On Sabbaticals

A friend is beginning a sabbatical and asked for advice about how to think about it and use it well. Some thoughts, therefore, from someone who has been blessed by a few so far.

Basic principle: plan it and guard it. Don’t fall into it, exhausted, and then spend days or weeks figuring out what to do. You’ll waste it.

And don’t let other people’s agendas intrude into it and commandeer it. “Well, since you’re off work and have nothing much to do, then how about helping me with my projects?”

No, your time is a gift and a trust from God, whether in work, play, or “sabbaticalling.” Explain to those who need to know that it is not a vacation in the trivial sense of “hanging out.” (Should any vacation be like that?) It is time you have planned to spend in important ways and those plans cannot easily be set aside.

So plan it and guard it.

Now, what kind of sabbatical is it?

Restoring

Some people begin sabbaticals truly needing a sabbath, a holy rest. They may have been driving hard in their jobs, likely also pressing hard on the rest of their lives, and they are in the burnout zone.

As “accomplishers,” they might well set up sabbaticals as what we academicians sometimes call “study leaves” or “research leaves.” But if you need rest, then rest.

Aleksandr Men offers advice pertinent to all of us in this tense culture, but especially to those needing to take a break:

Determine the reasons for the tension. Are they hidden in either physical or mental overexertion, in all-too-frequent and overly tense emotions, or in unduly impatient quests for the ideal? If so, you should remove those reasons, if at all possible. You may need to say no to a certain activity or put it off for a time. You may need to stop reading certain material or going to certain theatrical productions [read: movies, TV, Internet]. Or you may need to throw out certain memories that cause alarm. If this is not possible, then, at the very least, you must find another way to reduce their effect. (An Inner Step toward God, 135)

The Apostle Paul’s advice comes to mind as deeply therapeutic, and it resonates with the best material I’ve read about creative thinking:

Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. 

Perhaps you have been neglecting Scripture. Prayerfully pick something sweet and strong to read, and muse on it, unhurriedly, letting God speak to you. (Look up lectio divina and enjoy its practice.)

Perhaps, instead, you have been neglecting fun. Program it! Pick a good TV series and watch an episode every day—but one that will lift your spirits and provoke you to love and good deeds. Read a book, or a bunch of books, that will “take the string off the bow.” (I’ve been impressed by how many truly deep thinkers routinely read espionage, thriller, and mystery novels precisely to relax into a world easy to inhabit, gently intriguing, in which there is a fine moral order despite whatever mayhem initiates the tale.) Sports? Better to do than to watch (although watching, especially with others, can be just what one needs sometimes). Try a new sport or return to a favourite. Let your body move and your mind course along different paths.

(My wife compelled me to learn paddle-boarding last summer. That sport had always struck me—as someone who can canoe, kayak, swim, and water-ski—as kind of a stupid, trendy hybrid of stuff I already knew how to do. And then I got up, and it’s the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to “walking on the water.” It ended up being, of all things, a spiritual experience. I have a smart wife, and I’m a hidebound dolt.)

Sleep: Some of us have sleep debts we can never repay. And, like Elijah after the triumph on Mount Carmel, we may need nothing more important than sleep, lots of it, and some good food along the way. High-powered friends report that they need an entire week of vacation just to stop “buzzing,” and only in the second week can they actually turn profitably and enjoyably to some activity.

So if your sabbatical is really a “stress leave,” then take it on as such. Don’t feel ashamed or apologize for it. There will be time later for assessment and repentance and amendment of life! For now, get yourself into a condition of restored energy in which you can even begin to think about how to re-engage the too-busy life you’re leaving.

Accomplishing

If you are ready to take on a sabbatical as a change of work, rather than as a relief from work, then the key is to set a series of goals and prioritize them. Projects almost never take exactly as long as you estimate they will, so have a primary goal—What I Must Finish While on Leave or I’ll Feel Terrible—and then some smaller, secondary goals that can (a) be pursued during the times of day when you aren’t at your best and really shouldn’t work on the Big Thing, and (b) be pursued if, mirabile dictu, you finish the Big Thing and have time remaining.

Beware of using a sabbatical just to “catch up,” just to tick off a few more nagging boxes on the “to-do” list. The gift of sustained time away from the normal routines should be devoted to what you cannot do in the normal routines.

Ask others, preferably veterans of sabbaticals, how to estimate what Big Thing could be done during the time and in the circumstances you have to work with. Pick smaller things that can fit around and after it. Then make a plan with deadlines, or what I prefer to call “timestones,” studded along the calendar, to help reassure you constantly that you’re on pace and don’t have to fret—or that you need to alter what you’re doing before it’s too late. (Fretting is the death of sabbaticals—as it is, well, the death of joy generally!) And then just get to it, day by day.

What you do not want is to near the end of your sabbatical and think, “Where did it go?” Oh boy, do you ever not want to think that. And you will think that if you start a sabbatical that truly needs to be in “restoring” mode and you opt instead for “accomplishing” mode. Your psyche and body will rebel: “We need a break!” And they will sabotage your driving them harder than they can go…and you’ll get sick or depressed, or you’ll find yourself wasting hours on trivial social media or dumb television or uninteresting reading. Beware! Figure out honestly and humbly what you need and pursue it intentionally.

Both?

If the sabbatical is long enough, you might well begin it with restoration and then transition to accomplishment. But I would just caution you that if you are, like most of my friends, a hard driver, then make sure you plan sufficient time to truly exit the “go-go-go” mode of life to re-encounter God and yourself and the way you live, just in case you truly need to change your ways. Two weeks is a minimum for that, it seems.

And When It’s Over?

Write up a report, whether or not you owe one to your bosses or supporters. You owe one to yourself and to God:

  1. to celebrate what you enjoyed and learned and accomplished;
  2. to clarify what you need now to follow up;
  3. to determine what changes you will make in the “new normal” life you’ll begin; and
  4. to record what you want to remember when you plan your next sabbatical.

I hope you have a great time away. Sabbaticals are expensive and they should be treated seriously as the precious gifts they are.

But they’re a lot less expensive than breakdowns, and maybe more of us need to take them

One Response to “On Sabbaticals”

  1. LjLambert

    And read Henri Nouwin’s “Sabbatical Journey” in preparation. That was the one of the best things I did on my sabbatical last year. It helped be put in perspective the conflicted feelings I had and made me realize they were normal.

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