Soul Searching #12: tips for a sabbatical

Hello there! Welcome, this is the 12th episode of my Soul Searching series. The preceding 11 episodes can be found here:

  1. Introduction
  2. Values
  3. Energy
  4. Intuition
  5. Flow
  6. Personality Tests
  7. The human brain
  8. Non-duality
  9. Leadership
  10. Thinking vs doing
  11. Information

At the time of writing, it is the end of April 2021. That means I’ve been on a sabbatical for almost seven months now. I feel like it is drawing to a close. For this episode, I’d like to share how I approached my sabbatical, and give some tips for those of you who are also considering taking a sabbatical. Let’s begin with a description of my journey so far.

I started my (current ;-)) period of reflection in February 2020, and began my sabbatical in October 2020. During that half a year in 2020, I was still working at my job and my life was in full swing. My job, the added activity of self-reflection, and my attempts to relax were basically too much to deal with at the same time. So I quit my job, hoping that focusing my attention on self-reflection would get me to a good point quicker.

Now when I mention ‘self-reflection’, I mean a few things:

  • Thinking about past events and actions, trying to find root causes of, e.g., stress
  • Gathering information from books and podcasts, looking for tips to handle my situation
  • Talking to other people, again looking for tips and insights
  • Trying to find my core values, a way to manage personal energy, and forming ideas about intuition. (I also have a coach for this)
Photo by MIKHAIL VASILYEV on Unsplash.

I learned a great deal in the first four months (October 2020 – January 2021). Many of the topics that I looked at in that period, are now topics in this Soul Searching series. I spent much time processing all this information, often on my ‘vision board’. This is, perhaps, not the right word, but I use it to visualize things that I think about, because I don’t want to have all that information in my head. Over time, some structure started to appear. I was trying to create a framework for myself, that allows me (1) to make choices that are inline with my values, and (2) to pay attention my energy levels periodically and (3) to have a frame of reference for talking about my personal development with other people.

Somewhere around the beginning of February 2021 I felt that progress was drawing to a halt. I had written down important things, but it wasn’t complete. I could always find something that I wanted to do, but would not fit in the framework. At the same time, I was looking towards the future a bit more, so I decided to start up my working life again, and ‘play it by ear’.

Unfortunately, I was having sleepless nights again, so it seemed I was not quite there yet, and I slowed down again. During one of the talks with my coach, I described to him that I was taking walks regularly, and that I was listening to podcasts simultaneously. He asked me if I ever walked without doing something else. Well … no. So I tried it, and found it incredibly boring. I tried it again, this time by sitting on a bench for 15 minutes, with an alarm set. Wow, that was challenging. I kind of expected that, because of my small sojourn into the Human Brain (Soul Searching #7). After that, I started looking into how I process information (#11), and I recently put myself on a ‘information diet’. Let’s see how that works 😉

So as you see, my sabbatical period has been a bit messy and I could have used some tips before I started it. Without further ado, my tips for a successful sabbatical:

1. Check options with your employer

Taking a few months off is quite a normal thing to do these days, and many employers offer a way to do so. Ask your manager about the options, or check the collective employment agreement (‘CAO’, for my Dutch readers) for your company. I chose to take a radical step and quit my job, but that (of course) has consequences. For instance, I made sure that I could handle that financially, and that I was confident I could get a job again.

2. Determine why you want a sabbatical

Before you take time off, it is wise to think why you need that time for yourself. Do you simply want to relax? Tour the world? Change your career? Are you feeling stressed? Whatever the reason is, knowing it upfront will help you align the use of time. My reason for taking time off was that I felt stressed and drained of energy, and I had the idea that I wanted to learn some life lessons going into the future. If feeling stressed is your main reason, than I advise creating some time to read up on ‘stress’ and ‘burn-out’. There are specialists that can help with that, and working with them may be an option for you.

3. Find something to do

Your sabbatical has an objective, and you should use the time to get there. Of course, if your objective is ‘touring the world’, then this step is simple. But suddenly having a lot of time on your hands can be a challenge. There is no job that requires you to get up early, no spontaneous coffee breaks with colleagues, no train to catch, etc. Sleeping all day is suddenly a ‘thing you can do’. And, of course, all your friends are still working during the day, so there will be a lot of ‘me time’. Especially when you plan your sabbatical in the middle of a pandemic with many social restrictions 😉 Depending on your situation, it may help to list activities for your sabbatical. I spent my time on ‘personal development’ (walking, reading, listening podcasts, coaching sessions, networking) and ‘leisure’ (reading, visiting museums, helping friends, sports, ship modeling).

4. Think about the end of your sabbatical

At what point is your sabbatical going to end? A trip can be extended, personal development is never finished, and ‘relaxing’ can turn into ‘early retirement’. I don’t mean to suggest that you should plan this in detail, but thinking about it helps you to realize that a sabbatical is a break, and that there is a time after the sabbatical. For me, having a good level of energy is the criterion.

5. Consider the timing

Do you want to take time off in the summer or in the winter? Does it match with your partner’s schedule? Do you want school holidays during your ‘me time’? Will you finish that project at work? Many aspects of daily life affect you decision on when to start the sabbatical. When you made a decision, I advise to spread the word and put it in your agenda’s. That gives other people the time to adapt, and also helps you to get in the right mindset.

6. Do not make a plan

I found it nice to have the flexibility to adapt the use of my time to the organic development of my sabbatical. Of course, I keep an eye on the objective I described for myself, and on my energy levels. During my sabbatical, I simply determined on the fly what I wanted to do at a particular moment. Sometimes I didn’t know, or I felt stuck, and then I thought of my list of activities and got inspiration from that.

7. Consider asking for help

During my sabbatical, I spent a lot of time thinking. I enjoy thinking a lot, but I know it has downsides – one in particular. For you Data Science people out there: I’m guilty of overfitting the model of myself to the information I gather. Therefore, I often share my thoughts with other people: friends, a coach, ex-colleagues, people in my network. Their feedback and ideas keeps me fresh!

Well, these are my tips for a successful sabbatical. Thanks again for taking the time to read this, en I hope to see you next time! And, of course, don’t forget to connect on LinkedIn 🙂