It’s an elusive dream twinkling in executives’ eyes: what if I could take an entire month off? The lure is obvious: the chance to truly unwind, to recharge your creativity, and to visit faraway places you can’t reach on a week-long jaunt. For many Americans, especially, it’s just not possible because of draconian vacation policies (my first job out of college gave me two weeks a year, which I had to “earn” over time, so I virtually couldn’t take any time off for an entire year). But for others — those with more generous employers, longtime employees who have saved up their days, or entrepreneurs calling their own shots — the hesitation is internal: What would happen to my business while I’m gone? Wouldn’t I alienate my clients? What if there’s an emergency? How can I afford to be gone that long?
Those were my excuses, too, and the reason my longest vacation since the end of graduate school — well over a decade ago — had only lasted ten days. But last fall, I changed all that and spent a month traveling around India with my girlfriend. No question: my “mega break” entailed sacrifices and a lot of planning. But it also afforded me an opportunity few of my countrymen get to experience: seeing Mumbai firsthand, from its gilded corporate headquarters to its slums, and traveling throughout the less-visited southern part of the country. In fact, it was a cool enough experience that I’m planning to do it again — and perhaps you should consider it, too. Here’s what I learned about how to take a month off:
Plan far in advance. When most people say that taking a month off just isn’t possible, they’re telling the truth: it’s not feasible in the immediate future. There are too many work commitments and other obligations to fulfill. But all that drops away if you’re planning really far in advance. I informed my clients nearly a year out that I’d be taking a month off in Fall 2011 — a time so remote, it probably didn’t seem real to them. By the time September rolled around, they were twitchy at the thought that I’d be gone soon — but they’d already agreed to it, and I hustled to get everything completed for them before I left. You’ll want to think about your work obligations (can someone else cover for you?), your social media (I scheduled an entire month’s worth of tweets on Hootsuite to cover me while I was away), and pet/house care (through social media, I found a retired meteorologist from Virginia who wanted to explore New England and offered to stay at my place).
Decide how reachable you want to be. This is a crucial question to decide early on. It’s not much of a vacation if your clients are pinging you every day — but how far do you want to go in the other direction? Will you check email or voicemail at all while you’re gone? Sometimes it’s a matter of logistics — my cellphone worked almost everywhere in India, but that won’t be the case if you’re trekking through the Amazon. I warned my clients I’d be completely off the grid, but did end up checking email about every four to five days, depending on whether our hotel offered easy access.
You’re going to lose money — deal with it. This is perhaps the most painful part. Everyone knows trips are expensive; the airfare alone to India costs over $1,000. But, given human psychology and our innate aversion to loss, the really tough stuff is the earnings you forfeit. I was working with two retainer clients that fall; by taking the month off, I shrugged off $20,000 that would have otherwise been in my pocket. A speaking engagement in New York would have netted me thousands more; I referred it to colleagues. But if money’s your entire frame, let’s face it: you’d never go anywhere because it’s a lot more cost effective to stay home and work. It’s bitter medicine, but if you truly believe that life is about experience, you’ll have to swallow.
Give yourself permission to wander. I thought I might have time during my travels to write up a new book proposal. Didn’t happen. I thought I might pen a few blogs about my experiences on the road. That didn’t happen either. In fact, it was all I could do to check Facebook now and again. But in my month of travel, I read a dozen books about Indian history and culture, business, and sociology — fuel for an entire new wave of ideas. Two days after I returned to the States, I sat down and penned what turned out to be my most popular blog post ever for HBR. Often, innovation and creativity don’t follow a linear path (as I discuss in an interview with fellow HBR blogger Michael Schrage). You may not accomplish what you explicitly set out to do — but what you see, read, and learn will make your ultimate work richer.
So — are you ready to take a month off? What’s necessary to make it happen? And where are you going?
This article was originally posted on the Harvard Business Review blog.
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.