great connection, but my visits used to feel like a “special occasion.” There’s something really wonderful about how easy and casual it feels now.

My sabbatical has been especially timely for my mother. In a twist of fate, a little over a year ago we found out she’d need open-heart surgery. Because I was taking a break, I was able to spend months with her up in Canada, making six trips in the past two years. It felt so natural and right to be giving her my undivided attention during this time, and I’m so grateful I had the opportunity.

Everyone’s situation is different. Maybe for you it’s your grandmother, your dating life, or your friendships. But if you feel in your heart that there are relationships in your life that need attention, an extended break can be a miraculous remedy.

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Me at my desk / music production terminal.

3) Time to explore your interests

What would you do with two years off? Travel the world? Learn to ice skate? Finally max-out your level in your favorite RPG? Being jobless gives you the space to finally pursue those passions you have outside of work, which is not only enjoyable, but may even shape your future life and career.

I’ve never met someone who found complete fulfillment in her work. Maybe she’s out there, but most of us are pretty complex and few jobs can match us completely. This can be really hard when you have a demanding job and are working long hours.

Vacations are great of course, but it’s pretty tough to rally yourself to work on side projects during the limited time you have to relax and rejuvenate.

When you’re unemployed, side projects can become main projects. For me it was music. I’d dabbled here and there, but I always felt like I wanted to go deeper. With time off, music took the place of my job. I joined a choir, signed up for private lessons, took online courses and really devoted myself. With a couple years of work behind me, I’ve produced about 40 songs. I’m not expecting to make money from it, but it has been wonderful to hear the music manifest.

Maybe you have something similar in mind, or maybe you’re just excited to have some fun? Play is important too, and research suggests it contributes to our long-term happiness, intelligence, social cohesion and creativity. I’ve enjoyed time for videogames, experimental cooking, pickling, board games, interior decorating, photography (including all the photos in this post!), and much more. Hey, even if playing isn’t good for us, it’s still fun right?! 🙂

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This squirrel is super practical. He stores acorns for winter and stuff.

4) Time to get practical and fix your habits

You know those to-dos you’ve been procrastinating on forever? If you take time off, you’ll probably do them!

Here’s how it goes down. You coast out of work with this pattern of working long days, and you expect to be productive and doing stuff that feels like work. You look around and what do you see? That list of annoying to-dos: switch internet providers, sell bike, create a data backup strategy, figure out if I should do a Roth IRA conversion… etc etc. If you’re like me, there are probably some very important things on that list.

Following through on some those things, especially those related to your finances, may actually be worth more than a year of work in the long run.

For me, in the first quarter unemployed I overhauled my investment strategy and answered every personal finance question I had, I created a personal budget, I switched mobile carriers, etc. These tasks matter, and it feels really good to catch up on them.

Similarly, you know those New Year’s resolutions you make every year? If you take time off, you’ll probably follow through. It’s lot easier to get to the gym when you have nothing in your calendar. It’s a lot easier to put the cigarettes away when you aren’t so stressed out. Indeed, in this time I’ve stopped drinking, I got a pretty decent yoga and meditation habit going, and I even started taking vitamins… For one year I think? 🙂

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Some time for quiet reflection on a camping trip to Pinnacles National Park.

5) Time to get real

So what’s the point of any of this really? Why are you reading this blog post? Do any of the things above even matter? If you’re the type of person who asks questions like that, then a break might be even more important.

Many of us have a nagging voice inside that asks hard questions about life and purpose. Whether or not you identify as “religious” or “spiritual,” some extended time-off can be a wonderful opportunity to seek answers. Maybe that means reading books, maybe it means attending church or a spiritual group, maybe it means taking a class in Heideggerian Philosophy. In my case, some time has definitely helped me get greater clarity about my values and worldview.

Maybe in this exploration you’ll find yourself blocked by some personal issues. An extended break can also be a great opportunity to invest in personal healing and growth, whether through cognitive behavioral therapy, massage, acupuncture, or another kind of treatment. One nice thing about healing while unemployed is you don’t have to worry if you need to be emotional for a few days — you’ll have the time and space to handle it.

Quitting creates the space to rediscover what makes you happy, what you feel like when nobody’s watching, and what you choose to do without all the outside expectations.

