It had been 16 months of 70- to 80-hour workweeks (including weekends) that had followed five years of a similar schedule. As an independent journalist and communication consultant building a business, I didn’t have the luxury of saying no to new opportunities. When an author asked me to co-write a book with her, an editor asked for a story, a potential client wanted to hire me — the answer was always yes.
Then I hit a wall. I was having trouble coming up with ideas for my columns and motivating myself to work on assigned client projects, and in general feeling less engaged in my work. I needed a break.
It turns out, I’m not alone. Small-business owners work more and play less than people who work for others. About 31 percent of entrepreneurs work at least 10 hours a day, and 15 percent work every day of the week, according to a Discover Small Business Watch survey. The poll also found that 59 percent of respondents define a day off as being available for calls and emails, or working at least part of the day.
Why taking a break is a good idea
The truth is, this kind of work pace is unsustainable. Creativity suffers, resilience falters and one’s sense of accomplishment plummets. The solution? Taking a sabbatical, or a reboot break. “Taking time out from work to reboot your life is not just a new and enduring trend; it’s a necessity in our stress-ridden world,” write Catherine Allen, Nancy Bearg, Rita Foley and Jaye Smith, the co-authors of “Reboot Your Life: Energize Your Career & Life by Taking a Break.”
And how, exactly, is it possible for an entrepreneur to take a break? To find out, I joined the co-authors at a Reboot Your Life two-and-a-half-day retreat last month in the Berkshires — one of four they run throughout the year at locations such as Santa Fe, Sun Valley and Sag Harbor, New York.
Starting on Friday evening and going through Sunday afternoon, the retreat brought the co-authors’ book to life through provocative questions, interactive conversations, in-depth discussions and creative exercises in a small-group setting.
The five participants in my group were all in different phases of their careers. One person had recently been laid off and needed to think about next steps (the unexpected sabbatical). Two people were just coming off reboot breaks and preparing to rejoin the working world — one joining a spouse in a growing enterprise, the other launching a new business. Another participant was planning the ultimate sabbatical: retirement.
Despite our varied situations, we each got exactly what we needed from the weekend.
Perhaps the most useful exercise (which entrepreneurs typically wouldn’t have time to do) was writing in a journal about what we would do during an ideal reboot break or in our next chapter of life. Afterward, we’d take a 20-minute walk (alone) and visualize what we had written. I thought about what I would be thinking, feeling, doing one year from now. It was a wonderful opportunity to think positively about a scary sabbatical.
Simple steps you can take yourself
You don’t have to whisk yourself away to a retreat, though, to benefit from these kinds of exercises. You just need to find time to think deeply about whether a break makes sense for you, and how you’re going to make it happen.
There’s no cookie-cutter solution for every business owner, since needs can vary so much across industries. But some things are true across the board — like writing your goals down to help crystallize and clarify next steps. Why do you want to take time off? When would you take it? Would someone step in to take care of business while you were away, or would you notify customers and clients that the business would be closed?
In the book, there’s a particularly helpful section about planning for entrepreneurs and sole practitioners. The co-authors say that entrepreneurs can either turn their business over to a capable No. 2 to run the day-to-day operations during the reboot break, or ask a trusted friend who is also an entrepreneur to oversee the business. It’s a good idea to have somebody like this in mind regardless, in case you’re forced to take an unplanned break one day.
When looking for your No. 2, assuming you don’t have one already, remember: Successful entrepreneurs don’t necessarily need to know a business -- but they do, the co-authors say, need to know how “to service customers, listen, solve problems and keep employee morale high.”
Lastly, as you might expect, preparation is extremely important -- especially if you want to make the most of your time off. The co-authors recommend you:
- Document your workflow and processes for those who will be supporting you
- Take care of unfinished business issues, when possible
- Prepare your backup for anything that may come along, such as new business
- Keep up liability and other insurance
- Let everyone know important contact information, including that of accountants, lawyers, technical support and building maintenance.
- Communicate in advance your plan and backup plan to all of your customers and clients so they know what to expect and whom to call.
Perhaps most important, don’t worry about what other people think. Turns out that in most cases, they’ll simply want to know how you did it. As for me, I realized that all I needed was to dial down my workload for a few months to recapture the passion I get from my work.