Take time out to think.

A little over a decade ago, I was feeling particularly anxious at work. I had so much on my plate and there always seemed like more to do. I was feeling stressed and almost scared because I felt responsible to do the best work I could and accomplish everything. I also had a baby and needed to leave work a little early each day to pick her up from daycare, so my working hours were limited and I came in earlier each day. I was remarkably good at juggling it all, but I was definitly begining to freak out.

At this time, I had a fateful meeting with Pete Amico. Pete was a six-sigma blackbelt and a marketing executive at Intuit at the time. We were meeting to discuss some research work that I was doing. In the meeting, I was stressing out because I was trying to figure out how to fit that into my already busy schedule. Pete, in all of his wisdom, looked at me and sat back. He pulled out a sheet of paper and wrote 3 things on it, then handed it to me. That paper said

1. Say No.

2. Keep Standards Reasonable.

3. Take Time Out for Thinking.

I had that paper taped up in my cube for the next decade, until the paper had yellowed and the ink had faded. I will NEVER forget those things, though. Here’s why:

Say No.
Here’s the thing. I tend to be one of those people who really wants to help. So, I say yes. The problem is, it isn’t really possible to do everything. In order to be at my best, it is important for me to make choices and say no to things I could do, and even things that I really should do. Saying yes to everything means that I have way too much going on to handle well, which brings us to rule 2.
Keep standards reasonable
I have high standards for myself. I tend to hold all of the work that I do to this high standard. That’s great when I can pull it off, but not when I am trying to juggle multiple things. It isn’t possible to do “great” on everything. I have to prioritize what is absolutely critical to do really well, and what will work if I just do okay. To do that, I need to follow rule 3.
Take time out for thinking
When there is a ton of stuff on my plate (because of my tendency to say yes) and I need to put in a lot of time to do it right (because of my tendency to hold myself to unreasonably high standards), I find myself with no time for thinking. Thinking, though, is critical to produce high quality work and to figure out what my priorities are.

Although I strive to apply all 3 of these rules to my life, sometimes it is not enough because I kind of skimp on #3. That’s okay for a while, but it builds a cumulative debt and ultimately can lead to burn-out. So, after 10 years of taking moments for thinking, I took a six-month sabbatical where I focused entirely on being present and reconnecting to myself and my purpose.

I found that the sabbatical (break in my work-life) was just as transformative to my life as earlier sabbaticals that I’d taken. Then, I started hearing about others who were taking sabbaticals, and it seemed like more and more people were heading down this path. I wondered why. I speculated that the “always on” nature of work-life today was taking a toll. I spoke with people who seemed exhausted, who’s family life was being affected by their late-night meetings and early commutes. This was particularly pronounced in the tech industry, and most apparent in the San Francisco Bay Area.

I decided to do a research project to collect more stories and understand what helps, and what gets in the way, for people who want to take, or DO take, sabbaticals. I interviewed 35 people over the course of a month and was amazed at how eager people were to share their experiences. I heard about different approaches to sabbaticals, different challenges that people faced in planning, taking and returning from the sabbaticals, and all kinds of things that surprised people along the way. Of those who DID take sabbaticals, most are hoping to make them a regular part of their lives. Some people already had.

After analyzing the research, I decided that one of the ways I could help people who were thinking (or dreaming) about taking sabbaticals was to create a course — a workshop, really — for Designing Your Sabbatical. I’ve pulled together stories, considerations, possibilities, and best-practices. I’ve woven in challenges and workarounds. And, of course, I’m supporting it all with some 1:1 coaching. I’m piloting this course in January, and I am hoping to develop concrete tools and resources that can help people through the experience.

Because everyone needs to take time out for thinking.