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  • Tim Mathis

Take a month off and it'll change your life: Messing things up enough to make a difference.

Updated: May 28, 2023

If you’re going to travel, you might as well do it right. (Right?)


That's why we're here. This is part two in a series on the concept of a GAP Month - a month of Goal-directed Adventure or Pilgrimage - as a reliable framework for transformational travel.


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Travel that’s likely to change your life? Sounds complicated, but if you ask the pilgrimage scholars, you can actually put together a simple "How to" list:

This post we’re focusing on the first point - the month away.


In summary, it's not so much about the length of the trip as the value of disrupting your normal life.


Portal at sunset in Naxos, Greece. Nice place for a month away.

Why do you need to get away? So you can change.


It's a fundamental question about travel. Why do we need to get away?


The more important question is: why do people change, and how’s that relate to travel?


A basic point of adult learning and emotional development is that adults don't normally change all that much. Our genetics determine the parameters of our personalities at birth, then our experiences as children and teenagers mould our brains into a roughly final form, and by the times we become adults our patterns are set. We settle on a track and follow it. Across time there's some gradual drift in our interests and priorities, but if our patterns and behaviors are working we typically don't stress and life moves along comfortably.


Until there's disruption.


Something happens in life that shakes things up and wakes you up to the fact that your life strategies are problematic, and that you need to do the hard work to change them. Your partner leaves you. You lose your job. You're diagnosed with a chronic illness.


Academics describe this experience in different ways. Piaget talked about the experience of cognitive disequilibrium - that common childhood sense of being confronted by something that doesn't seem to make sense given our normal understanding of the world, and needing to adjust. It's sorting out that Santa isn't real and being suddenly motivated to figure out who brought all the presents (and why your parents have been lying to you). Later in life, it's also losing a parent and really grappling with the fact that you and everyone you love will eventually die, and suddenly needing to learn how to keep going anyway.


Psychologists also talk about a similar concept - cognitive dissonance. This is the feeling you get when you realize that you hold beliefs that are inconsistent, or that your behaviors don't line up with your values. It's frequently created by the introduction of new information. It's the feeling triggered, for instance, by the notion that the affordable price of the device that you're staring at right now is made possible because workers are being exploited in factories overseas. It's the feeling of hopping in your car for a pleasant drive and listening to a radio show about how fossil fuels are a dwindling resource upon which the entirety of human society is dependent.


Significant moments of discomfort are the times when adults grow. Rewiring your brain might happen easily when you're a kid, but as an adult it's really hard work. It typically only happens when some event causes serious disruption to our former ways of thinking or behaving.


The idea with travel - and specifically with the GAP Month concept - is that you can (and should) cause disruption intentionally in order to put yourself in a situation where personal growth is possible.


What's the relationship between travel and personal growth?


What we're talking about with a GAP Month is an extended period of time where you choose voluntarily to immerse yourself in a very different situation from your normal. It means creating significant physical separation from home - you might fly to a different country, or you might just go somewhere local that you normally don't. You may walk into the woods if you live in the city, or you might spend a month wandering urban neighborhoods if you live in the country.


However far from home you stray physically, in a GAP Month you also cause a significant amount of disruption by taking an extended amount of time away from your normal pursuits to work towards some other goal: hiking across Colorado, or biking the Carretera Austral, or walking a circuit between every Buddhist Temple in Toronto.


The idea is, you're disrupting your life intentionally so you'll be confronted by new information and new challenges that will force you into a mindset that will allow you to grow and change.


This sort of interruption is a good idea in two main situations:


1) If things are stagnant, or

2) If your life has already been disrupted and you need to figure out how to get back to equilibrium.


1. GAP travel can be a controlled burn of intentional disruption


There's a guy named Jedediah Jenkins. I'm not sure how to describe him. He's definitely a writer. He's definitely a social media influencer. He's one of those people that hangs around with celebrities in LA but isn't exactly a celebrity himself. In any case though, he wrote a book about riding his bike from Oregon to Patagonia. The book is worth a read, and it's a lovely reflection on exactly the type of trip I'm talking about here. The title's what I wanted to highlight here. He named his story:


That's one of the things I'm trying to get at here with the GAP idea.


