Why Your Time Off Will Never Be Enough to Truly DeStress You

Let me guess. You feel like you really need to de-stress.

this season has been unreal, and almost unbelievably trying—far different than any season you’ve led through before.

Every leader I talk to is tired. Well, more than just tired. Stressed. Deeply stressed.

And kind of exhausted.

There’s a fatigue that comes with crisis that’s a little hard to describe.

The adrenaline that got you through the first month gave way to the sustained drone of decision after decision, assault after assault, and disappointment after disappointment.

So you’ve lived for your week-long break. I get it.

Everybody has.

There's a fatigue that comes with crisis that's a little hard to describe. Click To Tweet

Now the bad news. And as tough as it is to hear, your time off this summer probably won’t be enough to refuel you or even fully destress you.

Yeah, I know.

In fact, if you look back on your leadership, you probably already know that you rarely if ever completely destress on your time off. If you’re not sure about that, just ask your spouse or kids. They’ll tell you what it’s like to vacation with you.

And even if you get a few fleeting glimpses of peace at some point in your weeks off, they usually evaporate the moment you head back to work. It’s like two weeks of progress get erased within minutes of heading back to work.

So two questions:

First, “why?”

And second, “what should you do?”

Let’s tackle each in turn.

Why Doesn’t Time Off ‘Work’?

1. Time Off Won’t Heal You When Your Problem Is How You Spend Your Time On

The problem with most leaders is not how we spend our time off. It’s how we spend our time on.

I learned the lesson of time off that doesn’t refuel you the hard way. The worst summer of my life happened back in 2006.

Personally, after 11 years in leadership, I was burning out. I suspected burnout but I thought I could stop it with a vacation, because, you know, I’m strong like that and only weak people burn out. (Yes I know, but tell that to young me who didn’t listen well.)

I took three weeks off that July. I was convinced I would heal and everything would be back to normal by August 1st.

What scared me to death that year is that instead of getting better during my vacation, I got worse.

I moved into a deep slide and cratered out in August…a burnout deep enough that it took me months to get out of and then a few years to finally shake.

You know what I learned in that season (along with about 1 million other lessons)?

How I spent my time off wasn’t the solution, because how I spend my time off wasn’t my problem.

Your time off can’t save you if the problem is how you spend your time on.

Your time off can't save you if the problem is how you spend your time on. Click To Tweet

The problem for most exhausted and depleted leaders isn’t how you spend your time off, it’s how you spend your time on.

Back in 2006, my crisis was personal. I was living at an unstainable pace. As the church I led grew, my formula was more people equals more hours. And that’s fundamentally unsustainable.

Today, the crisis is global and we’re all going through it. If the formula is more crisis equals more hours, we’re all doomed as leaders.  Sure, the initial stages of a crisis require long hours and hard decisions. But when you head into a prolonged crisis, well, you need a new strategy.

Which takes us back to this summer: when you’re exhausted, how you spend your time off isn’t the solution. How you spend your time on is.

The initial stages of a crisis require long hours and hard decisions. But when you head into a prolonged crisis, well, you need a new strategy. Click To Tweet

2. This is Why Sabbaticals and Leaves Generally Don’t Solve Burnout

You might be thinking, Exactly, Carey—which is why I need a sabbatical or leave of some kind. 

Well, maybe. But probably not.

For years I’ve puzzled over why so many sabbaticals and other forms of leave generally don’t solve burnout.

I can’t tell you the number of leaders I’ve known on the verge of burnout who have taken a sabbatical to deal with their stress or fatigue, get better, and then come back only to feel as bad or worse within months of their return. And then often, they leave—for good.

Although I’ve never taken a Sabbatical or extended leave, I think they can be great when they have a defined purpose and you’re not running into them or back out of them into a frantically unsustainable life.

A Sabbatical isn’t the solution for an unsustainable pace. A sustainable pace is the solution for an unsustainable pace.

When the way you’re living and leading is broken, all the time in the world off won’t fix it.

A Sabbatical isn't the solution for an unsustainable pace. A sustainable pace is the solution for an unsustainable pace. Click To Tweet

So…What Will Help?

If the problem is how you spend your time on, here are a few things that can help.

First, when you’re off, take some time to take stock of what happened.

You have been through so much and my guess is you’ve hardly stopped to process it.

I recently found myself unusually tired. There was nothing ‘wrong’ with my schedule. I’d taken a full weekend off,  and my day wasn’t jammed full with meetings.

I actually had writing time scheduled in my calendar, which is something I love, and it was designed to help me finish writing a new course.

But I was struggling to get motivated. I was far more tired than I should be.

When I wondered what was going on, I realized that although I love writing and producing online courses for leaders, I was writing my fourth course in four months, something I’d never done before.

That, on top of all the crisis leadership all of us have been through left me feeling, well, not myself.

