sabbatical preparation

On the Eight Stages of Sabbaticals — Part 2

sabbaticalYou are likely familiar with Homer’s Odyssey. It is a book-length epic poem of Odysseus, a Greek warrior, who was returning home to his wife and son after many years of the violent Trojan war. His journey took ten years as he voyaged across many lands and encountered different people. Along the way, he had to battle men, monsters, witches, the calls of alluring sirens, even his own ship’s crew.

No, of course we’re not going to meet such fantastical, mythical characters or have any such battles in the real, external world during a sabbatical. However, these kinds of battles will definitely occur in our inner worlds. Because, just as Odysseus did during his journey, we will also make mistakes, get lost along the way, be drawn towards shiny objects off our path, fight our own conflicting urges or those of others around us and so on. And, in our real world, we will not be so lucky as Odysseus and gain divine help from the likes of Athena and the rest of her Olympian cohorts to manipulate events and get us back on track.

So, preparing well before starting on this journey is likely the best chance we can give ourselves of avoiding or managing both external distractions and inner battles.

My sabbatical started in mid-2012. I did not have a grand plan then but I knew I wanted certain key experiences. First, I wanted to get my personal finances in order. So, I enrolled in a Certified Financial Planner course, which ran through till early-2013. During this time, I also wrote a daily personal finance blog called ‘Free Agent Economics’ (now offline). Though I do not practice for other clients, I manage my own finances a lot more confidently and also manage the investment portfolios for some family members. So, time and money well spent there. Then, I wanted to focus on creative writing, so I started my own literary magazine, Storyacious, which ran (rather well, I might add) from early-2013 till end-2014. I had to stop it because of travel and priorities ramping up and I did not want to give our 150+ wonderful contributors short shrift as their editor. 2014 was my year of travel — Ireland and India. And, 2015 has been, mostly, my own book-writing (more on this later) and Yoga journey. Through all these endeavors, due to those external distractions and inner battles I mentioned earlier, I’ve grown so much as an individual (more on this another time) and I’ve challenged myself in ways I could never have done while holding down a full-time job. As you see, my sabbatical has been, for the most part, an opportunity to address certain gaps in my life skills. It doesn’t have to be the same for everyone, of course.

In Part 1, we reviewed an outline of the Eight Stages and dove deeper into Stage -2, the Decision Stage, which happens quite a bit before the actual sabbatical gets underway. In this pre-sabbatical stage, 4 key sub-decisions are made – the reason(s) for and the type of preferred sabbatical, the physical location(s), timing and desired length. And, while these early decisions are not necessarily cast in stone or even too specific, the process of thinking them through helps with some level of clarity regarding what success / arrival will mean at the end of such a journey. Also, those 4 sub-decisions are important for this next stage.

Now, let’s explore Stage -1: the Preparation Stage. This is another pre-sabbatical stage and involves working through the required financial, relational and logistical steps that will aid the journey.

Stage -1: Preparation Stage

sabbatical preparation

A lot of what needs to happen here will depend on your individual situation. For example, your personal financial situation, your current work and family situation and, finally, the various things — physical or otherwise — that you need to gather for your journey.

As with the preceding stage, the amount of time this stage may take will vary from a year to a few weeks. Generally, for most people, preparation tends to take a bit longer than they assume it might. For some, like me, if rushed through, this stage will extend or overlap further into the subsequent stages, which may well become a hurdle and require course corrections.

There are two main goals that this stage needs to help with. Let’s use another analogy to explain.

Having transitioned from a full-time, long-term corporate career into a sabbatical, I often liken it to jumping off a moving vehicle. Your feet hit the ground, but you stay in rapid jog for a bit. Bodies in motion staying in motion and all that. Now, of course, you can just jump and take your chances — which is what I did. Or, you can get yourself readied for a jump that doesn’t jar you or those in your life too much. That, essentially, is one key goal of the Preparation Stage.

Now, when you eventually come to a stop from your running jump off that moving vehicle, you need to know, at the very least, which direction to turn to or head to next. And, that is the second goal of the Preparation Stage.