If life feels stagnant, or off, or dishonest, or meaningless, or even out of control, then time and distance from home (literal or figurative) can come as a healthy slap in the face. Or a healthy vigorous shake.


Doing something unusual for a month or two will put your brain into a situation where learning and creativity are facilitated.


A motorcycle trip in Mexico or a canoe trip down the Yukon require entirely different skills than a 9-5 accounting job. Emails from HR trigger a certain type of stress, but they'll never require you to figure out how to avoid pissing off a moose.


You're bound to develop some new skills, but unfamiliarity is also sure to shape your values in new ways, and will give you a different angle from which to consider the question of what matters in life.


It's likely that, without even trying, you'll encounter people living lives dramatically different from your own, modeling possibilities that you haven’t considered. This is one of the key ways that stagnant humans identify ways to improve their situations - learning from others who are doing it better.


Time and distance also provide you with perspective that you can't get at home.


Have you ever noticed that it's easier to solve your friends' problems than your own, or conversely, that you can see patterns of behavior that are causing your friends distress much more easily than they can? Some of that might just be self-righteousness, but it's still true that outside perspectives are innately valuable because emotional distance allows for objectivity.


A magical feature of travel is that time and distance give you the ability to view your own life from an outsider's perspective.


When you step off of a plane in Taiwan or walk into the woods in a new state, it triggers a sense of distance from your old life that's hard to quantify or replicate any other way. When you travel, it makes the foreign and distant seem immediate, which in turn makes your normal life feel foreign and distant.


This happens straightaway, and even a weekend trip can be valuable, but the longer you're away, the more profound this sense becomes. For me it usually takes about two weeks, but in time you start to feel like your old life isn’t the real you anymore. You start to look back on it with a sense of emotional distance, and a sense (based on the lived recent experience you gain in the GAP) that different ways of being are possible. The conditions are created that allow you to see and solve your own problems objectively, and approach life from a different angle when you return.


Maybe crappy employers and problematic partners are smart to try to prevent you from taking these sorts of trips, because these types of experiences are a risk to them. You might recognize that they're the root of the problems that you need to solve. Or maybe not. Maybe you'll recognize your own problematic patterns, having taken a period of time to live differently.


When you’re stagnant, or have a vague but unidentified sense of malaise, a month in an unusual context is a sure avenue towards new insight even if you don’t know what insight you’re looking for. It's a shock to the system, or a shake to the sleeping self.


2. GAP travel can also be the right intervention to process disruptions that have already occurred.


If you decide to hike the Appalachian Trail, or walk the Camino, or backpack around Southeast Asia, you will meet people going through divorce, or coping with death, or dealing with being fired from a job they loved. I guarantee it.


Why will they be there? Because they've heard somewhere, or recognized intuitively, that those types of experiences provide the right context for processing major life disruptions.


For a similar set of reasons that carving out a GAP Month in your life is a good way to facilitate intentional disruption and growth, it is also an ideal context for processing a disruption that's already occurred.


An unfortunate fact of life is that all of us will be forced repeatedly to deal with disruptions. Some disruptions are no big deal, but some are really terrible. Some are genuinely traumatic. Partners cheat. Children die suddenly. Chronic illnesses develop. Role models are exposed as frauds.


Life can be really shitty.


When disruptions happen, you have to figure out how to cope. It's both easy and common, particularly in really bad situations, to retreat into coping strategies that are unhealthy: social isolation, drugs, alcohol, affairs, or even suicide.


All of those are classic maladaptive coping skills focused on achieving distance, escape and avoidance.


Time away on an intentional, focused trip is an intervention that follows the same impulse towards escape, but channels it in a healthy, productive direction. Sometimes life throws enough crap at you that you can’t cope and really do need to get away from it. There’s nothing wrong with that. It happens to the best of us. It’s important to recognize though that there are healthy forms of escape, and unhealthy ones. A gap in life to re-establish your footing is always an option, and is healthier than a lot of the alternatives.


