What I Learned on My Sabbatical

This summer I took some time off. I didn’t come to any grand conclusions about life, but regained my resolve to find balance in life and connect to people more.

For most of July and August, I didn’t work. It was a sabbatical of sorts, but not as long or productive as what academics do. A friend asked me how my “walk-about” went, but it was more of a stay-about. Besides a family trip to see the eclipse (amazing) and hike in the Great Smoky Mountains, I stayed at home. I spent time with the family, getting stuff done around the house, or doing, well, nothing.

My goal was to stop.

I wanted to create some mental distance from the things I obsess over — i.e., all things climate, clean economy, and sustainable business. And to a large extent, because global news and national politics deeply impact those areas, I avoided the news as well. I gave myself some time to not worry about, at the macro level, the state of the global climate or our (apparently) fragile democracy.

It was a great relief to stop feeling like I should use every free minute for something productive. (←Tweet this)

And at the micro/personal level, it was a great relief to stop feeling like I should use every free minute — on a flight, during the weekend, waiting in line — for something productive (like getting some damn email out of the way). Seriously, just releasing myself from my in-box for weeks was wondrous. (I did this by (a) putting an out-of-office message that said I would never see the email, and (b) having my assistant as backup. I recognize that not everyone has the luxury of the latter for help, but anyone can act as your emergency backup. You can always give important people — bosses, family, clients — your cell).

So, while my purpose was not to come to any grand conclusions about life, I now have a month’s distance from the time off. I have a few take-aways.

Take regular breaks over all time scales

Consistently commit to “sabbaticals”, or breaks, especially in stressful times (which I think many agree is now). Every few years or so, taking some weeks or months away from your work would be good. But I recognize that an extended break is an incredible luxury and doesn’t fit everyone’s job or lifestyles. But at least annually, regular vacations — and real ones where you stop everything — are critical.

And even weekly, take time off from thinking and worrying about your work and the world. There’s a reason so many cultures and religions have break days. After all, the word “sabbatical” comes from the word “Sabbath,” or rest. In Spanish, Saturday is “sabado.” We should listen to the etymology gods.

Daily breaks are important too. These times need to be free from guilt that you should be doing something else. Whatever practices of meditation or consciousness you can create, do it. For some, it is actual meditation (I’ve been sitting still daily for a few years now). For others, it could be cooking or running or anything that takes you out of your head. For me, this summer, it was tennis. It’s very hard to think about the world when a ball keeps coming at you every couple of seconds.

Take breaks from the news

It’s important that you stop looking at what’s going on in the world during these breaks. In my work, I’m trying to help build a thriving world and tackle overwhelming issues like climate change. It’s a pretty stressful time for those of us in this space. There is good news of course, but every day there’s something that happens (usually in the U.S.) that’s a gut punch to my values or strikes fear. It’s important to get away from the ups and downs. To really avoid the world, you have to turn off your technology…

Take breaks from being connected

I mostly failed on this one during my time off. I did remove Twitter and Facebook from my phone, and I plan to keep them off. But I still managed to use my phone a lot — reading, using GPS, gaming. But during my family vacation week, we took a phone sabbatical for a day. It was fantastic. The day was so much more human: we had to, you know, talk to each other, even while driving for hours. It seems like it’s becoming a skill, and a top priority for mental health, to break the phone habit. I recommend the app Moment to track your time on your phone. You’ll likely discover that you pick that thing up a shocking number of times and spend hours on it, every day.

I’m resolved to lessen the tethers to technology and strengthen the ones to people. (← Tweet this.)

Take breaks from yourself

I’m trying to spend more time worrying about what someone else in the world needs. Right now, it could be something as simple as raising awareness about the crisis in Puerto Rico (here’s a list of ways to donate). But we can also focus, regularly, on others in our immediate family. (I know, the parents of small or medium sized children reading this are thinking, “Isn’t every day focused on what the kids need?”). Taking some time on the weekend or during the evening to focus solely on what my wife or one of my sons needs is rewarding. And it’s a respite from my own stresses and issues.

Finally, two smaller, mini-realizations…

Stay out of the comments sections

Even when I’m back connected — and I need to be — I plan to spend close to zero time reading comments in any public media. The replies in Twitter can get profoundly unproductive (and now people can get nasty with 280 characters — oh, joy). Caveat: Some readers have pointed out that a “curated” digital space can be really productive. That’s true, and if you have a smaller circle of friends you trust on Facebook, then the conversations can be a good experience. But I’m talking about the general comment sections on public media like Twitter or any news site — those dialogs out in the wild world are ugly.

Clean up something

On my sabbatical, the only “productive” thing I did was tackle some home projects. And then, near the end, I started a few administrative projects…but only in bite-sized chunks. Getting some control over some nagging area — a bit at a time so it doesn’t drag you from the higher value work you need to do — feels great.

For example, I’ve been cleaning up some old filing cabinets by grabbing a couple files a day and seeing if I still need them (there’s not much you need physically anymore). And I started going thru my entire contact database. I’m deleting some older contacts, and figuring out who I need better contact info on. In batches of 15 or so contacts per day (less than 10 minutes), it will take me a year to explore my 5000 names. But this list is an important asset, and I haven’t tended to it well enough. It also feels good to remind myself of my personal connections — old friends and colleagues I should talk to more.

Ok, that’s about it. As I said, no grand conclusions. But I’m resolved to lessen the tethers to technology and strengthen the ones to people. And I’m building more rhythms of work and breaks into my days, weeks, and years.

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Fyi, I tweet here as “AndrewWinston”

Andrew Winston advises many of the world’s leading companies on how to navigate and profit from solving humanity’s biggest challenges. He is a globally recognized speaker and writer on business strategy and mega-trends. Andrew is the author of The Big Pivot and co-wrote the international bestseller Green to Gold.