What to do on sabbatical, and my three-month experience
A sabbatical is a rest or break from work – a voluntary decision to take a “time-out” from employment. Common reasons for taking sabbatical are to study, travel, volunteer, raise children, or start a side business. In my case, I was depleted, and my batteries needed a recharge. I made a hard decision to leave my start-up of five years. The timing was right – I had built myself out of the business and made myself obsolete. But, I was burned out. A sabbatical meant rediscovering that hibernating entrepreneurial energy. It meant stepping forward into the next adventure.
In a 2018 Deloitte workplace survey of 1,000 full-time professionals, 87 percent say they have passion for their current job, but 77 percent of professionals have experienced burnout at that job. Passionate employees can be burned out too. Burnout can lead to unmanageable stress. A 2017 PLOS One meta-analysis suggests burnout is a significant predictor of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, gastrointestinal and respiratory problems, and even death below the age of 45. Psychologically, burnout shows as insomnia, symptoms of depression, and use of psychotropic drugs and anti-depressants.
Taking sabbatical begets mental space, creative freedom, and directional clarity. It is a gift you give to yourself, and it connects you more deeply to yourself. Much of our lives are spent working, and we often forget simply to live. My goal was to rebalance my sense of work and life. I wanted guidance from others to discover how. I was fortunate to meet with over 70 founders, executives, investors, and leaders across dozens of industries, ten US states, and four countries. After sharing my story, I asked, “How would you spend a sabbatical? Or, if you have, what did you do?” How had these leaders found that balance for themselves?
The responses were amazing. Many of these top leaders identified with and empathized with my position. They shared stories of their professional growth and the hard decisions they made. They spoke of the trade-offs, the opportunity costs, the sacrifices, and the regrets. Some said they worked all of their lives and had not taken such a break. Some said this time would be golden and not to be taken for granted.
The advice converged on nine simple tenets for a sabbatical, specifically geared toward recovering from burnout and relaunching in the future.
These tenets can be applied to a sabbatical of any duration. I am extremely grateful for the means to take three months off. Not everyone has the same opportunity. But, this guidance is universal: how anyone can spend their excess time to recoup from burnout. Whether you have one week, one day, or one hour to step away, you may find yourself restored, reconnected, and refreshed by following these nine tenets.
Nine tenets for your restorative sabbatical
- Spend time with those closest to you. Be a great father, significant other, brother, son, and friend. Have fun together. Play. Create memorable experiences. So often, we borrow time against those closest to us to work on our careers. Bask in this time with them. Use this time to invest it back.
- Build a strong foundation of good habits. You have the time to work on yourself. Deepen your meditation practice. Optimize sleep, diet, and exercise. Build this healthy foundation today; it will be the platform on which you launch your vision.
- Mentally disconnect. Turn off your phone, texts, and email. Stop taking meetings. Embrace the space in between. Be comfortable with the uncertainty of the next step. Get more comfortable with boredom. Deeply reflect and introspect. There is no need to “achieve” anything in this time.
- Welcome new opportunities. Say yes! Accept invitations to do something different. Do things different than your status quo.
- Travel. Get out of town. Go get lost somewhere. Visit an unfamiliar neighborhood. Travel exposes you to new experiences, and the brain must rewire it’s previous mental model to cope with that new experience. Travel literally changes your brain.
- Follow your passions. Find the things that pull you and do them. A favorite quote: “Passion and drive are not the same at all. Passion pulls you toward something you cannot resist. Drive pushes you toward something you feel compelled or obligated to do.” — Randy Komisar in The Monk and the Riddle: The Art of Creating a Life While Making a Living.
- Look in the mirror. Dig deep to understand what makes you, you. Find valuable perspectives on your key strengths and competencies. Review these with trusted peers and mentors to validate. Most people believe they are self-aware, but self-awareness is a truly rare quality. Only 10-15% of people are self-aware.
- Help others. Meet people everywhere you go. Get introduced to people you otherwise would never have met. Help others as much as possible, even if you can only do a little bit. Everyone has a dream for themselves; help others get even just one step closer.
- Read, read, read. Read books outside of your norm. Expose yourself to books you may never have read. Put a pause on reading books on technology, business, and management. Start reading books on the sciences, history, great literature, and fiction.
So, how did it go?
Each day, I would pack a backpack and lunch, head into the city, grab a coffee, and spend the day journaling, thinking, and working on side projects. I reflected on my past experiences and thought about the future. I’d take a break, have lunch, change locations, open my journal or laptop, and keep going. At the end of each day, I would return to my apartment, eat dinner, and wind down. I did this for three weeks straight.
Sound familiar? That’s right – I caught myself replacing my typical work day with this new practice. I felt this unexplained need to get out and be productive, to have something to show for my time. This was contrary to the purpose: to rebalance the sense of work and life. To really grow, I had to let go of this urge. To let go of the paradigm deeply rooted in “doing,” and to shift to one of “being.” It actually took effort to not be “productive.”
Deepening the practice, I disconnected from phone calls, texts, emails, and meetings for eight weeks straight. I focused on improving performance in every habit that matters to me. I slept more. I meditated more frequently. I read eight new books. I exercised more regularly. I spent more time with my son, partner, parents, and brother. I spent two-weeks in silent meditation at a retreat at Yogaville in central Virginia. I traveled to three new places: Santa Fe, Thailand, and Cambodia.
Over time, no longer did I feel I had to “achieve” something each day. It felt liberating. I accepted each day as it came, and what happened on each day, happened. It wasn’t about keeping the schedule on track; it was about not needing a track. There was no nagging to-do list. No worrying about seeing hundreds of emails after vacation. No meeting to rush to. Nothing to be running late for.
The experience was transformative. I felt more present in each moment. There was no urge to check the phone. I felt an increased appreciation for nature and beauty. I paid more attention to others, actively struck conversation with those around me, and became more helpful. Thoughts became less rampant and carried me away less frequently. There was more emotional space to easily manage stressful situations. I was less hard on myself and practiced more self-compassion. Every day I felt well-rested, had more energy, and was more alert. And, most importantly, I felt happy.
Sabbaticals can lead to a deeper connection with oneself and a better understanding of what you want out of life. It is an extremely effective way to help yourself, so you can increase your capacity to help others. One of my favorite quotes is, “Put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others.” To build a temple, one must start with a strong foundation. Your foundation is your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. Only then you can be a pillar for others.
Acknowledgements: If you and I spoke about this topic in early 2019, I am grateful for you. You helped shape this important step in my career. You know who you are. Thank you.