01/21/2007 11:32 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

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All By Myself: The One-Woman Sabbatical

Dear Debra,
We're already halfway through January. I made it through the holiday travel madness and related psycho-family dramas. I couldn't wait to get past that annual hoopla and back to my office. Usually the New Year feels like a fresh start. But now that I've been back at my desk for three weeks, I find myself burned out and uninspired. I just can't seem to get it up to be enthused about my work, which I normally love. I have piles of papers and fifteen loose ends everywhere, both at work and at home. I can't muster the motivation or energy to tackle anything. My kids and husband have been driving me crazy, even though they're not doing anything wrong. My daughter and son are back in school (thank god!) after a three week break, so we have our routine back, but still I'm irritable and everything bugs me. Usually my work fires me up, but right now, I just feel stuck and sort of in a holding pattern. I'm not depressed--just bored and scattered. What's going on and what I can do about it?
-Andrea, 36, self-employed Chartered Financial Analyst, New York.

Dear Andrea,

When is the last time you got away by yourself, alone? Can you even remember?

You paint a picture of a woman who has a lot of balls in the air. Yes, yes, I know--we all do. Not surprising, then, that my clients find that the single most powerful tool for breaking out of a professional stall and for regaining career clarity and passion is the Solo Sabbatical.

I'm not talking about spa treatments or having a pedicure--not that there's anything wrong with that! I'm talking about taking time away from the daily grind and concentrating on your professional future. Ambitchous women tend to be busy women. Everyday they juggle the relentless demands of life. To reflect and reconnect with their inner fire and their dreams, they need periodic solitude and the space to be silent (and this includes ambitchous women who have taken time out for motherhood.)

Here's the problem: the single piece of advice women are most resistant to is my recommendation to get away, alone. So, Andrea, if you're like most of the 2500 women I've worked with, right about now you're listing all of the reasons you can't possibly make it happen:

1. "I can't afford it."

Yes you can. Go onto and play the "name your own price" game. You can book a resort hotel room or score four- or five-star accommodations for a fraction of the full market price. Or check Travelocity or Orbitz for cheap deals. And think return on investment as you read on.

2. "I can't leave my kids. And even if I could, I can't take off of work."

Yes you can. This is why the great goddess made babysitters and daddies and sick days. Or trade childcare with a close friend or relative: they'll keep your kids for a night or two--or even five (can you imagine!)--and you'll reciprocate whenever they want. Or offer a childless friend or relative the chance to play god-parent for a weekend--we all have those loved ones in our lives (including the Childless By Choice folks) who love the chance to hang with our kids, be a (s)hero for a couple of days, and then head back home to their grown-up life with a special glow.

Go on a weekend or on your days off if you answer to a boss. If you work for yourself and tell me you can't break away from your client load, yes you can. Let people know in advance. Ask a colleague to be on call for you should an emergency arise in your absence, and put a message on your voice mail to that effect. (You'll repay that colleague down the road during their solo sabbatical.)

3. "I can't leave when everything is in disarray!"

We women often tell ourselves that we can't do something until the house is straightened up: "We can't leave for work unless we get up at 5 to unload and load the dishwasher and the washer and dryer and the kitty litter box and the kids' mess in the car--all before we head out for a ten hour day. We can't leave for vacation unless there's a perfectly clean house to come home to. We can't take time to use that gym membership we just invested in until our closets look like the shelves at The Gap. We can't take time out to apply for that executive M.B.A. program we've had stars in our eyes for until we can open the kitchen cabinets without having a domino effect of pots and pans spilling out."

We tell ourselves the same thing about our offices, about our desks: "I'll get around to thinking about that ambitious dream I'm back burner-ing once I get my files in order."

Guess what? The house will never get there. And your desk will never look Zen. So what?

Don't buy into the socially sanctioned self-sabotaging idea that you should twist yourself into a pretzel to chase a perfectly balanced work and home life. Balance is bunk; balance is an unattainable myth created by the work-life balance evangelists whose message distracts you from living your best life--at work and at home.

Okay. So what is attainable? What is more realistic?

Acceptance, and strategizing, and laying off of guilt-tripping yourself--that is achievable.

