Taking a travel break might be the best thing possible for your career. But deciding to do it is just the beginning, and won’t guarantee you a professional boost on its own. You need to have focus and be ready to embrace the experience. In this guide, we explain the steps you can take to ensure you get the most out of a travel career break from a personal and professional development perspective.
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The career break mindset: it’s not an ‘escape’
Travel sabbaticals are growing in popularity, and people take them for a variety of reasons. Not everybody who takes extended time off work to travel is doing it to run away from a bad situation.
Sure, a career break can be a good cure for burnout. But it can also be a hugely rewarding experience if you are happy with your career direction and want to take a step back to develop yourself in other ways.
If you approach a long-term travel break with a clear purpose and specific goals in mind, then it’s more likely to be worthwhile and have a positive impact on your career.
Before you go: identify your development needs
The first step towards maximising the career benefits of your travel sabbatical is to assess your professional skills and competencies.
Once you have a well-rounded understanding of your professional attributes, you will be able to identify the weaknesses and gaps that a career break could help to address. This could even be part of the decision-making process to take a travel career break in the first place.
“Throughout this process it’s vital to be open and brutally honest.”
There are various ways you can carry out a professional self-assessment. One option is to utilise structures that may already in place at your workplace to support people’s development. Do you have periodic appraisals and/or regular one-to-one conversations with your manager? If so, use these to get feedback about your possible development areas.
If your workplace doesn’t have these structures in place, then you can try seeking feedback proactively. It’s useful to get feedback from a broad range of people you work with, not just your direct line manager – this is sometimes known as ‘360 feedback’. Here are some other ideas on self-assessing your development needs.
You will inevitably spend time self-reflecting on your travel career break; working out what you enjoy doing, why you enjoy doing it and what values are important to you. Being conscious of this before you go away allows you to test and develop your own perception of yourself.
Knowing and understanding your values and motivations will allow you to carve a fulfilling career path once you’re back. Another tool to do this is the 16 personalities test. It’s not an exact science, but it may just help you understand a few reasons why you behave they way you do at work and at home.
Whichever option you choose, throughout this process it’s vital to be open and brutally honest, and to encourage others to be when giving feedback. Criticism is only helpful if it’s genuine.
Going through the process not only gives you a better understanding of yourself professionally, but it also makes it more likely your employer will allow you sabbatical leave, as you will be able to demonstrate how it will benefit the organisation. For more on this, check out our article on how to ask for a sabbatical from work.
Write down the ways that travel can help
Now you know where there are gaps and weaknesses in your skillset, it’s time to join the dots and link them to the unique development opportunities that travel can provide. For each development area you have identified, write down a few ideas how travel could help you improve.
A few examples:
- Do you have problems with teamwork? On a travel sabbatical you can engage in a variety of small group activities to develop these skills.
- Not great at networking? Travel will challenge you to make new connections and communicate with people in a vast range of different situations.
- Lacking in cultural competence? Travel will expose you to many different cultures and broaden your understanding.
- Lacking in creativity? Travelling can enhance your creative output by exposing your brain to a myriad of new sensations.
- Missing some qualifications? You could take a remote learning course while on a travel career break.
Read our article on 7 ways travelling will make you better at your job for some more ideas.
This step provides another opportunity to consult with your manager at work. They will appreciate you seeking input on how you can maximise your professional development on your sabbatical.
Set some development goals
Once you are clear about the development areas that you will aim to address on your travel career break, you can begin to set some specific goals.
Whether you are using your travel sabbatical to learn a specific new skill, such as learning a language, or to work on a character attribute, such as improving your confidence, setting goals will give you focus and motivation. This video by MindTools sets out five simple rules to follow:
When you have set your goals, write down a plan of action that will enable you to achieve them. For example, if your goal is to master verb conjugation in Spanish, you might set aside half an hour each day to revise, and challenge yourself to have at least one conversation each day with a native speaker.
If your goal is to improve your creativity by authoring a descriptive account of your travels, you could build a routine of making observational notes and set aside regular time for writing.
Your goals and action plan can be fluid. In fact, it’s helpful to revisit them regularly and make adjustments according to your progress.
Put yourself in situations that will challenge you
Scientific research has proven that travel enhances creativity. But as Adam Galinsky (a Colombia Business School professor who has studied the topic extensively) says in this article, you will only see the benefits if you embrace the opportunity.
“Think about how you can put yourself into situations that will force you to use the skills you are aiming to develop.”
As he points out, “the key, critical process is multicultural engagement, immersion, and adaptation. Someone who lives abroad and doesn’t engage with the local culture will likely get less of a creative boost than someone who travels abroad and really engages in the local environment.”
This is true for any aspect of personal development when travelling. If your goal is to improve your networking skills, for example, you won’t make any progress if you just keep yourself to yourself. You need to be proactive.
Think about how you can put yourself into situations that will force you to use the skills you are aiming to develop. It will take a conscious effort at first, and won’t be easy – but you should find it becomes more natural over time. And this shows that it’s working.
Record your progress
Consider how you will keep track of your personal and professional development while travelling. Not only will this ensure a constant eye on your progress, but it will also give you an ongoing record that will be invaluable to refer back to later.
When you return to your workplace you can use your tracked progress to relate your learning and development curve back to your manager and colleagues. Alternatively, if you find yourself on the job hunt at the end of a travel career break, you will have a useful reference point to use in interviews. For more on this, see our guide to finding a job after travelling the world.
You can use something as simple as a diary or personal planner to keep a regular record of your development. However, make sure you have an online backup, even if it’s just taking photos of each page. It would be devastating to lose it.
Set up occasional check-ins with your workplace
If you are on a sabbatical contract and will be returning to the same job after your travel career break, then it may be worthwhile to arrange occasional contact with your manager.
I wouldn’t do this too often. After all, the whole point of the experience is that you’re having a break from your regular working life to discover new places and cultures. A half-hour Skype once every few weeks or so would be plenty.
This would enable you to stay in the loop on what’s been happening in the office, and to have an informal chat about your development progress.
Don’t put pressure on yourself
Finally, always remember that a travel career break is exactly that – a break. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you find it difficult to stay on track with your professional development goals.
Removing stress is one of the major health and professional benefits of taking a travel sabbatical, and putting unnecessary pressure on yourself will compromise that.
So, if you find yourself stressing about professional development, take a breather. Focus on enjoying your travel experiences. Then come back to it, reevaluate, and adjust your plan and goals to something that feels more manageable.
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