Sabbaticals, Long and Short

Sabbaticals have been a frequent topic on the Focused podcast. However, I use the term sabbatical pretty loosely here. I’m not referencing the structured academic sabbatical that we see in higher education, but something more in line with the Internet worker concept of sabbatical as pioneered, to my mind at least, by Sean McCabe.

Recently Jason Kottke announced he’s on a months-long sabbatical at That’s brave. When you pay for your shoes on the Internet and then take a few months off, there’s a chance that your readers will go somewhere else. John Gruber weighs in that you should take a sabbatical before you know you need one. He’s right.

While I like the idea, I have yet to successfully implement regular (even short) sabbaticals in my life. I think my depression-era parents etched “show up every day” on my retinas. It was pretty tricky to unplug when practicing law as a solo attorney. Clients need you constantly. Since ditching the legal career, I’ve been busy getting things rolling as exclusively MacSparky and sabbaticals still aren’t possible for the immediate future.

That doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea, though. And taken more broadly, that also doesn’t mean sabbaticals are something only for precious nerds that earn their living on the Internet. An occasionally forced retreat, for everyone, is a good idea. Whether you are “generating content” or selling insurance, taking a break, a true break, is where you get time to recharge and let those creative background processes between your ears grind out some answers. Sean McCabe has explained that a sabbatical doesn’t have to start out as a months (or years) long process. It could be as simple as a few days without commitments and space to think (or not think).

I intend to implement some form of a regular sabbatical as I get things sorted out here at MacSparky HQ. I’d encourage you to read Sean’s Sabbatical blog and at least consider the same for yourself.

The Sabbatical Experiment

wrote last month about my preparations for a sabbatical week. That week was last week, so it is time to report in. While I often try things out “publicly” through the various podcasts and this blog, this one felt the most controversial.

I had a lot of folks who wrote to me, explaining I was either brilliant or a complete idiot for trying to take a week off. Honestly, a lot of them got into my head.

On the MacSparky side, my preparations paid off. Between getting ahead in some areas and a little behind in others, I had almost no obligations as MacSparky last week. I didn’t have the planning and recording blocks for field guides. My schedule for podcasting was light too. As someone who lives by calendar blocks, it was pretty strange looking at a calendar with empty blocks in it. That was nice. It has been a long time since I have had that much breathing space, and I didn’t realize how much I needed it until I had it.

The challenge, as I wrote in my prior post, was on the legal side. I represent a lot of people, and they sometimes need my help unexpectedly. Those occurrences are weekly for me, and there is no way to plan for them. My solution to this problem was just to accept that there would be some things I needed to handle. I didn’t completely shut out the world. Every day, I checked in with the law practice at the end of the day. However, I did try to have ground rules for the legal work that I would allow to intrude on the week. Specifically, I decided that I would only take on legal work that was both material and urgent. A few clients had requests that could wait, so I explained to them that I was taking the week off, but I would get it to them early next week. They were all completely fine with that. Indeed, one client was quite complimentary and wanted to know more.

There were a few client matters, however, that were both material and urgent. As a result, I spent several hours last week getting that work done. I didn’t begrudge the clients or the work at all. I still had way more time off last week than I normally would.

All that said, I had way more downtime than usual, but I wasn’t able to completely disconnect. In hindsight, it wasn’t a sabbatical week so much as a stop-and-take-a-breath week. Getting off my usual treadmill for a week, however, gave me some insight:

  • I have been working too hard. I need to get better at building in some more fun time during the usual workweek.

  • My “urgent and material” test for client work needs to continue into my daily routine, even on weeks where I am not slowing down. Too often, I put myself in a pickle by overpromising turnaround times on work that is neither urgent nor material.

  • Hyper-scheduling works. As soon as I removed the blocks from my calendar, my production went straight to hell. That was by design last week, but if I did it every week, I would not be able to pay for my shoes anymore.

  • I was expecting that by having so much downtime, I would have some brilliant flash of insight about how I could better run my business or about the meaning of life. None of that happened. The impact on me was more subtle but positive.

  • I pushed hard two weeks ago to get as much done in advance as possible. I am glad I did. I will be re-entering the stream this week, not desperately behind as a result.

I can’t help but feel a bit of a fraud as I report in on this “sabbatical”. All I did last week was lift my foot off the gas long enough to catch my breath and spend less time at the grindstone. Nonetheless, it did inspire me to work more on this. I am going to build these slow weeks into my schedule going forward, though I am not exactly sure how often, or what I will call them. Maybe I can get better at this with practice and experience. Either way, I am lucky enough to love what I do for a living, so strapping back into the rocket ship feels fun, not dreadful. And for that, I am genuinely grateful.