Taking time off of work to rest is not something that would seem on paper to be difficult. However, three months in, I feel this is one of the most difficult challenges I’ve ever undertaken. This is surprising considering that list includes finishing an Ironman, surfing Mavericks, hiking Mt. Whitney, winning a marathon, launching a multi-million dollar business, and having three kids in as many years, to name a few.
This is going to be a low-note of a blog post. I don’t want to sound negative or ungrateful, but it is important to me that I write honestly. Part of the reason I blog about the challenges I attempt is so that other people can learn from them and hopefully implement the ideas better themselves in the future. With this experiment of a sabbath year in particular, I plan to repeat the process again in 7 years, so learning from the difficulty will help future-me as well.
At the heart of the difficulty is the fact that my expectations were somewhat off from reality. Doing an Ironman was difficult, but my expectations early on were fairly accurate – I would spend a lot of time biking, running and swimming. I had other challenges to overcome, but none of them was me being unaware that the bulk of the effort involved me sweating.
In contrast, going into this challenge, the notions I had of what things would look like and what parts would be difficult haven’t held true. In fact, I didn’t think the sabbath itself was going to be difficult – I viewed the challenge as getting the courage to launch it and the logistics efforts required to do so. I viewed the year itself it as a break from difficult things, which has proven to be the wrong way to approach it mentally.
Some of the unpredicted realities have been good – I was able to unwind from work faster than I had predicted, I now feel ready to return to the working world much faster than anticipated and have much more certainty about what I am looking for in a location to live than I had expected. Other unpredicted realities have been much more difficult. Lets explore a few.
In What Ways Has A Sabbath Year Been More Difficult Than Expected?
1. Doing work you are not used to is extra-tiring.
I can organize a team, lead meetings, talk to Fortune 100 customers, plan presentations and debate technical issues practically in my sleep. I’ve been doing those professionally for a decade. I am used to them, my body is used to the energy levels required to do them, my mind is used to the context switching frequency and focus required for them. Sure, they are hard work and I get tired, but I can easily last 8-12 hours – enough to put in a good days work.
Raising children and running a household on the other hand is very different. The pacing, level of focus, context switching frequency and chaos levels are all very different. Even though I am very involved at home on a normal basis, it is usually in short bursts – a few hours in the morning and evening plus two full days on the weekend. Doing that all day every day for a few months is not something my body or mind are optimized for and that means it takes a lot of extra energy. I hadn’t realized that going in.
On top of that, I am just not as good at many of the at home tasks as I am at my normal job. That is probably to be expected, I am less practiced. What that means though is that I spend more of my day doing things I am less good at and less of my day doing things I am better at. That means on average I feel like I am doing a worse job at life. That is mentally difficult.
Not every sabbath will be involve raising young children, but by definition it will be different than normal. That will mean that things might be extra tiring or difficult and being prepared for that in advance would be wise.
2. Getting heavily involved with someone else’s routines will create tension.
In normal life I am a pretty involved with the kids and housework. There is nothing I don’t do at some point. However, due to the nature of my work I am out of the house a lot, so I do a lot less of most things around the house. I change diapers, but I change significantly fewer than my wife who is with the kids for more of the hours of the day. The same goes for making meals, doing laundry, teaching the kids, etc. Because of that, I often defer to her methods, preferences and systems. The kitchen is set up the way that works best for her and when I make something, I just make sure to get everything back into the right spot.
Now that I am home all day, I am much more involved and so my preferences, and the differences with hers, are becoming more obvious. I don’t prefer to do everything in exactly the same way. That should be expected. I organize and plan using different methods. I make time-vs-money tradeoffs differently with certain tasks. My levels of acceptance for mess, noise and predictability are a bit different – sometimes more, sometimes less.
Because I am around more, I feel less like a pinch hitter and more like an equal partner. I am going to be much more involved, in fact, I will be on point most days, so I am more inclined to make changes – to adapt the system more to my preferences.
This creates tension. It also creates change management needs which require more effort. It might take some time for everyone to adapt and to work out the kinks of the new changes – kinks that might have already been worked out of the existing systems. I wasn’t specifically watching for that tension but am now aware of how it can pop up when making a dramatic life change like having both parents at home. I’m sure the same types of changes would also happen for other changes, such as if an at home parent returned to an office job. Being aware that there was going to be some change and that it was going to require a lot of effort would have better prepared me. Discussing some of the likely changes in advance would have made things easier for us as well as we would have had more time to think over the concepts and voice concerns.
3. Living in new place costs you familiar routines.
In September, two months into the sabbath, we moved from Seattle to a small town in Virginia. I knew that moving itself would be a lot of work, but I didn’t realize quite how different things would be after getting unpacked.
