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Lessons Learned From Taking a Sabbatical

(This article was published in our September, 2008 newsletter.)

On June 19th, 2008 I began a deliberate 3 month “sabbatical” (a term traditionally reserved for those who teach at universities who are allowed to take one year off every seven years but why not for others??). For my sabbatical, I decided to do almost no consulting work and use the time to renew, rest and play. I am now into my 3rd month of the sabbatical and I would love to share some thoughts about how it’s going. My hope is that each of you will be inspired to create some form of sabbatical in your lives on a regular basis as a result of my experience and sharing.

Original Intentions
I realized in January 08 after reviewing my financial situation and projected known income for the year that I could comfortably take off three months this year for my own renewal. For the six months leading up to the sabbatical, I excitedly allowed my mind to ponder the possibilities of having fewer obligations. More than anything, my expectations for this time off were that I would be able to allow myself to have a more leisurely lifestyle for the rest of my life (i.e. that the three months would deeply ingrain a new, more relaxed approach to my life’s work). I expected that I would want to “accomplish” certain goals or take on certain projects. As the start date approached, and many people asked me what I was going to do on my sabbatical, I realized that both my body and mind craved no schedule, no projects, and no obligations.

I can honestly say that it took me two months to really relax and feel that I could have no schedule or projects. Unfortunately, in my normal patterned way of feeling the need to achieve and do things, I did set up at least 4 or 5 major projects to “accomplish” in my time off. These included continuing to study and practice Spanish, landscaping my yard, visiting with many members of my family, organizing an 80th birthday party for my father, and attending to many forsaken fitness and health needs. I am pleased that I have succeeded in doing all of these things. Another part of me also realizes that I gave up the opportunity to be ok with doing “nothing”.

The Last Phase
As I enter the last two weeks of my scheduled sabbatical and am more relaxed, I am noticing that each day is full of surprises and delights. I am less self-critical of not accomplishing something or even if I am too busy. It is wonderful to have a very “loose” plan for the day, and know that nothing needs to happen. The days feel very long and full. Most days I do mediate and have a yoga practice, connect with a dear friend or family member, and have time to read and reflect. This is what I had hoped I would have for the full three months. I am confident that my last few weeks will be joyful and as productive or unproductive as they need to be. I also recognize it is time to start reaching out again and setting intentions for work. But most of all, I am pleased that I want to take more time off. I am not anxiously awaiting work to roll in.

Lessons Learned
If you would like to take a sabbatical of any length of time, here are some key points that I learned in my first ever experiment with sabbaticals:

  1. Review your finances and be sure you will not needlessly worry about the lack of income during your time off. It might mean you borrow money or take on an extra piece of work before beginning.
  2. Decide the primary intention of this time off.
  3. Let your family, colleagues and friends know well ahead of time your intentions for your sabbatical time and be very clear what level of communication and support you want from them during this time. If needed, coach them to be completely pleased with you taking time for yourself.
  4. Allow enough time (e.g., three to four weeks) before your sabbatical start date to wind down and finish up work projects that you have begun. I made the mistake of taking on new work up to the day before I began my sabbatical. And, the same applies to the end of your sabbatical. Allow yourself enough time (e.g., two to three weeks) to prepare for work and communicate with colleagues and clients on projects you will be involved with on your return. Please note that if your sabbatical is only two to four weeks long, you will need to adjust your winding down and gearing up times accordingly. It seems I needed about half the length of my sabbatical to begin to relax!
  5. Practice saying no to requests prior to starting your sabbatical and be pleasantly firm as things arise and entice you to come out of your sabbatical during your time off.
  6. Have a support team of people who will cheer you on when you say “no” to requests or obligations. These same people need to be consulted whenever you are tempted to say yes to obligations to help you remain firm in taking time for yourself. You might also find someone else to check your business email and voice mail regularly and flag anything urgent.
  7. Initially plan to have a place and/or people to visit early in your sabbatical time that will help you become more relaxed. I waited too long to do this. But when I did go to friends’ vacation home on Galiano Island off Vancouver in early August, the time and pace away from both my own home and workplace allowed me to reach new levels of “just being”.
  8. Include a variety of “pure joy” activities in your time off. For me, these included thinking about my garden, reading the newspaper, talking to beloved friends, ensuring I had healthy food in the house, and renewing my home yoga practice.

Please let me know, if you decide to take a sabbatical, what you hope to realize and how you intend to do it.