Reflections on My First Failed Small-Scale Sabbatical

Austin L. Church
February 19, 2018
Share this post

Last year at Tribe Conference, I met Sean McCabe, and later, when we reconnected on Skype, Sean introduced me to what he calls “small-scale sabbaticals.” I was intrigued, and I committed to taking off every seventh week in 2018.You should know I’m not very good at taking time off. I’d be thrilled to kick email out of my life forever, but I enjoy accomplishment. I won’t pretend that enjoyment is entirely pure. There’s probably some streak of compulsion in there somewhere, some need to perform, prove myself, and earn love and admiration.At the same time, I love to start things, create things, make something out of nothing. I’m always kicking around any number of ideas. Once I finished the design for my Fofi cards and printed them, I moved on to my Medium Challenge, 100 blog posts in 100 days. After I finished my first children’s book Grabbling, I shifted my focus to building a course called Freelancing Fundamentals.In short, I’ve made a habit of making things.I also enjoy business. To make people’s lives better with a service or product and to receive money in return—that is an addictive game. It is Monopoly with real money.In many respects going on vacation feels like turning parts of myself off.Of course, I could make an argument that going on a hike is accomplishing something. And I could argue that time away, margin, white space, is a reliable (if counterintuitive) way to get clarity about your business problems and opportunities.Answering an email from an old friend while on vacation should be permissible, yes? Though running is the antithesis of baking on a beach, it should also be permissible if it makes me feel good, right?Therein lies the rub.

What is a vacation? What is a sabbatical?

For some people going for a run would ruin the mood, and for others like myself, it brings peace and perspective.The beauty of taking a vacation is thus in the eye of the beholder, but that truth doesn’t make for a very satisfying conclusion.As I went through the week, I boiled down sabbaticals to one simple rule: prioritizing the people, projects, and pursuits I enjoy for their own sake, and avoiding anything that could be construed as “productivity.”I failed. Let’s just get that confession over with.I answered too many emails, and against my better judgment I jumped in to help a couple of clients.Granted, I had a good attitude about this mode shift, but I knew I was cheating myself of fully unplugging.My clients wouldn’t have even been upset. I told them I was going to be out of the office, and I had people on call who could stand in for me.

So why did I still jump in when I spent time and strategy preparing my people for my absence?

Habit.I’ve spent a decade not fully unplugging and not fully unwinding. I suppose there’s a dopamine hit in there somewhere: I get to be on vacation and then step in and be the hero for half an hour and then go back to being on vacation.Only, it takes several days of uninterrupted unproductivity for me to really relax into it, and every time I don my cape and fly to my inbox, I reset the clock.What we’re really talking about here is mindspace. What are our minds occupied with? Even answering only a handful of emails can cause us to be preoccupied with the very problems and opportunities from which we hoped to take a break.In my experience thinking about those situations more, ruminating on them more, doesn’t bring breakthrough.Did you ever blank out during a test only for the answers that evaded you to spring back into your mind as soon as you walked out of the room? Would sitting longer at your desk, concentrating harder as your anxiety and frustration mounted, have produced the answers?Probably not.Frustrated as you might have been with your forgetfulness, you had to leave the room and relinquish control. The bell-ringing forced you to hand in your incomplete test and change your environment—that is, go to your next class.Sure enough, the name of the 37th president came to mind. You curse. Why couldn’t you remember that fact when it really counted?When you change your mindset and your environment—when the pressure is off, so to speak—you will often get the answers you seek.By not thinking about some thorny client and by going on a bike ride, you make more “progress.” While you’re off having fun, your heart and mind come back into alignment. Back in the office the next week, you realize that you were being egotistical and that the most expedient remedy is an apology.Or you realize that fear and a scarcity mindset caused you to hold onto a failing relationship. You need to help your client hire your replacement.You don’t get these bursts of clarity or the confidence that comes from it if you’re chained to your inbox.

How to take a sabbatical? Commit to unproductivity.

Unproductivity is the unstrategy that can help you achieve unusual breakthrough in your life and business.For a decade I’ve been out of the habit of truly unplugging. It’s no coincidence that Ash Wednesday happened during my first small-scale sabbatical.This year, I am giving up anxiety for Lent.The opposite of an irrational fear of bad things that might happen is a proactive faith that good things will happen.The most tangible symbol of that faith is taking a true vacation and effectively entrusting your business, your dreams, and your finances to a good God: “I know you will take care of this while I’m gone. In fact, you’re better qualified than I am.”Yes, I have passion for my work, but that passion isn’t to blame for my not taking time off. No, the leaky faucet of anxiety at the back of my mind is what compels me to open my inbox, to check in quickly.These seemingly innocuous meddling deprived me of the true gift of my first small-scale sabbatical: Unproductivity renews our spirits.Trees don’t produce fruit by striving, and we don’t give birth to our most significant dreams by running pellmell from one task to the next.

What does it mean to take a sabbatical from work?

When my next sabbatical starts six weeks from now, I’m going to delete the mail app from my phone. I’m going to leave my MacBook at my office.If I want to write, I’ll use my iPad Pro.(I never set up email on it and bought a keyboard for it so that I could use it for writing while on vacation! But did I use it last week? No.)One of the differences between fruitfulness and productivity is the quiet joy that you can experience when you live in the present moment. Crushing through your to-do list may give you a grim satisfaction, but that productivity defined by speed and volume cannot give you the childlike, effervescent love of the now.Next time, I will be more childlike, and I won’t be surprised when really shrewd business ideas come to mind, unbidden, like butterflies. They’ll have to wait until the week is out though.If you found value in this blog post, please sign up for my weekly newsletter. I’ll send you helpful tips to help you grow your freelance business.