I didn't come up with this idea myself. If To Shake the Sleeping Self is a testimonial about the value of GAP for combating stagnation, Cheryl Strayed's Wild and Carrot Quinn's The Sunset Route are illustrations of its value for combatting chaos. In both books, protagonists use wandering and adventure to sort through messy lives, and come away with new directions and perspective. Death. Abuse. Mental illness. Poverty. When life screws you up, time and distance are a useful prescription to help you sort out your shit.


Regardless of why your cognitive dissonance arose, the benefits of time and distance are the same. They put you in a mindset where problems can be solved and new strategies can be identified, and they expose you to people you wouldn’t have encountered otherwise, helping you identify life strategies that you wouldn't have come up with on your own. They give you the ability to put boundaries between yourself and your problems, and to look back on them more objectively.


If life has you emotionally dysregulated, a GAP also removes you from the offending situation. Running off into the wilderness, whether literally or figuratively, gets you into a neutral space where you can more easily shift out of fight, flight or freeze mode. Time and distance can give you the space to come up with a strategy to tackle your problems even if you have to go back to them eventually. Or, it can show you that you can literally leave your problems behind physically if you need to.


Sometimes you feel like you can't cope, and you have to get away. I say do it. A GAP month is a time-honored way to regain your equilibrium.


Do I really need to travel for a whole month?


I'll be honest. The idea for a GAP Month initially arose anecdotally. Angel (my wife) and I have taken multiple life-changing trips that were all about a month long - backpacking around Australia, the Camino de Santiago, a cycle tour around Taiwan, a month bussing around central Mexico. We had a saying when reflecting on our own experience - "Take a month off to travel, and it'll change your life." That's where this started.


To our credit though, we had back up on with this idea. Jesus wandered in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights when he needed a pilgrimage. El Camino de Santiago takes about a month on its most traditional route, and it's the most popular long walk in the world. The 88 Temples pilgrimage in Shikoku takes between 30 and 60 days to walk. I’m not sure that there’s anything magical about a month specifically, but the ancients testify that it seems to work.


Whatever the ancients say, a month is also a modern sweet spot that is significant and effective, but also specific, attainable, and realistic for most people. You can probably get the time off work if you plan ahead. You can also probably save enough money to make a month happen. You can explain a month to your family, and you can leave for a month without losing friendships or completely forgetting who you were before you left.


Also, from a psychological perspective, a month is almost definitely long enough to get started on major life changes. Everyone argues about this, but a developing consensus seems to be that it takes about two months to fully ingrain a new habit into your life. We're not necessarily talking about picking up new habits here, but the point is that a focused month is a good start towards making some real changes in life.


Longer trips are great, like six month thru-hikes or round the world gap year trips. They can make for more significant disruptions when you really need a dramatic change. But that can be hard to pull off. Life doesn't often allow for an easy year away. Shorter trips can also be impactful. Some of the world's great pilgrimages, like the Dajia Mazu pilgrimage in Taiwan, take only a week or two. But speaking anecdotally, shorter periods are less reliable. They don't always give you the sense of separation that comes from a month away.


Does it need to be a month exactly? Honestly? No, probably not. If you can't take a month, apply GAP month principles to a shorter trip and it'll still be really impactful. If you go for longer than a month, the impact on your life might be even greater.


But a month is a reliably significant disruption. A month will probably work. It's not science, exactly, but it has grounding in history, psychology and personal experience.


So, in conclusion, give yourself the time and distance to allow for change.


When we’re talking about a month away in the GAP concept, what we’re really talking about is creating the space in your life for growth. We’re talking about creating disruption intentionally in your day to day life to shake yourself out of a stagnant state. We're also talking about using travel as an intervention when something disruptive has already happened, to put yourself into a situation where you can process it healthily.


It’s a quick avenue towards change, really - throw yourself into a foreign environment and force yourself to survive for a month. You’d think it’d be destabilizing and stressful. It is, and that’s the point.


However, it can also be an escape hatch from life. It’s a chance to briefly transport yourself to a different world so you can look back on the one you came from with a different perspective. It can give you the necessary distance to decide what you’re going to do with the shit that life has thrown at you.


A month away - it’s what I personally prescribe at a minimum. What you're aiming for is therapeutic disruption: travel as a significant intervention.


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