Beyond the opportunities to explore these questions directly and proactively, if you take time off you’ll probably learn a lot about yourself. For example, after years girding myself for extensive social interaction at work and juggling dozens of different projects, I’ve learned how happy I am with lots of alone time and greater focus. These lessons will be valuable as I prepare to go back to work.

4 reasons to hesitate

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Slow down, tiger.

Maybe quitting sounds a little too good to be true? Here are four questions you should ask yourself before you take the plunge:

1) Can you afford it?

If you aren’t working, you need to have some serious money saved up to live on. Be honest with yourself and take the time to create a budget and figure out if you really have enough.

Be sure you take into account all your expenses and are realistic. It’s good to do an audit of all the spending from a few months of your bank and credit card statements. Better yet, set up an online budgeting tool to really get a grip.

Be careful not to fall into traps of overly optimistic thinking. Be aware you probably have spending habits that won’t be easy to change.

For example, even if you think you won’t eat out anymore, your friends are going to keep inviting you to the same events and trips and activities, and you’ll feel a lot of pressure to spend.

Similarly, give yourself plenty of cushion just in case the job market is sour when you’re ready to come back, and don’t rely on market growth assumptions.

2) What’s your plan for unstructured time?

When I tell people about my experience, they often tell me they “couldn’t do it.” A successful business executive once told me he is afraid to retire because he “wouldn’t know what to do with himself.” Going from working 40 or 60 hours to 0 hours is a big adjustment, and you should respect the severity of that change.

The good news is that if you put yourself in a financial situation where you can take extended time off, you may already have the necessary self-discipline. In my case, I was used to setting goals for multiple teams, so I felt pretty confident I would be able to create plans and stick to them.

In addition to setting goals, it’s really helpful to have some routines in place to get out of the house. There were times I felt too isolated, and it was really helpful to join a choir, take yoga regularly, join a meditation group, etc. Depending on your interests, you may benefit from long-term commitments, which you might get from full-time community college courses, a detailed travel agenda, or something similar.

The risk here is that you might become very lazy and introverted, and that might lead to depression or worse. Please take this issue seriously.

Have a plan and be ready to ask for help from a counselor, a friend or a mentor if you end up struggling.

3) Are you okay with falling behind?

When it comes to your career, there are definitely two sides of the story. On the one hand, maybe you discover an exciting new career direction entirely. This would be really important and valuable! On the other hand, there’s no question you’ll fall behind your peers in your old career path.

For example, in my case, some of my peers have been promoted twice in the time I’ve been unemployed. One guy just became the CEO of a major company! When I return to work I’ll have less job responsibilities and I’ll be making less money than I would have been if I’d stayed. My manager might even be someone who used to be a peer.

If you make the choice to jump off the treadmill, you have to accept your peers will cover more miles.

Can you be comfortable with who you are and the sacrifices you’ve made, or will you be jealous and regretful? If you make the big jump, take responsibility and accept the consequences.

4) Is your resume in a good place?

As liberating as it is to let go of your fancy resume and ego trip, at some point you will most likely need to look for a job again. Before you decide to quit, it’s important to feel good about your odds of rejoining your field successfully.

If your resume has a lot of six month stints in different occupations and employers, you might think twice about quitting until you can show a solid contribution to a single employer. If part of you loves your job and there are rarely opportunities like yours, again, you might think twice. If you just had a big fight with your manager, you might wait to heal things up so she’ll be a good reference for you in the future.

In my case, it was really important to me to wait and demonstrate enough sustained success as a product manager that I could again get a job in the field. Thankfully, there’s a lot of growth in tech right now so I didn’t feel afraid about reentry. I also gave a very long notice to allow plenty of time to transition my projects and leave on good terms.

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Conclusion

I’ve never once regretted taking this time off. I’m so happy to have rediscovered a deeper sense of personal power, to have nurtured important relationships in my life, to have deeply pursued my interest in music, and to have established a strong foundation of values and beliefs. For me the benefits have far outweighed the costs.

Ultimately, each of us is in a unique position and what’s right for me isn’t necessarily what’s right for you. Truth be told, a tough decision like this is never going to be made “logically,” and after considering all the factors you’re going to have to rely on your intuition to ultimately pull the trigger. If you’re feeling stuck, I’m also a big fan of Ruth Chang’s approach to hard choices.

Anyone out there find this useful? Have any questions or concerns you’d like to share? Let me know in the comments and I’d be honored to have a follow up discussion.

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