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How to take time off and use it well
I’ve been having a bunch of conversations with Glue People about how and whether to take time off between jobs. When I say take time off, I mean leaving a job without the next one lined up AND taking time to reset before starting the search for your next role. Ideally, a few months – sometimes more, sometimes less.
I’ve done this between every job since Facebook, and I’ve come to see it as a powerful tool to make a healthy choice for your next job, to start that job rested and ready to perform, and to strengthen your identity outside of work. I found myself giving the same advice about taking time off over and over again, so I realized it was time to write it down. (I’ve also learned some things this summer from some of the Glue People who have taken time off so their advice is incorporated in here too…)
I hear a lot of objections to taking time off, even from people who can afford it. Let’s talk about them and then I’ll share my tips for making sure you get what you want out of time off.
Finances, anxieties, and other blockers
Taking time off in this way is a big privilege and not everyone has access to the finances and support to do it. One Glue Person described time off as “a precious gift” she bought for herself — and she had to be mindful and protective to get the most out of it. I love that framing. I wish I could give the gift to more people, and I wish that more people who can afford it would take advantage of it.
To figure out if you can take time off, first do the math with a detailed budget and actual numbers. Many people don’t go through that step and they just get stalled at having financial anxiety, so I really encourage people to sit down and turn it into a concrete problem to solve. How much money do you need per month to not feel anxious, and then how much time off can you afford, if any? What would you need to make it possible?
To be even more specific, it’s not possible to take good, productive time off if you are anxious about finances. So the overarching question should be, “What do I need in order to be able to take time off and not feel anxious? Or is that just not realistic right now?” If you’re paycheck-to-paycheck or you just took on a big mortgage or something similar, your time off won’t feel like a real break and you might just make an urgent, fear-based job decision anyway. The point is whether you can buy yourself time to explore without financial stress.
Some people will do the math and find that they can actually afford it. Others will find that they can’t. I recently talked to a friend who is now planning to work 10-15 hours a week just to manage her financial stress and buy herself more time before she has to think about what she wants to do next. That can be a great solution too! Doing the math and getting specific around what you need to believe in order to be able to take a break can reveal whether resistance to time off is truly about finances versus other fears or cultural/family programming that you’re always “supposed” to have a job.
The leap of faith
People are especially afraid of taking time off right now because they’re worried they won’t find another job (I’m writing this in Sept 2023). It’s true that we’re in a bad job market, and I’m still seeing strong, talented people get good roles — it’s just taking longer (e.g., 6 months instead of 2). But it’s always a leap of faith to leave a job without having another one lined up.
You need to do an honest assessment of how long it might take to get your next role, and budget extra time in a down market. Some folks know there will be jobs waiting for them on the other side because they have a big network or a recession-proof job (which is created by a mix of specialty and seniority). Others don’t have that privilege. But I want to point out that even my most senior and well-networked friends have fears about not being hirable, so they go from safe job to safe job for decades with no break. Again, it is always worth checking whether the fear of taking time off is more about your thoughts and psychology than about the reality of the market.
For some of my friends, the objection to taking a break is: “It’s easier to get a job when you already have one.” This doesn’t reflect my experience, what I see in the market, or what I hear when I talk to recruiters. As a counterpoint, one benefit of leaving a job without another lined up is that you can search in the open. You can post on LinkedIn or tell more people that you’re ready for your next gig. If you search while you’re in a job, you’re dependent on finding opportunities through the few people you’re willing to tell that you’re looking.
I also think that sometimes, if you choose your next job while in your current role and you’re really burnt out, you could just end up choosing the “rebound boyfriend” job — the opposite of what you have today. You’re running away from something, not running towards what’s best for you. It’s common advice when you break up a relationship to take a break before starting to date someone new – this is simply the same advice for your work relationships :) Taking a break helps you get mentally clean from your past experiences so you can make a grounded decision about what’s next.
Preparing for time off and defending it
My recommendation for how to structure and protect your time off is significantly based on a piece of advice that came from my coach, Maggie Hensle.
When I left one of my last jobs, it was February or March, and Maggie told me to pick a date that would divide my time off into two phases: (1) personal time where I was not allowed to think about work and (2) hunting around for my next job.
It was March, and I chose July 4th. Maggie said that before July 4th, I wasn’t allowed to get coffee with anyone related to work, no emailing with recruiters, no introductions for specific roles. I now think of this as an “embargo date.”
The personal-time phase should be used to rest, heal, and examine past relationships with work, as well as get new inspiration and perspectives to shape your job search phase. The purpose is to get to a healthy, balanced state from which to pick your next role, which I believe supports your long-term well-being and success more than the career decisions you make while you’re stressed in your current job.
Here is how I suggest tackling this process:
Pick your embargo date
Once you’ve done the financial math and figured out how long you can take, select a date that divides your personal phase from your job search phase.
Make sure you have enough personal time – I tell people that if you can afford it, double what you think you need. You will be amazed at how fast the time goes by. You can fill the first two weeks with all the doctor’s appointments you missed during your last job and as soon as you get to the end of the first month you’ll find yourself wishing you had more time.