In the end, the course production and filming went really well, but the lesson wasn’t lost.

What’s the best thing to do about that? Well, name it, surrender it and make a note to file for the future you that writing and producing four courses in four months is super taxing.

Until you understand why you’re tired, it’s hard to figure out how not to get that tired.

So what’s making you tired?

If your answer is everything, take a little more time to break it down. You’ll likely discover some things weigh more heavily than others.

Until you understand why you're tired, it's hard to figure out how not to get that tired. Click To Tweet

Finally, grieve your losses. A mentor once told me that ministry is a series of ungrieved losses. Oh man, is he right.

When he shared that with me I realized how many losses I’d experienced that I never grieved (as small as someone leaving your church, which isn’t that small).

Ministry is a series of ungrieved losses. So is life.

Do you know how much loss you’ve experienced since March?

Take some time to pray through them, grieve through them, and maybe even sit down with a good friend or therapist to process it all.

You’ll be glad you did.

Ministry is a series of ungrieved losses. So is life. Click To Tweet

With all that processed during the relative quiet of summer, how do you avoid being eaten alive heading back into leadership?

While I have a deep and robust strategy that’s helped me deal with everything life and leadership have thrown at me for years now, here are three things that can help right now.

1. Make Some Categorical Decisions

Categorical decision making is a superpower for leaders who have too much to do, which these days is most leaders.

By default, you make decisions one by one in leadership…as they come at you or need to be made.

One of the best ways to simplify decision making is to think in categories.

For example, when the COVID crisis hit, I had a lot of internal decisions to make as a leader (things my organization needed to do to survive), and soon I was faced with a bunch of requests for podcast interviews, webinar appearances, online events and even to join staff meetings virtually.

At first, my team and I looked at each request individually, but as they piled up (often a half dozen requests a day), we moved to categorical decision making. I decided to politely decline all podcast interviews, virtual events, webinars, online events of staff meetings.

Done, decision made.

We made a couple of exceptions, but not many.

The result? My team had clarity. I had clarity. And people understood.

Plus, I had time to work on some big projects I needed to get done.

Heading back into leadership, what things can you categorically eliminate?

This will take you a while to think through, but over the years I’ve done things like categorically eliminate doing weddings and funerals, pastoral visitation,  breakfast meetings (I’m most productive in the morning), lunch meetings or even meetings over an hour (and much more).

This will also force you to create systems for these important things that are not dependent on you and far more deeply empower your team.

I always get asked Do you make exceptions? And yes, I do.

I’ve done a few weddings, some visitations, a few funerals and even the odd breakfast meeting. But the exceptions are so much easier to manage than the deluge of yesses that probably should have been nos. And if I participate in your wedding, it’s probably because you’re on my staff or are family, a pretty easy exception to explain.

And ideally, your elimination of one category should free up time to focus on something more important or strategic. Another way to think about it is to reach more people, I need to eliminate X. 

If you’re skittish or worry about FOMO, try this: make it time-limited. In other words, for three months I’ll do no breakfast meetings. Or until the end of the year, I won’t do outside projects or requests.

Categorical decision-making saves mental energy and a tremendous amount of time because you already made the decision. Case closed. Move on.

Categorical decision-making saves mental energy and a tremendous amount of time because you already made the decision. Case closed. Move on. Click To Tweet

2. Simplify, Simplify, Simplify

This one’s easy to understand and very difficult to do.

At the best of times, complexity is your enemy. And many leaders have a strategy that’s overly complex.

Complexity doesn’t scale, and at a certain level, it’s also exhausting.

Complexity doesn't scale, and at a certain level, it's also exhausting. Click To Tweet

Simple is not simplistic.

As Woody Guthrie is quoted as saying, “Any fool can make something complicated. It takes a genius to make it simple.”

Great leaders stick with a problem or idea long enough and engage it deeply enough to clear away the fog and reduce the concept to its simplest forms so anyone can understand it and implement it.

Ask yourself, what things can you stop doing so you can start doing more important things?

A simple, leaner model will likely help you thrive in complicated times.

One easy cut from most churches or organizations is anything you have to ‘manufacture’ energy for (I explain that here).

The more complex the world becomes, the simpler your approach to it needs to be.

The more complex the world becomes, the simpler your approach to it needs to be. Click To Tweet

3. Ditch The Endless WorkDay/WorkWeek

If you haven’t worked from home as much in the past as you are presently, the boundaries between work and home are likely as blurry as they’ve ever been.

I’ve been working from home part of the time for much of the last 25 years and full-time for the last five. It took me years to figure out how to do it well, but I’m more convinced than ever that you need a strategy to make sure your work doesn’t envelop your life.

Technology has not made this simpler.

You’re watching Disney+ with your daughter after dinner and a co-worker texts you about your expense report.