Anytime you are somewhere new, there will be a period of adjustment. You need to rebuild some of the routine that you had taken for granted – where/when you grocery shop, what playground you take the kids to, where you go running or what activities you participate in. The more different the place, the more change is needed – if you’re used to buying in bulk at Costco and move to a remote village, you will need to adjust how you do things. It will require some mental energy and changing your day-to-day habits. We often call this culture shock and it is one reason I don’t think I would advocate that anyone that is trying to rest do so by going to a new and foreign location. I hadn’t planned for the mentally energy required for this change and so it has surprised me.
4. Not working has taken away some of my identity.
A lot of my identity came from my job. Both from the type of work and from being the financial provider for my family. I was/am good at my job. Being good at that helped me feel better about other things I was not as good at. It was ok that I wasn’t as patient reading stories to the kids when they were bouncing off the walls – that was only something I did sometimes, I knew I was good at my real job.
I could pin some of my self worth on to my job. Some days I would pin it to my salary. On my worst days I would do the same for others. That is a really dangerous and unhealthy practice that reduces people to one dimension. It is tempting to do as a quick hit of good feelings when you know you are in the higher percentiles of that one dimension.
Removing that part of my identity has hurt in the short term. I don’t have that crutch to lean on when I fail at something else. I had not anticipated how significant that was for me or what it would feel like to have it gone.
5. I don’t really like to rest.
I just am not a restful person by nature. At least not in the traditional way. I just don’t seem to recharge from the same things that other people do – sitting poolside with a book drinking fruity drinks, watching sunsets, whatever. I’m not even fully sure how I best recharge (which is a bit jarring considering how far into my life I am) but I know I don’t do well with stillness.
When I pictured my sabbatical I had a mental image of sitting on a hammock and reading. I haven’t done that. I’m not sure that would even be the best thing for me to do. So my expectations were neither in line with reality or the ideal.
Simultaneous Difficulties & Superposition
In addition to the unpredicted difficulties I mentioned above, there are plenty of predicted difficulties. We have three kids under four years old to take care of, that is a lot of work – full stop. My wife is now 8 months pregnant, which means she gets tired much easier and is limited in what she can do.
Any of the items I mentioned above is easily surmountable on its own, but their impact when combined is much greater.
Thinking back to physics class, when two waves combine, the principle of superposition says their height is additive. In the image below you can see two small waves that head towards each other and for the moment they are at the same place they create one wave that is twice as high. If seven waves were all to hit at the same time, the height would be as tall as all of them combine. I can tell you from my surfing days that getting hit by seven 3′ tall waves is nothing like getting hit by a 21′ wave. The former will push you lightly seven times, maybe causing you to shift your weight to brace yourself. The later can kill you.
I think of each of those above difficulties as a wave. Whether they were predicted or not, they are difficult. The problem is that I am not able to approach them each individually in succession. Taking a sabbath year forced them to hit at the same time. They are adding up in height like the waves above. Right now it feels like I am a tumbling rag doll in the 21′ wave.
If I had known more about what the year would really be like and where the difficulties were, I could have done a better job mentally preparing, breaking the issues up sequentially or removing some altogether. A different design to the year might have helped with that, as would better expectation settings conversations within our family.
Changing My Expectations
Part of the reason this post is a few days late is that it has taken me some time to process what has been so difficult and how to move forward from it. I am of course taking steps to minimize issues, improve communication and adjust what I can to help take the 21′ wave down to a 12′ wave. That is necessary but not sufficient.
What I am also doing is changing my expectations about what a sabbath year is and feels like.
I had pictured something much more relaxing, leisurely and intellectual. I had not prepared for it to be a period that would challenge deep rooted beliefs and parts of my character. I had pictured a year of resting, not a year that would change me. I think the latter is more consistent with the true goal and will be most beneficial though and so I am adjusting my expectations.
You will recall that the origin of the idea for this sabbath year dates back to a very old Biblical principle of resting the fields. I was reminded yesterday of another Biblical metaphor, that of pruning trees to increase future fruit production. A good gardener knows that during the winter you must cull branches from a fruit tree in order to benefit the fruit buds that remain. It is difficult though – you must cut away branches that seem healthy and that you know could produce fruit. It feels like you are giving up half of your harvest when you really want to keep it all. The result of not pruning is a tree that eventually gets overcrowded and produces little. By cutting away branches strategically, the half that remain will produce more than twice as much.
A sabbath year feels more like a pruning. I will be losing branches and limbs. But the goal is to do so to the benefit of what remains.
There is still rest in a sabbath. That slowness is required to allow the pruning and healing. You don’t prune a tree in the summer, the tree is too active, the sun is too bright. You must prune a tree in the winter when the leaves are gone. You would not be wise to attempt this change during normal life – things are too busy, there is not enough time or energy to focus. It is only in the dormant season you create that you have the freedom to do so.