Most career-breakers generally agree on the following handful of prudent must-dos:

Financial Preparation:

Regarding personal finances, there is a lot of Google-able advice out there. I particularly liked this article, which, although it is about “retiring early” (there’s that phrase again), applies very well to sabbaticals.

If you are part of a household with other sources of active income (e.g. spouse, parents, etc.), finances may not be as much of an issue. That said, if, by taking a sabbatical, you will be foregoing a regular stream of income that supports a certain ongoing lifestyle, this particular step may be a necessary one to walk through.

So, unless you are independently wealthy, it is advised to have enough money set aside for expenses for the duration of your sabbatical PLUS another six months worth expenses as emergency funds. Ideally, this money should be liquid enough that it can be accessed easily and without any major risks. For example, a savings account or short-term CDs versus the stock market or longer-term CDs.

It will also help hugely if there are 1-2 sources of passive income through other assets. This may not possible for everyone. That said, I know some people who have, for example, rented out a part of their home to get regular rental income. Another couple hired a smart financial advisor to help them with some active investment strategies that enabled a minimum monthly income while protecting their principal.

The next bit of advice here is to try to liquidate all forms of personal debt: long-term, short-term, or consumer. Having any debt hanging over your head will just lead to cognitive overload and stress. So, this is the equivalent of “packing light” for your journey. Depending on your existing debt situation, this may or may not require some expert financial advice. For example, the couple mentioned above was unable to just wipe out all their existing debts before embarking on their joint sabbatical. However, with their financial advisor’s help, they were able to combine all their debt into lower monthly payments and use one of their passive income sources to ensure regular direct payments.

For a quick overview, see my recommended four key personal finance moves to take before making any major life changes at the very end of this post.

Logistical Preparation:

What will you take with on your journey? What do you need to acquire along the way? What do you need to get rid of before your journey begins? These are indeed very personal questions and the answers will be highly varied. They will also depend, in large part, to the decisions you made in the previous stage.

Here, too, your best bet is to travel light. This includes both physical possessions as well as relationships. Most of our self-identity is tied up in those posessions and relationships. And, depending on our circumstances, they can both weigh us down and limit our view of the possibilities the world has to offer – eventually rendering a sub-optimal journey. So, allow yourself the time to think through this step and consider the following two insights as you plan.

First, this is an opportunity to do some “spring-cleaning”. We acquire many things through the course of our everyday lives and without too much thought. Hoards of things bought or received or collected over the years. Making a big transition like this provides the chance to re-assess the essentials and the nice-to- haves for your life. If you’re having trouble with figuring out how to do this or you think that this is just some theoretical talk, take a look at these two guys did it: The Minimalists. Go through that Start Here page — full of practical, tried-and-tested suggestions.

Second, unless you’re simply looking for an empty positive experience from your sabbatical, this is also the time to consider the “journey within a journey” experience that you can get from it. Don’t just go for the party. It’s a big enough change that you need to make it count. Let me refer you to another blog: Zen Habits. Look through those most popular posts there. Consider whether you need to create your own sabbatical manifesto. This is not just “woo-woo” stuff. It works if you invest the time in making it work.

For me, much of this stage actually happened after I left my last full-time job and took about two months. My biggest lesson was that clearing my life of a lot of the non-essential things reduced my cognitive overload and stress. This, in turn, freed me up to focus on how best to continue my sabbatical journey and allowed me to consider all my possible options with a lot more flexibility. So, really, don’t short-change yourself here.

Relational Preparation:

In life, we rarely ever take journeys on our own. Along the way, family members, friends, coworkers, acquaintances, even strangers, join / support / leave us. And, in most cases, it is almost impossible to achieve our desired milestones without some of these individuals and their company — well-intentioned or otherwise.

So it is with transitions like sabbaticals. For some people, the decision to make such a transition cannot even become an actuality without the buy-in of key individuals. And, in many cases, those key individuals are critical in supporting with the financial and logistical aspects described here. Two things need to be considered here.

First, who are the key people that you need to surround yourself with during your sabbatical? There are those who you may not have a choice about, e.g. family members. Then, there are certain friends. But, additionally, there may be people that you do NOT have in your life right now but might need to help you along in your upcoming journey.

