I’m nearing the end of a month-long working retreat that’s been nearly a year in the making. In the past three weeks, here’s what I’ve gotten done:
- Written a grant for a festival and started a gofundme campaign
- Submitted a music video to a festival
- Written, produced, tracked, and mixed a 4-song EP (I plan on bringing it to a hometown studio and production company for final mixing and pressing upon return)
- Published my band’s EP
- Booked a quarter’s worth of paid solo gigs, directing jobs, and adjudication
- Caught up fully on my favorite trade podcasts
- Registered as a publishing entity and managed my entire song catalog (copyrights, royalties, etc)
- Subtitled all my youtube videos (accessibility…get at it)
- Finalized my semester’s teaching schedule and recruited enough remaining students to replace lost income from a position from which I recently resigned
- Finished my taxes!
I still have one more week. Here’s what I plan to:
- Connect paypal to my website and remove the third party merch store
- Revise my store and add sheet music for my musical theater and choral works
- Begin production work on a recorded collection of cabaret songs
- Practice for upcoming gigs
- Send out a newsletter to my mailing list
- Begin booking spring quarter gigs for my band
- Re-do my website homepage (add new buttons)
- Begin promotion for my upcoming EP release (write a press release and design merchandise)
- Address specific action items to promote last summer’s album release
And I’m doing it all from the shores of the gulf coast.
These are ambitious lists – I’m a workhorse. But I’ve also walked on the beach most days, learned how to make cinnamon rolls that don’t suck, enjoyed nearly every meal with my husband, devoured more than my fair share of local seafood, and have two days set aside to spend time in neighboring cities (one of which will go down after a morning recording session in a local studio).
So how did I manage to devote an entire month to uninterrupted work and play? It’s a sweet thing, but it’s not a fantasy. I’m here to tell you how I did it and how you can, too.
SET RELEASTIC EXPECTATIONS
A working vacation is a mindset. On a self-sabbatical, your everyday work is tempered with relaxation, which directly re-fuels the work cycle in a never-ending flow. The boundaries between work and play are blurry. You need a strong recognition of the creative process and willingness to work outside your regular routine, or to set your own. The end goal is to set aside time and free yourself from things that obstruct flow. For me, that’s noise, cleaning, bookkeeping, or impending work from other jobs. Knowing your vices is half the battle; knowing mine allowed me to design the optimal retreat. Here were my non-negotiables:
- Had to bring my husband (also a freelancer) and two small dogs. Non-negotiables.
- High-speed internet (absolutely crucial for my husband and me to do our jobs)
- Beach within sight or sound. For inspiration.
- Be in a sparsely populated area at least 10 minutes’ drive to town (I needed to avoid the temptation of making unnecessary impulse trips, and being around people generally saps my energy)
- Be within a day’s drive from our departure city (avoiding flying allowed us to bring what we wanted)
- Spend 2K or less
- On-site laundry (I really didn’t want to interrupt a writing session for lack of clean underwear)
- At least two bedrooms (to spread out, work, and record)
- A full kitchen (no one can afford to eat out every day for a month)
- A flexible refund / cancelation policy (in case of unforeseen pregnancy complications…my reality)
Start with a journal, inspiration board, or simple list. What do you want to accomplish professionally or personally? What do you need to do that? What do you not need? If the internet is necessary to your job, now is not the time to stay in a monastery. If you need peace and quiet, don’t sandwich yourself on the fourth floor of a high-rise. Set honest and manageable expectations.
PLAN, PLAN, THEN PLAN SOME MORE
It’s easy to get bogged down in the details keeping you from a sabbatical. Maybe you have a traditional job with a set number of vacations days. Maybe your children are in school or you’re not in the best place financially.
That list will always be there. Always. Even as a seasoned freelancer, I could think of a million reasons it would be easier to just stay home. I’m halfway through a pregnancy. This year, I spent loads of money on album production, equipment, and touring, and could have put the money elsewhere. I might lose students who prefer to study over the intersession. But like anything in life, you have to prioritize it or it won’t happen. No excuses.
Here’s some ways you can make it work.
SET A TIMELINE. We decided a year ago we were going to do this. Within six months of our travel date, we had booked a place and paid it off. Hard to argue with yourself when the money’s already spent.
- Sit down with an 18-month calendar and review all your projects, jobs, deadlines, family obligations, holidays, vacation availability, and budget
- Now answer these questions truthfully – when makes the most and least amount of sense to travel?