You used to go to the office, but thanks to technology, now the office goes to you. And it’s fully capable of interrupting you any time, anywhere, even on vacation.

Because I love what I get to do, I’ve had to force myself to make hard stops, putting my laptop away, turning off all notifications on my device, moving my phone out of my bedroom at night, and deciding that some things can wait.

Want a good little hack to help you break your work/technology addiction? Get a hobby.

You’ll get so engrossed in it that you’ll lose the desire to even check your phone.

You used to go to the office, but thanks to technology, now the office goes to you. And it's fully capable of interrupting you any time, anywhere, even on vacation. Click To Tweet

Something To Focus On

Since I burned out, my mantra has been to try to figure out a way to live in a way today that will help you thrive tomorrow.

I think that’s a good principle. I don’t always get it right, but when I do, things are so much better.

If you’re not thriving—and many leaders aren’t, even in the best of times—adjust today to improve tomorrow.

Living in a way today that will help you thrive tomorrow will help you win the marathon ahead.

What Helps You?

What helps you figure out the relationship between time off and time on?

How do you refuel in every season?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

Your time off can't save you if the problem is how you spend your time on.


  1. Paul on August 18, 2021 at 10:50 am

    Reading the posts of others reminds me that GRIEF (over past hurts) is a NECESSARY PROCESS! Without it, things will be ‘buried’ in your mind, life and relationships that MUST be dealt with in order to progress healthily!
    After I took a year (after my wife left! =0 ) to ‘expose’ all of my past hurt (to myself!) via HONEST prayer & meditating (‘chewing’) on the Word nearly every morning… one morning, God ‘instantly’ healed me – from of ALL of it! =) =) =) …and I probably would never have received that healing if it wasn’t for my time grieving/praying/meditating.
    Now I live a fully healed and TRANSFORMED LIFE – the one that Jesus died to give us! Not a ‘busy’ life, but a PEACEFUL, POWERFUL, JOYFUL (and regulated!) life, that can now help others overcome the struggles they have as well – and be SAVED (Rescued!) .
    Thank God that HIS BURDEN IS LIGHT!
    So if you’re over-burdened, then you’re doing something(s) that God is NOT asking you to do! Pray (honestly!) about it – then exercise the courage to ‘just say NO’ to jobs or tasks that over-burden you!

  2. Guy Mackey on August 5, 2021 at 8:37 pm

    I know if I take sabbatical, I will not come back. I know the stress of “how will it work out?” will only dissipate once I walk away, and I want that so badly, even if I die the second day of retirement, one night where tomorrow is not my responsibility will be enough. I am not burned out, I viscerally hate the i stitution of the church, and being bound to it for my food and living makes me angry. Betrayed, ignored, belittled by the superiors whose job it is to pastor me. Is there a version of PTSD you get from Christian ministry? I have nightmares of being trapped at clergy conference and not being able to find a door out.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on August 9, 2021 at 1:32 pm

      Oh wow, this is so hard. I hear you, our team hears you. I’m so sorry. Trauma comes from pain and pain is a real thing in ministry, as in life. Is there a Christian therapist you can process this with? Good counselling has been a significant part of my healing and growth.

    • Rache on August 27, 2021 at 9:22 pm

      Yes there is for church PTSD. My friend went (found out about it online) to CELEBRATE RECOVERY! Group (rick warren ministries). Hope you find one in your area.

  3. Leonard Lee on July 31, 2021 at 9:28 am

    Great words brother. Rhythm matters. When I keep a healthy one – I get rest and feel refreshed. When I am out of sync, no amount of time off rests and refreshes me. Thanks for protecting so many from burning out.

  4. Margo on October 17, 2020 at 12:50 pm

    Just read this today…thank-you! You relate to our struggles very well, and have given practical steps to deal with this major one! God bless. M <.

  5. Mindy Roberts Harper on July 24, 2020 at 11:17 am

    God introduced me to you and your ministry today while reading the devo on my Bible App. It was definitely not coincidental! I have been in health care for several years and my “mission field” for the past 14 years has been as a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner. I am blessed to be a partner at my practice doing what I LOVE! However, my responsibilities go beyond “taking care of little bodies.” The weight of providing holistic care to my patients (and their families/caregivers) and the leadership responsibilities often leave me depleted, hypoxic and longing for the “next vacation!” Following that quick “super charge,” I return to work feeling like “Groundhog day!”

    God “slowed me down” this Memorial Day weekend. I was having a pleasant bicycle ride at a state park with my husband and family. In the slow motion of a bicycle accident, I began to mentally prepare myself for “another challenge from 2020!” Completely torn ACL, Grade 3 MCL tear, tibial plateau fracture and torn meniscus. Although I would have “preferred” time off with memories of picturesque landscapes, God has truly taught me to “be still and know” during this time. I feel like your resources will be influential in teaching me how to “minister with a sharper sword.” This specific article spoke directly to my heart!