Get your email response ready
If you post on LinkedIn that you’ve left a job or let a lot of people know, people might reach out with offers for conversations or opportunities. The problem is these conversations can have a life of their own. One starts getting momentum and you feel that you need to drum up more opportunities at a similar stage, then you end up in a waterfall process before you’re really ready to job search.
The purpose of the embargo date is to delay all of these conversations til after that day. A standardized response (something that feels like an out-of-office) can be so so helpful to politely deferring those conversations. Here’s a great one that one of our Glue People shared:
“I’m taking intentional time off for the next few months, and am waiting until the fall to have conversations about new opportunities. I’d love to touch base with you again then!”
It’s a bit different if you’re talking with mentors or just trying to explore and hear about other people’s careers. That’s about getting new perspectives and processing your past. Those conversations can be great to do during your “personal time” before the embargo date, but avoid (avoid avoid) job-search-type conversations until you’re really ready.
Have a go-to script for what you’re up to
When I was leaving Facebook, Patty Stonesifer told me the story of when she left Microsoft. She said something that I have repeated to lots of other people since: “The hardest thing in the world is to let go of one rung of the ladder without your hand on the other rung.” Her point was that it’s a very anxiety-producing and ego-challenging move.
She specifically said that the place the ego challenge shows up aggressively is when people come up to you at parties and ask, “What do you do?” Patty told me to come up with an answer to that now. So, every time I quit without a “next thing,” I plan what I’m going to say. When I left Facebook, it was as simple as, “I’m taking a couple months off, then I’m going to look for my next role.”
Set personal goals
Maggie also told me to set goals to help reconnect with myself and set a purpose for the break before the embargo date. Without that structure, time can pass quickly. The goals can be easy to achieve – anything is fine as long as they have nothing to do with work.
At that time, my daily goals were to go outside every day, spend time with people I love, and go to an exercise class 5 days a week. Another time, it was to write more actively and go to yoga every day. It can be picking your kids up from school or taking a photography course, learning Spanish or getting good at salsa dancing. Obviously, it can also include travel if that’s in the realm of possibilities – when I quit Facebook, I left the continent for 3 months to go kayaking and learn Spanish. Nothing will reset you faster than leaving home, leaving your language, and living someone else’s life.
A quick note for my type-A friends: yes I said set goals, but I’d also caveat it with, not too many. The purpose is to rest and reset. If you give yourself an arduous to-do list every day, you will miss the point.
The main point here is to think ahead, to set actual things you want to focus your energy on outside of work, and to schedule time for these things. Structuring the time will actually reduce your anxiety and make you feel like you have a purpose, and it’s essential to reconnect with the part of yourself that has nothing to do with work.
If you only have 2 weeks:
How do you make the most of a shorter time off? Your goals need to be even more clear because you’ll need to make tradeoffs. You might not get to take a photography course and catch up with all your friends. Be extra conscious of what you fill your time with.
Get your loved ones on the same page
Share your goals with your partner or family. One Glue People member says that she and her husband had a great conversation to get aligned on finances as well as her intentions for time off – this helped her get support for pursuing her goals and prevented her schedule from filling up with household chores and errands. My husband recently told a friend of ours who was laid off to think of the severance payments as having a job; it’s just that the company is paying you to go to yoga. I loved it.
When you’re “in it”
It can be either glorious or intimidating to wake up on a Monday and have nothing to do. On one end of the spectrum, you can easily let the time pass without doing anything you’d hoped to do for yourself. And on the other end of the spectrum … you might get attacked by anxiety in those first two weeks and want to just start job searching right away. If you’ve never taken time off before, it might really feel uncomfortable.
If you can sit with that discomfort and treat the time like a meditation, you’ll unlock insights about your relationship with work and who you are as a person outside of work. The point is not to let anxieties choose your next job or dictate how you spend the day.
Process with a support team
It’s helpful to have people to process with, brainstorm with, or hold you accountable for your plan. They can be friends, mentors, or a coach. But they should be people who are primarily interested in supporting you as you travel through this journey, not in hiring you.
It can be fun to travel through this time with peers who are also on sabbatical, just make sure these relationships are positively supporting your intentions for time off — you don’t want to spend all your time rehashing the stress from your last roles.
It can be hard for some people to completely turn off their work brain. So if you NEED to think about work, I’ve found that you can give yourself things to meditate on (hopefully while you’re hiking or doing yoga) but agree that you won’t act – your goal is just to think, process, and observe what comes up. Some things I have done to help me reflect on work include:
Looking back on the jobs I’ve had and listing what I’ve loved about them.
Making a list of all the people I’ve loved working with – both to guide who I reach out to when I start looking for a job and to identify the types of people I might want to work with in the future.
Giving myself high-level questions to meditate on. When I left Facebook, I asked myself: “Do I want to stay in California?” And, “Do I want to stay in tech?” A friend also suggested meditating on “What do I want my life to look like?” instead of “What’s the next job that I want?”
Time off is about giving yourself the space to breathe. It’s about learning what a day looks like when you’re not in back-to-back meetings. It’s about finding things that make you happy that have nothing to do with work. In the deepest sense, it can be about rediscovering who you are without the stress and structure of work.
The goal of everything I shared above is to carve out a structure that lets you be truly unstructured for a while and to give yourself the freedom to see where that takes you.
If you can afford it, I highly, highly recommend it.
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