- How much time do you need?
- How much time away can you realistically manage?
- What are your non-negotiables? Privacy or networking? Freedom or structure? Know what will work for you.
LOOK FOR OPPORTUNITY
Traveling over the New Year holiday made the most sense for us. I have a hard time getting back into the studio in January. There’s the post-holiday slump, and the weather is usually unpredictable, resulting in a lot of cancelations and sometimes lost income. I salary myself throughout the year, so I knew I wouldn’t necessarily lose income by taking a month off. We visited family for the holidays, then left directly for our destination, which shaved four hours of driving off our departure trip. There’s opportunity everywhere if you’re attuned to it.
TO-DO. There’s ways to make a sabbatical work, but you’ll need to think outside the box.
- NEGOTIATE TO WORK REMOTELY WHERE POSSIBLE. Can you afford to take a pay cut and make up for lost revenue in other ways? Do you need to be physically present, or can you use facetime, google hangouts, or skype to get your work done?
- COMBINE WORK AND VACATION. Is there a conference or other work-related event you’re planning to attend? Any friends or family in the vicinity? A single event can be extended, sandwiched, or embedded into a larger travel plan.
- THREE WORDS: FLEXIBLE TRAVEL DATES. Arriving and leaving on a weekday is historically cheaper. Certain weeks of the year cost significantly more or less, depending on the area. What’s an extra two days in a two week retreat?
- USE YOUR RESOURCES. Maybe someone you know has an extra room, timeshare, or other unused space in a destination area and might negotiate a deal. You could co-travel with another person or group for all or a portion of your costs and split things like food and rent.
- BARTER YOUR SERVICES in exchange for free or reduced rent. Working on location, even unexpectedly, might yield surprising results. During one particularly rainy day in a rental, I took some baller photos of the space. After showing them to the owner, he offered me a free additional evening in exchange for the rights to the edited images, which he ended up using on the rental listing (score).
- UTILIZE YOUR NETWORK and research organizations that would benefit from your services. Book a gig, offer a workshop, performance, or other event. Then a portion of your trip expenses are tax-deductible!
- CONSIDER A CHANGE. We traded our last child-free New Year’s Eve, which we normally celebrate with friends and family, for a month-long retreat. I originally didn’t want to do this, but decided it would be worth it in the end. I was right. However, I wasn’t willing to give up Christmas with family. I also turned down an exciting theater project involving several friends and students; there was just now way to do both. Decide what’s important to you and what could use a change, and remember it’s only temporary.
BUDGET EARLY, BUDGET OFTEN
I spent several hundred dollars last summer attending a residency. There were application fees, the flight, car rental and food for a week. Lodging was provided, but I made a donation to the organization to help offset the average daily attendee cost. I spent two days of a week-long residency in transit. It wasn’t an extravagant trip, and I managed to be productive in five days, but I estimated that for twice the money, I could probably get well over twice the benefit if I designed my own “DIY residency”. I used what I spent on the residency as a jumping-off budget.
TO DO: Evaluate your cashflow. Is it consistent, or does it peak at certain times of the year? Plan your budgeting to coincide with your more lucrative months, when you’ll be less likely to waffle on commitment. Figure out where the money will come from, then get to work.
- RAKE UP FUNDS. A dedicated side-hustle over an extended period of time can easily fund a large portion of a sabbatical (renting out my studio on airbnb every 8-10 weeks over a period of a year paid for half the trip). Sell a product or service with minimal up-front costs or time commitment, and set aside the revenue into a dedicated fund. Walk dogs, housesit, sell your unwanted goods online, give up that weekly Starbucks…the little things add up.
- RESEARCH LIVING COSTS in multiple areas. Gas prices, grocery costs on seasonal items, restaurant menu prices, and ticket costs to area attractions are the most telling. Pick a few areas and do some comparison shopping over time. VBRO, Airbnb, and Homeaway are good starting places. Rentals just an hour west of where we landed ran double the cost.
- USE SOCIAL MEDIA to survey your networks and ask friends and family who have traveled, lived, or worked in your target areas for recommendations and insider information.
- TRAVEL IN THE OFF-SEASON. Colorado in the summer is lovely if you’re not a snowbunny. The beach in the winter is amazing if the summer sun is too much. Think like a local and search unexpected places.