    Prayers for you and your ministry…looking forward to learning more!

  6. Robert Batt on July 24, 2020 at 10:12 am

    Excellent article Carey!! Went through burnout about 2 years ago, and can identify with everything you wrote. Burnout / depression are one of the biggest enemies of the current age we live in. Another quote comes to mind: “the definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over again, while expecting different results.”

  7. Justin Klatt on July 7, 2020 at 4:12 pm

    Yay! Very good article Carey! Thank you. Good stuff.

  8. FESTUS MWILA on July 7, 2020 at 1:31 am

    Carey you have blessed my soul. May God richly bless you. Thanks for technology.

  9. Richard Dawson on July 6, 2020 at 4:19 pm

    How true Carey and yet how difficult the coming months seem to be. The quote that ‘ministry is a series of ungrieved losses is right on the money and what we’re in the midst of at present is a crisis which represents the loss of many things – church the way we once did it – relationships the way we once did them – schedules we once had control of – expectations about the way a day/week.year would go etc.
    The problem I see is that as we’ve moved into a digital era we being forced to cope with further significant changed and its associated loss or losses. It’s navigating that which I am unsure of.

  10. Marshall Eizenga on July 6, 2020 at 1:49 pm

    In any time of stress (whether normal and daily or high and constant) there is another needed component which will help reduce the impact of stress and increase one’s mental, emotional and even physical capacities. The key is in knowing what energizes you! So I ask. What brings you life or excites you? What would you do if you had a free afternoon? This list will be as various as those who read this note. Your answer may be; reading a book, painting, going for a walk, a motorcycle ride, visiting with good friends, skiing (in the winter), fishing, a bike ride, etc. Brady Boyd wrote, “ministry needs margin.” Without margin you won’t have time for the things which energize you. Energizers will replenish you.

  11. Jeff Starkey on July 6, 2020 at 12:17 pm

    Thanks Carey. I was blessed with a sabbatical in 2009 after about 29 years of various ministries (9 at that church). The research I did in preparation for a 3 month time away was not to push it: read these books, go on this retreat. I rested. We visited our kids on the left and right coasts and I got Level 1 Certified in Crossfit and volunteered in our CF box. I learned to cook and enjoyed blessing my wife with healthy meals. And most importantly, I got to worship. There was no performance needed on the 1st day of the week, and I loved it. And I let down barriers that were formerly invisible to me. And I started to piece together things from my distant, distant past that revealed abuse. It was the best and worst that could happen. I went through the normal stages of trauma and grief, tried to deny and self medicate. Got fired, went to counseling and treatment. In my case down time was a life saver in that this was revealed and answered scores of questions I had silently asked about my worth, God’s love and the love of family and especially my manhood. The message I would like to leave is that going to a gifted couselor 20-30 years ago and opening up (even though Iwas unaware of the abuse) may have brought me to a place of healing much, much sooner. I am still in ministry, still married to the same wonderful woman but doing things differently.

  12. Chris Cook on July 6, 2020 at 11:55 am

    Great article, thanks! I’ve been in children’s ministry 20 years now and it’s so true that a sustainable pace and not a sabbatical is the key. When I first got started in full time ministry I was so curious why people were quitting the ministry so often and having an unsustainable pace is the downfall. After working for a Pastor that almost burnt out his wife with ministry it’s just as important to guard your family with the pace also.

  13. LindaBeth on July 6, 2020 at 8:25 am

    Growing up in a ‘ministry’ home … family life and ministry all woven together . I’ve never been able to make clear boundaries, now 30 years into our own leadership lifestyle. It’s not FOMO, it’s not wanting to leave someone without support or help.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on July 6, 2020 at 8:38 am

      I can completely understand that. Personally, I’ve found Henry Cloud and John Towsends work on boundaries so helpful. Necessary Endings by Henry Cloud is also a great book. Hope this helps!

      • Jamie on July 6, 2020 at 2:05 pm

        This has been one of the best articles I have read. Being a man who has not grieved my loses over time grief has built up and created even a bigger mess in my life.I am in the process of grieving years of loss. I’m grieving decisions that created loss and also decisions I should of made that I didn’t make because of fear and also losses that happened because I live in this world and I just don’t understand why these losses happen to me. I have concluded I don’t want to come to a ripe old age and be a person full of grief and regret stuck on depression pills because I refused to deal with my loss and grief. I’m taking your advice Mr. Nieuwhof and grieving my losses and learning to move forward to a brighter future. I also want to encourage my brothers and sisters in Christ to grieve your looses, deal with grief don’t let it build up in your life because if you don’t it does lead to bigger internal and external messes in the long term. Thanks again for your influence through your writing. God bless.

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