Doctor, Is it Time for You to Take a Sabbatical?

by Francine Gaillour, MD

in Aligning With Values & Purpose,Career Resilience & Fulfillment

Imagine this: spending a year in southern France writing that book that’s been rolling around in your head; spending nine months completing a certificate program in acupuncture and Chinese medicine; volunteering with Doctors Without Borders and providing medical services in Indonesia; traveling around the world in 80 days with your spouse and children; staying home and watching Oprah while you paint watercolor still life.

Is this a fantasy that interests you?

Taking a sabbatical may be a real proposition for those physicians in Academia, but for many solo physicians, physicians in small or medium group practices, or physician leaders, taking 3, 6, 9 or 12 months “off” would seem to be a fantasy idea, even a ridiculous notion.

But be open to the magic of a sabbatical and how you can craft your own time away.

When a Sabbatical Beckons, Follow!

My definition of sabbatical is this: taking time off to enrich your life. And it need not be a whole year, nor should it wait seven years to happen.

Here is my story of sabbatical. I have lived in the Seattle area for 25 years, but in 2002-2003, my family (my husband and 2 kids, age 10 and 12 at the time) spent the school year in New Mexico. New Mexico is where I was born, raised, and where my extended family lives (parents, siblings, plus about 300+ cousins, aunts, uncles etc).

After being in Seattle for 25 years since doing my Internal Medicine residency at the University of Washington, I had only been back home for annual 1 or 2 week visits. During the summer of 2002 I had a flash of insight: I MUST spend the year here and see my parents and siblings every week. It was now or never.

So that August we packed up just enough “stuff” in our mini-van, drove across four states, and moved into a small 3-bedroom home. We enrolled our kids to the local public school. My husband commuted every two weeks from Seattle.

The enrichment was beyond words. Little things like going to Home Depot with my Dad (he used to be in the hardware business), and coloring my mom’s hair for her because she doesn’t like to have it done at the beauty shop. And big things, like crafting a leadership workshop that has become one of my most popular offerings.

Oh, by the way, I didn’t “stop working” — I took my computer and business operations to New Mexico, and my business never skipped a beat.

My husband and kids still remember that as our “great family sabbatical” and look back fondly at how it enriched each of us individually and as a family.

Look at Sabbatical With New Eyes

Once you look at sabbatical as “time off to enrich your life,” then you can be creative in how you interpret that.

Back in February I was feeling mentally weary, and decided it was time for a short sabbatical. I knew I didn’t need a change of venue, nor a major break in what I was doing. Instead I decided to stop being so analytical and “in my head.”

I took a 3-month break from aspiring, striving, analyzing, and being ever so vigilant about trying to figure out my life and destiny. In early June I attended a 2-day spiritual event led by my personal coach which was a wonderful capstone to my 3-month “sort of sabbatical.”

I emerged refreshed, renewed and more at peace with all things in my life. I incorporated some new rituals in my weekly routine to keep me more centered. For example, I turn off my email from Friday evening until Sunday morning. That may seem silly to some of you, but it’s a huge feat for someone who is tethered to their computer!

Three Tips to Help You Take YOUR Sabbatical

I hope I’ve piqued your interest in taking a sabbatical–in whatever way it works out for you. Keep these points in mind:

1. Life is short; get a locums or one of your partners to cover for you during your absence. The enrichment you’ll feel will far outweigh any monetary shortfall you fear you’ll experience.

2. Consider the “mental break” approach. For 6 months, stop doing something you find “obligatory” or burdensome. Hire someone to sort through you mail, and toss out the junk mailings, for example. Read only trashy novels. As soon as they arrive, recycle your Time, Newsweek, Wallstreet Journal, New England Journal, and JAMA.

3. Find a single weekly ritual that works as a “refresh” button, or plugs you into a heart-space, spiritual mode. Turn off your computer on Saturday or Sunday. Take an hour and listen to meditation and relaxation tapes on Friday after work. Take your sports car out for a top-down drive one evening a week. Whatever gets you out of your head.

What Are Your Stories of Creative Sabbatical?

I would love to hear your stories of sabbatical. Email me and I’ll publish them in an upcoming Daring Doctors issue. Or leave a comment here on the blog. My job is to inspire you to expand your boundaries; and I know many of you have stories that can inspire your colleagues. Don’t hesitate to share them.

Francine R. Gaillour, MD, MBA, FACPE, is an Executive and Career Coach for Physicians. Dr. Gaillour specializes in helping physicians who are venturing into new territory as leaders, entrepreneurs, and career adventurers. She can be reached at (206) 686-4205, or use the Contact Form

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