Are you thinking about taking some time off to figure out your next career step? Maybe you’re wishing you could take a break from your current job while you explore possibilities for the future.
As someone who helps people create more fulfilling careers, I often talk with people who are in the midst of taking time off to figure out their next professional step.
What they have to say is pretty surprising.
They expect their time off will be fun and productive, but universally, they’ve found it to be frustrating and confusing. Rarely does it give them the answers they were looking for.
Here are their lessons learned, in their own words:
1. Take time off, but not to figure out what you want to do next
Those who had the best experiences with time off—arriving at clarity about their next step and enjoying the journey along the way—didn’t take time off to figure out what they wanted to do next.
They took time off to rest, nurture themselves and consider the big picture. They took on new hobbies, traveled and spent time with loved ones. After that rejuvenation, a vision for their next chapter arrived.
“I took time off after a loss in the family, but I took guitar lessons, a photography class and went to therapy. My plan was to study for the GMAT, but after a few months off, I decided to start my own business instead. Without the time, I would’ve never had the space to consider a different path.” –Leanne Pittsford
“I usually find that when I need time off, dedicating some time to service activities is useful. That works better for me than over-thinking my next step.” -Bahieh Khamsi
The lesson: Take a break to refresh and get a new perspective, then revisit your questions about your next step.
2. Clarity comes in the doing—not in the reflection or research
“At first, my time off was a really great experience. Lots of enjoyable research, exploring the world, etc. But after a couple of months, I started feeling depressed. I realized that I was continuing to research/think/learn without actually doing anything. I had to accept that I would never have all the information I needed to make the changes I wanted to make, and that I just needed to jump in and figure things out as I went along.” –Gennifer Carragher
The lesson: Structure small experiments to help you jump into the doing. For example, if you want to start a jewelry business, don’t spend months perusing other people’s websites and working on a business plan. Design some jewelry this week, hold a house party sale and see what you learn.
3. Taking time off is extremely difficult, but worth it
A third group took time off to figure things out and found it extremely difficult, but worth it. All of these individuals felt it was the pressure to get to an answer, and to get there through thinking about it, that created the suffering.
“It was one of the hardest and best things I’ve done. I was intentional about waiting on the perfect vision for my next chapter. Just when I thought it would never happen, I woke up one morning, and it was all right there. It was a year’s worth of praying, thinking, talking, exploring, pouting, healing, stomping feet and more waiting. It ended when it was supposed to, and that vision has sustained for the last six years in remarkable and beautiful ways. I’m glad I sat in the brutal wait of it, but it was hard.” – Jill Murphy
“The part that made it painful was the ‘trying to think it out’ part! That’s where the frustration and resistance and shaming myself came in!” –Cath Duncan
“I think the relentless thinking and putting all sorts of time pressures on myself was what was causing all that stress and anxiety.” –Elif Deniz Ozdemir
The big lessons?
Think twice before assuming that time off is going to bring the solution to your career questions. Do you already know your next step or answer in your heart? If so, get brave and go for it.
And if the answer to that question is truly no, beware of thinking that weeks and weeks of reflection and research will help. Two other effective approaches for determining your next big step are 1) taking a true break focused on rejuvenation and relaxation, and then turning back to your career questions after the break, and 2) experimenting in micro-ways with different potential directions—jumping into the doing.
What’s your experience with taking time off to figure out your next step?