5 Surprising Lessons From 20 Years of Taking Summers Off.
If you’d rather listen than read, go to Sound Insight, episode 9.
I’m breaking the rules.
Despite countless articles, webinars and podcasts that advise me to publish frequently and consistently, I’m taking an extended summer break.
It’s a risk. I could lose subscribers and listeners. If I’m not serving my clients, I don’t get paid. If I’m not on social media regularly, people stop paying attention.
This is not the first time I’ve taken this risk. I’ve been taking unpaid summer sabbaticals since the late 1990s. Many times, I’ve been warned I will lose clients, or my career prospects will suffer. There were often financial pressures to keep working.
I have no regrets.
In that time, I created three small businesses, earned a healthy income, and applied the two-month annual sabbatical to all three. I’ve gained far more than I’ve lost from this two-decade experiment, and it has been a big reason I’ve stayed deeply engaged and loving my work.
I know I’m very fortunate to have been able to create this level of autonomy in my working life to enable this pause every summer. But you don’t need to take your summers off to benefit from these 5 surprising things I’ve learned from this practice.
1. There’s a fundamental flaw in how we think about leisure.
Consider the language we use to talk about taking a break.
We describe it as time off, down-time, off the grid, unplugged. As if we are stepping into a kind of void where nothing of value happens. Our thinking about rest and leisure is another relic of our work addicted way of operating in the world. It’s only valuable if it enables us to keep on working.
For many, leisure is like this nebulous space. It’s defined as time off, not working. Not work.
But leisure is about more than not working. It has a purpose beyond recovery and fueling up for the next work sprint.
Leisure has value for its own sake.
It’s about replenishing, yes. But it is also about savoring, connecting with loved ones and relishing the experience of life.
2. We are happier and healthier when we respect our natural rhythms.
A balanced life is not the careful allocation of equal time between work and some broad and nebulous concept of non-work, called life. Or jamming as much variety as possible into your day. Balance is the art of living life in a way that respects your natural rhythms.
We are seasonal creatures, and we live on a seasonal planet. We have circadian rhythms and even, ultradian rhythms – times during the day when our energy is high and low. Times when we are alert and focused and times when our attention seems to float and drift.
But rather than accept and honor these rhythms, we fight them. We try to overcome them – go faster, push harder. Yet our bodies and minds are not built to be chained to a desk, peering into a screen hour after hour. We need to sleep, work, rest, eat, move, and play.
Leisure and work are mutually sustaining systems.
The greatest gift of autonomy has been learning about my own rhythms. Training myself to use the times when I am most alert and focused to do my most challenging work. Paying attention to when my body needs to move and be active and when it needs to rest.
I learned these things the hard way, by pushing myself to exhaustion and burnout. It took a lot of failure to finally learn how to work with these rhythms in a way that is sustainable and fulfilling.
3. When we create space for depth, we accomplish more.
Sometimes my summer sabbaticals are not simply restorative. They are not about taking time off. Sometimes they are about working deeper.
The most common complaint, by far, that I hear from my clients and other leaders is that they don’t have time to think or read or work through tough strategic issues. Their calendars are jammed with meetings and obligations, many of them unproductive and stressful. They spend hours wading through emails, the vast majority of which are either junk or not important. Their devices constantly beep, buzz and ring, distracting their focus.
At the end of a day of this, they feel exhausted, depleted, and unproductive.
When life is like this, it is hard to get clear, to step back, to take a full or deep measure of things.
Setting aside time for undistracted and challenging work – what author, Cal Newport calls Deep Work – at a time in the day when you are most alert and focused, supports you to think clearly and make better decisions.
When I first began to take summer sabbaticals for the purposes of working deeper, I assumed that I would lock myself in a cabin somewhere and work uninterrupted for hours on end. What I learned very quickly is that a good day of deep work is about four hours long. After that, my focus diminishes and I am better off to stop and enjoy the sunshine.
Research over the last three decades into the work habits of accomplished artists, scientists, and business professionals has uncovered that most of us are capable of only three to four focused, highly productive hours of work per day.
Summer sabbaticals gave me the freedom to tinker with my work processes. From this tinkering came four insights. 1) I accomplish more when I make time for uninterrupted focused work. 2) I do better work when I save my most challenging work for times of day when my energy and focus are high. 3) My upper limit for this kind of work is about four hours. And 4) when I push my more transactional busy work – email, meetings – into set time periods of lower energy (usually afternoons), I do less of this kind of work and accomplish more overall. These insights led to the complete reorganization of my non-sabbatical working life, which dramatically improved my productivity and my enjoyment of my work.
4. There is more than one kind of exhaustion and many flavors of recovery.
In her Ted Talk, The 7 Types of Rest that Every Person Needs, Dr. Saundra Daulton-Smith explores the ways we can become depleted beyond the physical including mental, sensory, creative, emotional, social and spiritual fatigue. That is why leisure needs to come in more than one flavor.
In his book, Rest: Why you get more done when you work less, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang shares examples from science, art, writing and business on the ways leisure fuels great achievement and a more meaningful life. For example:
- British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill doggedly insisted on a daily afternoon nap even while the Germans were bombing London in World War II.
- Nobel Prize winning geneticist Barbara McClintock had her greatest discoveries while taking long walks and intentionally used them to activate her unconscious, “in the service of scientific discovery.”
- Former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates took mini sabbaticals he called “Think Weeks” to explore new technologies or think through new directions for the organization.
- Austrian graphic designer, Stefan Sagmeister, in 2001, closed his business for a year, risking losing his famous clients to take a sabbatical. He found the benefits to his well-being and to the health and profitability of his business so profound, that he now does it every seven years.
Weaving these and other stories with advances in the study of neuroscience, Pang presents a convincing argument for the essential role a varied and rich leisure life plays in creativity, innovation, and overall performance. He shares compelling research on the surprising benefits to the brain of leisure pursuits such as sleep, naps, walks, play, and sabbaticals.
5. Leisure is not a reward for hard work; it’s an essential part of a well-lived life.
Seeing leisure only in relation to how it fuels work, misses the most important point.
As I get older and look back on my life, my most important and pleasurable memories have nothing to do with my work, which is surprising to me given the central role that work continues to play in my life. The moments I remember and treasure most happened during times of leisure. Further, my best and most creative ideas and insights came to me not when I was working but when I was taking a break from work.
When you take the measure of your life, it is these leisure spaces that give life its texture, meaning and joy.
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