- LOOK INTO LONG-TERM RENTALS. Most vacation owners want to fill their rentals. 7-10 days in a place could cost the same as 2-3 weeks. Do your research and ask the owners.
- COOK AT HOME. Bring groceries and basic cooking items along. Meal plan with minimal ingredients and spend where it makes sense. We found we could get away with a grocery list of about fifteen items, and we spent money on things we knew wouldn’t be time or cost-effective to do on our own and that made sense to purchase locally, like fried seafood. We mostly drank at home (well, I didn’t because I’m pregnant, but I did make a lot of limeade). It was significantly cheaper and more relaxing.
- CUT COSTS WHERE POSSIBLE. Find the happy hours. Eating and drinking at weird times worked well for us. A local dive two miles from our house had a daily happy hour 2-5, which happened to sit well in our day-to-day flow and made for a healthier evening routine. I did not want to spend lavishly to bring the dogs. Most places charge a sensible pet fee, and others are a downright ripoff. After inquiring with the owner of what ended up being our rental and promising to crate our animals while we were out, take care of furniture, etc., she waived the pet fee for the second dog ($75). Woof.
PLANNING YOUR ABSENCE.
Jobs, mail, bills, house, pets…there’s a solution for everything, and sometimes you just need to get creative. I’m lucky to have a strong network of trusted professionals who can fill in for me. I let a trusted local colleague stay in my house while he was in between leases in exchange for some light plant care and mail retrieval (anything heavier, like animal care, and you’ll probably need to hire a housesitter). I sent my cat to live with my parents for the month. Everything is workable.
- CIRCLE THE WAGONS. Find people you trust to cover your back for the things that matter.
- PLAN YOUR PROJECTS so that any work can be done remotely, by other people, or delayed altogether. Outsource where you can. People will survive without you.
- KEEP YOUR PROFILE. Alternately, make sure your absence won’t work to your detriment. Stay current on communication in your absence to keep your clients close and your work waiting for you upon your return. For me, this meant answering e-mails every 3-5 days instead of every few hours.
- PREPAY YOUR BILLS or have your mail forwarded.
- STAY IN CONTACT Let a few people know your plans and where you’ll be staying. This comes from watching too much true crime, but this also just makes sense.
- DON’T NEGLECT YOUR HEALTH. Look up local clinics, pharmacies, and vets in advance to avoid a costly crisis scenario. One of our dachshunds is epileptic, so we made sure to bring a 45-day supply of anti-seizure medication, stored our vet’s information in my phone, and scoped out local animal clinics in advance.
- PACK ACCORDINGLY. Decide what you really need and go from there. I absolutely needed my piano keyboard, recording software, and a portable hard drive (I knew I’d be creating a lot of uncompressed audio files, which take up a ton of space). Since my husband is a software developer, he needed his desktop computer and a backup router in case the wifi wasn’t sufficient. We pared our month down to a week’s worth of clothes in two suitcases, our computers and work gear, the dogs, a small rolling cooler, a big bag of groceries and snacks (most of it gifted to us at Christmas), our apple TV, and a big, fluffy pink pregnancy pillow. 🙂
GO WITH THE FLOW
Sometimes things don’t go according to plan. I planned to write three more songs than I have. I wanted to exercise more, but instead I bought my first pair of maternity pants so my sitting around would be more comfortable. We ended up needing to break the departing trip into two days and had to find a place to stay with less than three hours’ notice. It wasn’t comfortable, but it was an adventure.
The weather ended up significantly colder than we anticipated. We spent a whole day without power after a freak area storm brought freezing rain and gale force winds to an otherwise temperate locale. We woke up before dawn to a house sitting at 50 degrees, then had to deal with the dogs, the owner, the electric company, and our unborn child. The pipes ended up freezing, leaving us without water (turns out beach stilt houses aren’t built for the cold). After the outdoor hoses thawed, they turned the carport into a frozen skating rink with our only mode of transportation stranded in the center. We got crafty and spread sand (an abundant local resource) all over with a push broom in freezing 40mph winds. It was a friggin’ circus. We each lost a whole day of work and were exhausted. So basically the opposite of sabbatical.
But we got through it. The laws of nature dictate that you’ll have days like this in any given period of time, regardless of location, so we chalked it up to an adventure within an adventure. Everything is what you make it, so be flexible and prepare to go with the flow.