And outsourcing--now that works (look for my upcoming column, "You Don't Need a Wife--The Domestic Ho-Down" for more nuts and bolts advice on this subject.) My good friend, Betsy Rapoport, a writer, editor, life coach, and twenty-five year veteran of trade publishing, most recently as an executive editor at a division of Random House laughingly says, "Sometimes it makes sense to throw money at our problems." That we can do. We women need to exercise the option more frequently of throwing that money.

But every woman I've worked with, no matter how much money and resources she has, feels guilty about hiring help (at least until she's tried it--and even then she occasionally falls off the wagon and backslides, trying yet again to do it all herself.)

We believe that we should be able to handle, well, everything on our own. Time to debunk that myth, too. We just have to bite the bullet and say, "I'm worth it!"

Hire a cleaning service before you go on your Solo Sabbatical. For around $80 to $150 bucks, they'll be able to at least take the edge off, and you'll come home to less mess--and perhaps be inspired to make it a regular engagement.

4. "I can't leave my husband."

Um, yes you can. Husbands don't need babysitters. And, hey--you are coming back! Besides, with any luck, he'll miss you, and you him, so you'll get an added bonus of re-igniting your relationship. Also, in my experience, the majority of husbands these days will support their wives in heading off for a solo sabbatical. If your spouse or partner doesn't support you, you don't need permission--you can honestly communicate what you're doing and why, and then head off with a clear conscience. (And maybe this lack of support will trigger you to think about what needs to be straightened out in your relationship, and in the balance of power and mutual career ambition support.)

5. "I'm behind on bill-paying. I should catch up on that first."

(See #3; same story, different chapter.) Think about it. Your To Do list grows, papers are piling up, and you've been putting off catching up on bookkeeping and bills and taxes and whatever for weeks; what's another few days? You need a break. You need to clear your mind. And guess what? Once you've done that, completing these undone tasks will take you a fraction of the time to get them handled and off of your plate, especially compared to the time you're burning up now by procrastinating and starting and stopping because you're unable to focus or to rally. Since we remember unfinished tasks and forget them once they're completed, consider just how much energy you're wasting, always thinking, "When am I ever going to get around to finishing that?" Enough beating yourself up already!

6. "If I'm going to spend the time and money to go away, shouldn't I be doing it with my boyfriend, or partner, or husband, or kids--especially if I'm currently taking time off from my career to focus on being a mom?"

You need the alone time and self-sovereignty to get a clear read on whether your career course of action is still working for you. It's the room of one's own idea that Virginia Woolf concluded was half of the required equation for achieving full professional greatness (the other half being a solid income).

If you're taking time off from your career right now raising babies and young kids, you still need reflective time alone to think about what you want to do when you go back to work and to consider how you can start--now, today--planning and thinking about all of the options for making your long-term ambitious career goals happen. In fact, you need your Solo Sabbatical even more right now than you will at other points in your life. You're still an ambitchous woman; you're still you. Don't sell yourself short.

7. "The plants will die."

So, you'll get new ones.

Are you getting the picture? The world won't fall apart while you go away to pull yourself together. Now that we've established that, here's what to do to maximize your solo sabbatical:

• Try to schedule a solo sabbatical once every three months, at a minimum. Going away overnight is ideal and a weekend or a whole week is even better. If you really can't get away, take a daylong retreat. However, don't jump to the conclusion too quickly that that's the best you can do (re-read my advice above!). Pack a lunch, go to your favorite spot, or rent a hotel room even for the day.

• Whatever spot and duration you pick, seclusion must be its most prized characteristic. No phones, no TV, no email. This is a time that you commit to strong cerebral focus on where you are in your career. Why?

Career passion ebbs and flows. Hitting periods of being less than inspired, or of being distracted, does happen. What can you do about it? Two things:

1. Articulate the underlying cause of your frustration.

2. Pinpoint what you have always been passionate about in your career.

How do you even begin to answer these questions?

