What I Learned From Taking Seven Weeks Off

Or, the reassurance you need to take that trip of a lifetime

I just returned to normal life. The seven weeks before that I travelled to five countries in four continents.

I’m not about to spend 1,000 preaching the benefits of taking such a trip. I really hope that’s obvious. Here’s 50 words in case you’re unsure:

I improved my relationships with my partner, family and friends. I had multiple flashes of inspiration for my startup. I read more than I had done in the previous year. I completely recharged my batteries. I broadened my perspectives. I took some incredible photos. I gained so many treasured memories.

Life-changing isn’t an overstatement.

But I expected that. Here’s what I actually learned.

The world will not fall apart

My biggest fear over switching off for seven weeks was that I would return to find my work in ruins. It was very easy for me to picture catastrophic scenarios. On day three of my trip somebody lodges a complaint. Two weeks later, they file a lawsuit and — without anybody defending it — my startup is ruined. The good news is that this is all fantasy.

Catastrophic events just don’t happen. If one does happen, the chances are it doesn’t matter if you are there to respond or not. And if something bad does happen, the impact is likely to be 10% of what you imagine it will be. If you let this fear hold you back from taking a break then you should also never drive. It’s much riskier.

Basic preparation can save headaches

The above being said, it’s good practice to lower the dependency on yourself or any individual in an organization. In any system, it is best practice to avoid a single point of failure, so use your upcoming vacation as an impetus to assess this. If anybody on your team believes they are the only one that knows critical information, have them share it with a colleague. Better yet, have them codify it for anybody to use.

Then double check that you are prepared before you take off. I forgot to turn on my Out of Office auto-response and only realized this yesterday. A few people may have thought I was rude to ignore them. I might have even lost a couple of prospects. But the world didn’t fall apart, and a simple check would have made things even smoother.

Finally, if checking your email every couple of days is going to put your mind at rest then do it. You can practice your Buddhist monk mindfulness another time. Just be warned that seeing an ‘URGENT’ email that you can’t do anything about remotely might cause even more anxiety…

It doesn’t have to be expensive

The cost of living in the Bay Area is absurdly high. It is a lot cheaper in places like Puerto Rico, Colombia, and Kenya. It’s simple math. If you are able to wind down your monthly expenses where you live, you can actually save money by travelling.

That blew my mind when I read that so I think it’s worth repeating:

You can actually save money by travelling.

If you can rent your accommodation on AirBnB or similar and freeze any other monthly payments, you can travel for free.

You can pick and choose what you engage with

People vilify the idea of blending work and life, but that comes from the false assumption that work is a burden. If you’re fortunate enough to enjoy aspects of your work then you can keep those up while on your break. I scheduled a series of interviews over my trip, some of which I cancelled, but others I kept and had rich conversations with interesting people. I had to step out for an hour, but when you’re spending time with the same people every day, this can be a blessing in itself.

Taking your mind off of a big problem can be productive

The same science that causes 72% of people to get their best ideas in the shower applies to taking a break. Relaxation and distraction are two key contributors to sparking creative thinking. And it seems that the bigger and more complex the problem, the greater this effect becomes. It’s simple — to have that ground breaking you’ve been working on for months, take the next month off.

It’s easier than you think to blend work and holiday*

Please don’t be the person that misses out on the amazing trip to stay at the hotel and work. Nothing in my professional life will be worth missing out on seeing a shooting star above the pitch-black Serengeti savannah. But there are moments on any trip where — with a little planning — you can work with little consequence.

Work during the hour waiting at the airport, or the coach journey to your hotel. Just don’t expect to have reliable WIFI. Some people are dead against laptops by the pool. Ignore them. Your group wants to spend the afternoon relaxing by the pool? Use that time to catch up on your emails for the week.

But don’t detract from ignoring work as much as you can.

*This is only if you NEED to do some work to enable the trip to go ahead at all.

You will feel like you’re being left behind, but you’ll move much faster when you return

I guess this is still yet to be proven. I’ll comment below in a month if I turn out wrong, but I really don’t think I will. Having time to step-back means I now have a much clearer idea of the direction I want to take. I could have spent the past 7 weeks ‘moving forward’, but if it is in the wrong direction then that isn’t progression at all.

It can be scary to make a big leap. I highly recommend Tim Ferriss’ TedTalk on ‘fear setting’ where he uses this exact scenario to demonstrate his method for overcoming fears. Maybe you can’t manage seven weeks the first time. Try four, or even two weeks if that feels risky. I promise you’ll want to double it the next time.

Make the leap. You will not regret it.