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Sabbaticals: We Should All Take a Month Off

The gist: Sabbaticals make you more productive and motivated. But few people can actually take one. Here are some ideas for mini-sabbaticals you can implement.


Every year, I pick a month and stop working. At least in the traditional sense. All the normal things I do to keep my business running either get put on auto-pilot or just get ignored.

Instead of writing or training, I spend time taking long walks, taking even longer notes, meeting with friends, and creating a plan to answer this question:

“What will make Riskology great in the next 12 months?”

This is a practice I started  a few years ago. It sounds lazy to people who pride themselves on working harder no matter what, but it’s been one of the most productive, profitable, and all-around beneficial things I’ve added to my routine.

If you work a normal job without a sabbatical program, this all might seem impossible for you. But I have some ideas that will help.

Here are the important things I do during my sabbatical that allow me to make big strides in my life and business every year and, of course, a few ideas for how to implement a similar system if you don’t run your own business or can’t just disappear for a month like I do.

First: Why a Sabbatical?

Here’s a funny piece of data. In today’s modern world, we work less than at any other time in history.1 Yet, we’re more stressed than ever and feel like we’re constantly falling behind.

The reason? Communication technology has infiltrated our daily lives. We spend less time at work, but we spend more time interacting with work when we’re away from the desk.

In the US, we do a terrible job providing people with useful free time.

Two weeks off is standard for anyone starting out in their career and, if you’re lucky, you might get to five or six by the time you retire.

But if you try to take more than a week off all at once, you’ll get a raised eyebrow from your boss and probably your coworkers, too.

One week isn’t long enough to disconnect from your normal life to make meaningful changes. All the work that piles up when you’re gone for a week is still there when you get back… and you know it. So, you take time off and that time just stresses you out more.

But when you take a month (or longer) off, problems that come up in week one often solve themselves by week two or three.

And all the work that’s piled up can now be looked at with fresh eyes when you return. It’s easy to see what’s important and needs to be dealt with and what can be ignored, perhaps, forever.

That’s the kind of separation you need to make big strides and important changes. And that’s what a sabbatical provides.

What to Do on Your Sabbatical

There isn’t any one right way to do a sabbatical. The only way to mess up is to keep doing what you normally do and think you’re on one.

A sabbatical is about removing yourself from your ingrained habits and your daily grind to:

  1. Improve your life / work / whatever.
  2. Focus on something new and interesting.
  3. Get some relaxation.

As long as you spend your time doing one or all of those things—and not cheating by keeping tabs on work while you’re away—you’ll come out of it more motivated and more productive.

It gives you a new perspective.

I spend my annual sabbatical focusing on how I can improve my life and my work. Like I mentioned above, the main question I ask is, “What is going to make Riskology great in the next year?”

With the daily tasks of the business out of the way, I have a lot of space to think about the answer from a new perspective. There’s no pressure for an immediate answer because there’s nothing that’s held up by it.

Here are the smaller questions I ask myself throughout the month and spend at least an hour each day pondering:2

  1. What went well this year?
  2. What didn’t go so well?
  3. What did I accomplish that I wasn’t expecting to?
  4. How can I make what I’m already doing even better?
  5. What are some things I’m not doing that I wish I was?
  6. What do I need to stop doing?

I tend to ask the questions in that order, but I might skip around, too. Answering one can lend insight into how to answer another.

However you spend your time on your own sabbatical, you’re doing it right as long as you’re doing something different. Many of my silly systems that make my work better have come from a sabbatical.

What If I Can’t Take Time Off?

Taking a sabbatical sounds great until you realize you don’t live in a utopian dream world.

You have a job, family, other responsibilities that mean you can’t just disappear for a month to daydream about what you want your life to look like.

Hope is not lost! It’s still possible to work the important parts of a sabbatical into an imperfect schedule.

There are lots of ways to do it, and the way that’s right for you depends on a number of variables. The most important part is this:

Clear an hour each day to do nothing but relax and / or think about what you want to change.

This is closer to how I take my annual sabbatical, too. I don’t actually disappear into the woods for a month3. My life is busy just like yours and I manage several different businesses that can’t be completely neglected for a month.

So, I make it a priority to put at least one hour on my schedule each day devoted to answering those questions from the previous section. I might spend more time on it, but having the hour scheduled ensures I do at least that much.

Finding even an hour each day can be tough. This is the thing about a sabbatical, though. If you want it to work, you must have the courage to set some things that feel important aside. Distancing yourself from the work you’re evaluating is critical.

Remember: You’re setting them aside now so you can return and make them even better.

There are two ways to do this:

  1. Set aside the most important thing you do. The most important thing you do probably takes a lot of your time, so eliminating it for a month should clear plenty of space. Not doing the thing you’re trying to improve while you’re trying to improve it makes the process a lot more enjoyable, too.
  2. Set aside several unimportant things. This is also an acceptable solution and it has a side benefit. When your sabbatical is up, you might realize you don’t need to do those things at all anymore. Ta-da! More time for a future sabbatical!

Whatever method you choose, use your time wisely. Don’t try to sneak work into it.

If you promise yourself an hour each day, use that hour even if it means laying on your back in the living room listening to records or going for long, meandering walks. It’s all part of the process.

Footnotes

  1. I’m talking specifically about butt-in-seat hours. Or, if you go back further, you could call them butt-in-field hours.
  2. I normally do this in December to overlap with my annual review process. Also, there’s something motivating about a new year that inspires change. But you can do this any time of year.
  3. Though it’s on my list of things to try.