On your Solo Sabbatical, take plenty of pens and notebooks--one for each room, one next to your bed, one for your car, one in the bathroom, one small steno pad to take on walks. You will encounter a proliferation of ideas during this sabbatical, and you should be ready to write them down so you don't lost any thoughts during this mental flow. Take your laptop, but don't check e-mail. Pack a range of stimulating reading material that you've stockpiled over the last few months to feel your mind and imagination. Arrange your schedule intuitively--eat, sleep, take walks, write anything and everything that comes to mind about where you are at this point in your career, what goals you are on track with, and which ones need refocusing.

This time can be incredibly productive in terms of fresh ideas, strategic planning, and contemplating the unforeseen. In the midst of reflective time, many otherwise invisible events can seem so obvious.

Just ask Romi Lassally (who let me put this in because a solo sabbatical really did change her life) A former film executive and producer, she took eight years off to be a stay-at-home mom. Around the time she hit the wall, desperately craving getting back in touch with her wild and precious ambition goals, she won the highest auction bid for a week-long yoga retreat. She convinced herself to go--and her life was transformed. Her ambition was re-ignited, she figured out what she wanted to contribute, and then set her target. "I stalked Arianna [Huffington] for a while--our kids went to school together and I talked to her about the career change I wanted to make." Romi interned for eight months, re-established her literary chops and ambitchous managerial acumen, and "everything fell into place." Today, Romi is the Features Editor for The Huffington Post, fearlessly living her ambitchous dream while also "happily living in Los Angeles with her husband and three adorable yet very demanding children."

Need more help about how to focus yourself on your own Solo Sabbatical?

Assess the following questions. Frankly take stock of where you're at in your career and with your ambitchous goals. Be honest with yourself. Consider it, feel it, and write it all down:

1. How satisfied are you with your career, your earnings, the level of challenge, and

your future opportunities to grow and stretch yourself?

2. What are your short-term, intermediate, and long-term professional goals? List at least five goals.

3. In what ways are you moving forward? List five ways. In what ways are you stuck or unclear? List five of these now.

4. How do you maintain your edge? What works to keep your ambitchous dreams fired up? List five ways. Ask yourself, "In what ways have I gone soft?" List those.

5. What is your definition--right now, of what it means, for you personally, to be an ambitchous woman? List seven qualities. Put a check by each of these qualities that you're happy with in my own life. Put an X by those that need some work.

6. Which companies or firms or industries would you most love to end up in?

7. What is your dream job, no matter how far-fetched?

8. Which careers fire you up when you read about them?

9. What is your dream career configuration? Think big. No self-censoring. No worrying that you're too old, too young, or that you've been out of the marketplace too long. No worrying about what credentials you don't have, or what it would take to establish more credibility. No worrying about what you think your dream job pays, or what your friends and family would think of you if you came out of the closet and fearlessly went after your most ambitchous goals.

Countless women, no matter where they are in their careers and lives, have found the Solo Sabbatical to be one of the most powerful and sure ways to break out of a dead zone.

Consider this a board meeting of one, to quote Los Angeles-based sales and marketing exec, Susan Donegan. It's a time and place to use your intellect, creativity, and imagination fully. It's impossible to be mindful and conscious about your own passions and aspirations when clients want you to take their calls, bosses want you to meet their deadlines, colleagues want you to proofread their reports, your kids want you to drive them all over the place, and your husband wants you to rub his back because he's under so much stress.

Try it! You will return from your sabbatical with a renewed vigor and passion--either for the work you already do, or for preparing to change directions, or for gearing up to re-enter the marketplace as a force to be reckoned with. I promise you that you'll find, in your solo retreat, a new and necessary part of your life; you have my enthusiastic permission to repeat next quarter.

Remember: Your ambition requires care and attention, just like your other sacrosanct priorities. You owe it to yourself and to the world to make the contribution you were born to make. It's okay--and necessary--to be her now.

Dr. Debra Condren's book, amBITCHous: (def.) a woman who 1. makes more money 2. has more power 3. gets the recognition she deserves 4. has the determination to go after her dreams and can do it with integrity (Morgan Road Books/Random House, Dec. 2006) is based on her interviews with 500 women and on her work as founder of the Women's Business Alliance, a organization that has served as a motivational think tank for 2500 ambitious women over ten years. E-mail your burning questions to Debra at: To order amBITCHous or read excerpts, take questionnaires and to receive amBITCHous Briefings, visit: