I recently wrapped up a seven week sabbatical where I completely detached from the trials and tribulations of the office. And it was awesome. It was a true summer vacation, reminiscent of my own childhood… creating magic and adventures for the four most important people in my life. It was a choice that my wife and I had deliberated and debated for the past several years, and finally this summer we decided to take the plunge. I will certainly do it again, I would recommend it to anyone, and I am dumbstruck that this choice was ever a difficult one to make in the first place.
I am fortunate that my company offers this policy, in which every five years an employee is eligible to take up to three months of unpaid leave. This really is a nice benefit, but one that ridiculously few employees take advantage of. On the surface, a key reason why many may choose not to sign up is the financial implication. Deciding to go without a paycheck for one to three months is no trivial matter of course─ but with some planning and preparation this is a hurdle that can be overcome. And while the dollars and cents might be the most tangible hurdle, they are by no means the biggest one. A second obstacle is fear. Fear of being judged by others, fear of being seen as lazy or undedicated, fear of losing a status or equity that one has built… this fear is as much subconscious as conscious and can certainly stop a sabbatical in its tracks. The third is a loss of perspective to one’s true priorities. Clearly a career is important, not only in yielding financial security but also in providing a sense of accomplishment and personal achievement. But is it the most important facet of one’s life? If anyone were to ask me my top priority in life, my answer is simple─ my family. And while I know this to be true without a doubt, do my actions and the ways in which I invest my time reflect that prioritization? The muscle memory of the day to day grind of the office can become so engrained, so automatic, that a decision to reinvest even a small amount of that time back to the family or to another top priority can seem like a radical idea.
So why did I personally choose to take this sabbatical and to take it now? One of the more fascinating elements of this experience for me has been in hearing the theories from friends, coworkers, and curious others as to my motivation. No… I am not sick, disabled, or dying, but thank you for the concern. No… I am not so disgruntled with my career / company / management, that I decided to “make a statement” by taking an extended leave. No… I am not working on my “Plan B”, spending my days networking, going on job interviews, writing a mystery novel, etc. Again, why must the decision to take a sabbatical be the result of some extraordinary chain of events? I have spent 16 years (192 months!) on the job, so taking one or two off mustn’t be so dramatic.
One simple reason I did decide to take the leap was that this just felt like the right time to step away and to take a rest. We all work a lot of hours and expend a lot of mental and physical energy, not just in the office but out of the office as well, and I decided to invest this time now to recharge and refresh. That is one reason but not the main one. The main reason was to give my full and undivided attention to my family and to my kids. Each of my kids is at an age where they still actually want to spend time with me and also still think that I am cool (it’s all relative, of course), so I wanted to give them the gift of time. When they said, “Dad, can we do X, Y, or Z today?”, I wanted the freedom to just give them a “Yes” without hesitation.
And what did we set out to do? What goals did we strive to accomplish? Nothing. Well, at least “doing” was not the focus of this break… the focus was instead on “being”. Being at rest. Being present. Being engaged. Being happy. Being silly. Being free. Don’t get me wrong, we were incredibly busy and had an “adventure” each and every day… whether it was camping out in the backyard, learning to water ski on a lake, playing catch at the park, rising early for some fresh donuts, going to an amusement park, etc… but these were not goals to accomplish but rather moments and experiences to share. Our focus was not on “what we do” but rather on “just being”.
In sharing this experience, I want to pass on the steps that I took and that I would recommend for anyone setting out to take some time, whether it be months or days, detached from work and invested in life.
7 Steps to a Successful Sabbatical:
- Grant Yourself Permission. The first and most important step is to give yourself the license to step away. The world will not end. Your team will survive. You ultimately will successfully re-enter the workforce. It is too easy to look at time away from the office as a cost. Rather look at it as an investment and invest the time in what matters most to you. And not only will this investment pay off at home, but it will in the office as well. Countless studies highlight the benefits of rest and escape on creativity and innovation in the workplace, so an investment in a break from your career will not only have a short term benefit on you, but a long-term one on the work itself.
- Clean Your Plate. As amazing as my 7 weeks away from the office turned out to be, the two weeks preceding the sabbatical were some of the most intense of my career. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but a deliberate choice to clear my inbox (I actually left with zero messages!), to clear my calendar, and to clear my clutter, so that I could escape with a clear mind. I invested the time in finishing what I needed to finish, but more importantly in setting up my team around me who so graciously stepped up to take on my role as I stepped away.
- Let it Go. Once I detached, I stayed detached. I removed my email and calendar from my phone, said good-bye to my co-workers, and disconnected entirely for the 51 days. Of course, there were temptations along the way to check in on a pet project, a critical deadline, or the state of my team. But in choosing to vacate the office, I chose to resist that temptation (which got easier each day) and to fully immerse myself in the sabbatical.
- Be… Don’t Do. I touched on this earlier, but I chose not to focus this break on accomplishing goals, but on being happy. There were no measurables, success criteria, or checklists… just a daily commitment to have a fun adventure and to enjoy each other’s company. And with that philosophy, we not only created a life’s memory of experiences but also a culture of contentedness and relaxation.
- Just Say Yes. In life, particularly with our kids, we have to say “No” a lot. There are so many things to do and there is never enough time to do them all. Once you remove 50+ hours a week of work, there is suddenly more time to say “Yes”. Take advantage of it and go off the beaten path, walk the long way, or have that extra scoop of ice cream. This simple three letter word can open more doors and create more innovative experiences than you can imagine.
- Eat, Drink, and Be Merry. The quest for a healthy mind and soul, did not necessitate a quest for a healthy body. This sabbatical was not about conserving and dieting, it was about indulging and celebrating. Have a surprise big meal with family and friends. Have ice cream for breakfast. Enjoy a beer (or two) in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon. This is not gluttony but merely enjoying the little pleasures of life, without guilt, with the people you care about.
- Stop and Smell the Roses. When taking an extended break, there are inevitably some quiet moments where the world slows down into a tranquil meanderance. Take these moments to reflect on how amazing the big things in life are, and force yourself to laugh at how much of our stress and drama is the result of self-inflicted overreaction to small stuff. This sabbatical helped to remind me how lucky I truly am, to celebrate all that life has given me, and to return to work with a more grounded perspective.
I wrote this not to rub in the fact that I had a seven week vacation (although it was amazing!), but rather to encourage each of you to find sabbatical moments in your own lives. Maybe it is an extra long weekend, a night where the usually open computer stays closed, or an impromptu lunch at the park with a family or friend. We all work hard and even play hard, and deserve a moment, an evening, or a stolen vacation to relax and to recharge. Steal… no INVEST some time to enjoy the important people and moments in your life, and boldly give yourself a license to rest.