Aren’t we all just beautiful flowers, in the process of opening

How to design your wild and precious time off

Part 1 in a series of posts about designing new life chapters

Last December I left my job of almost seven years to take a year off. Inspired by Stefan Sagmeister and feeling an undeniable pull to take a break from Monday-Friday office life and corporate culture, I hoped to give myself the freedom and space to see what could come out of a year. I planned extensively for it — I gave my boss a year’s notice, put my finances in order, and told everyone I knew what I was doing it (to hold me accountable).

I now get lots of questions.

“Do you get bored?”

“What do you do every day?”

“Is there something you’ve always wanted to do that you can finally do?”

“Are you traveling?”

(No/Lots of things!/Not really/Sometimes)

“How do you know you’re being productive?”

(I don’t, and that’s ok! More on that later.)

“I’m secretly thinking about doing this/am already doing it. Can you tell me everything?”

Yes, I can.

Being a designer, I have put a lot of thought into structuring my time. I approached the year as a design project, figuring: My life is my most important project. Why not apply methods that work for my professional projects to my personal ones?

I started like I start all professional projects: with research. I spoke to several friends who have done similar things to hear what worked for them. One friend gave me the advice to name what I’m doing so that I know how to talk about it. How do I refer to my year?

It’s not a sabbatical, because I’m not returning to my old job. It’s not retirement, because working will always be a part of my life; This year, I’ve just shifted so that paid work will fill closer to 10% of my time rather than 70%. It’s not traveling, since I’m mostly staying put. Some people like the term funemployment, but to me that sounds too frivolous. I settled on: Exploratory Time.

With a name chosen and advice from friends absorbed, I thought about my own best practices for life management, and created five design principles for approaching the year.

5 Principles for Exploratory Time

1. Be grateful.

It’s rare to have the ability to take time off from a traditional job. You’ve likely worked hard for it. Enjoy it. Being able to find meaningful work by taking time off is a luxury and a privilege — most people do not have that option. We are in the positions we are in partly because of our own efforts and choices, but also because of the sheer chance of what culture, family, and body we were born into. Ride the ups and downs of your journey and learn from them.

2. Don’t feel guilty about not being “productive” all the time.

American society places so much pressure on “being productive” to the extent that we often feel guilty whenever we are relaxing. I often hear people say: “I was so bad this weekend — I didn’t do anything.” Why do we have to feel bad about ourselves when we’re not achieving something concrete? Who’s to say that lying outside on a hammock watching the birds isn’t productive? Or that zoning out on the couch, resting your body and mind, isn’t valuable? Our obsession with productivity and screens does not allow us to be “bored,” which is often the space where we can daydream and be creative.

Other cultures, especially in Europe, value non-work time much more than we Americans do, and their vacation and family leave policies reflect that. We should learn from them. When we’re sick, we should stay home and get better. When we want to do something just for the sake of doing it, we shouldn’t feel bad about it.

My first month of non-work I spent almost exclusively sleeping and watching TV. (I think I finished Netflix.) I had some guilt initially, but then realized: I had spent the last seven years multi-tasking to a crazy extent, attending 10+ meetings a day. If I needed to take one month to reset myself, it would be okay. I knew I would be going back to being a productive member of society soon enough.

3. Set a budget.

You’re taking a break from earning regular income, so invest the time upfront to plan your finances. As much as is possible for you, put money aside to cover your exploratory time— both standard life expenses (rent) and indulgences (photography class). After you set your budget, try not to think about it more than once a month. You want to protect yourself from stress so you can spend your time being open to possibilities. I schedule a recurring time each month on my calendar to check in on finances. If you’ve never made a budget, here’s a template.

4. Trust the process.

When you start a project that has an unknown outcome, you typically reach a point where you’re totally lost and stuck. You feel like a fraud. You’ve lost your mojo. Jad Abumrad, one of the creators of the Radiolab podcast, calls this the German Forest. The first time you embark on a major creative project and you reach the “German Forest ,” it’s terrifying. But, after many projects, you realize: This is just a consistent part of the creative process. It’s actually a good place to be — it’s when you feel most lost that you can find a creative new way to ‘found’. You always get through the stuck part. And you learn to trust the process. It usually leads you somewhere incredible that you never could have predicted.

5. Create light structure.

Most of us have spent our entire lives in a system: the education and professional systems to name two. We have been trained to thrive within structures and rules, so it makes sense that having completely free time can feel stressful. How can you avoid spending your time feeling anxious?

Creating light structure is a great way to give some focus to your time, and it should be as light as you need it to be. Perhaps you “assign” yourself one project to spend time on once a week. Or you create several overall goals to work on over a longer period of time. Next: In my next post, I share three methods of creating light structure that were helpful for me.

If this was helpful or interesting to you, please click the heart. When you do that it actually goes right to my real heart!


Notes:

  • The title of this post comes from The Summer Day by Mary Oliver.
  • Photo: The flower is from the botanical gardens in Kauai.
  • Thank you to Natalie Foster and all of the other wise women who gave me advice about their own exploratory time.