For example, for me, given that I knew I was considering an entirely different field of work, I needed to start cultivating a network of people, online and offline, in that field so that I could get advice, support, resources and mentoring.

Depending on your sabbatical reasons, you may require other kinds of help. Where will you find those resources? Will they be online or in real life? Will you need access to special networks or connections to get to those resources? How will you approach them? Do you need to do this before you start your sabbatical or can you work through some of this during the time off? Think through some of this. I know a guy who sought out a mid-career counselor before his sabbatical so that he could get some coaching in identifying alternative career options. It was not a light decision or selection, both from a financial and time investment perspective.

Second, once you’ve identified some of the key relationships that you need to nurture and/or cultivate for your journey, it will help to start initial discussions with them about your sabbatical plans. Simple, informal and one-on-one conversations are best. Know that discussing your planned transition, particularly with close family and friends, is not a one-time conversation. It is an ongoing, live conversation across many sittings and throughout your sabbatical. With coworkers and acquaintances, it is best to have ready succinct pitches (tailored to key audience types) that you can use when asked questions about the whys and wherefores of your time off or away.

Also, there will be plenty of unsolicited advice — good, bad, and neutral — that will need to be patiently listened to, methodically sorted through and appropriately responded to.

Again, as I said earlier, if your sabbatical is to go beyond an empty positive experience, it’s not just your life that will change with the journey. Your key relationships will also evolve to a different level. So, consciously working at these key relationships on an ongoing basis throughout your journey, starting with this Preparation Stage, will stand you in good stead.

Conclusion for Stage -2: Preparation Stage

In the end, how extensively you prepare for your sabbatical will depend on both your level of comfort with the unknown as well as the level of transformation you’re seeking from the time off. Either way, there is no universal and guaranteed checklist that will ensure your complete preparedness and readiness. But, ensuring that you have taken care of the basic financial practicalities, planned enough space to allow for growth and transformation and surrounded yourself with a supporting set of people who will encourage and guide you — these things will position you better for take-off.

Next time, we’ll get into Stage 0 – Lift-off: Starting the sabbatical and figuring out various initial and necessary changes in lifestyle, habits, and identity.


Four Personal Finance Moves Prior to Starting ANY New Venture

sabbatical finances

Congratulations. You’ve just made a life-changing decision that is not for the faint of heart. And, you are about to start on a unique journey where you get to create your own future. Exciting times. Before you go rushing out the door, though, let’s go through a quick financial checklist to ensure that you are ready.

1) Getting your personal finances in order:

Whether you hire a professional financial advisor for this or do it yourself, make sure that you have:

a) an accurate and real-time evaluation of your total net worth
b) a realistic plan to reduce your personal liabilities and negative cash flow as appropriate
c) a detailed, trackable and goal-oriented monthly budget
d) an emergency fund that is liquid enough and large enough to see you through the first couple of years of your new venture

I recommend a) through c) to everyone — regardless of their work situation or stage of life. But, to someone starting a new venture, they are even more critical as a foundational element of their financial security. It continues to amaze me how many people do not have an efficient, standardized system for these basic steps of personal financial management.

2) Developing a realistic and detailed financial plan for your new venture:

Having a thoroughly-detailed and realistic financial plan will not help avoid unforeseen financial challenges entirely, but it will definitely give you a solid check and balance and quantified milestones to measure your progress. There are several steps involved with creating this plan and, luckily, many resources online too. Drop me a note if you need links.

3) Managing financial liability / risk appropriately:

We want to protect your net worth from any roadbumps in your new venture. The level of potential financial liability / risk will vary depending on the venture and your individual circumstances. In addition to various necessary personal and business insurance policies, there are other aspects to consider here — like how your existing financial and real assets are allocated and located. This is an area that a lot of people overlook as they think that they do not have substantial assets to worry about.

4) Understanding your new tax situation:

It is important to understand your tax liabilities and incentives (deductions, credits, etc.), particularly if you’re going to be straddling countries — BEFORE you start. This will allow you to factor appropriate tax estimation into your detailed financial plan as well as ensure you’re taking advantage of all the credits and deductions that apply to your circumstances. Lack of attention or miscalculation could turn out to be painfully expensive.

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