2017 Focus: Half Year Update

With the start of a new year, I take the time to set my focus for the coming year. I believe that by focusing on fewer goals, I can achieve results that are exponentially greater than the sum of the results from doing many things.

I detailed my 2017 focus here (read that first if you want more context) & did a quarter year update as well. Here is how I’m progressing.

2017 Theme: Sabbath Year

2017 Challenge: Define & Launch A Sabbath Year

My sabbath year will be launching on July 13th, 2017. After about five years of considering, exploring and planning, we are finally here.

I recently wrote about our general sabbath year principles along with specific plans we have for this year’s iteration. With those completed and the launch forthcoming, it looks as if this challenge will be completed shortly.

2017 Habit: Time Outside With Family

When I picked seven hours as the goal, it seemed achievable yet difficult. I did it based on a bit of data I had from previous years that I collected during an unrelated tracking experiment. During the first quarter I achieved about a 50% success rate, which suggested to me that the target was pretty good – possible but hard enough I had to work for it.

The second quarter has been a different story. I’ve been successful 100% of weeks and my average is actually over 10 hours – with the progression showing a steady climb up to 15 hours during the last week of the quarter.

What changed? It turns out, it is in fact a lot easier to be outside when it is warm, light and dry than when it is cold, dark and wet.

In the second quarter, the daytime temperature hasn’t dropped below 50*. The days have stayed in the 50s and 60s – more recently climbing into the 70s and even the 80s a few times. So far, as it has gotten warmer, the amount of time I’ve spent outside has increased. It only got so warm that it was hard to be outside once, when it hit the 90s and even then we just stayed in the shade. I defend that 70* is the perfect temperature and 50-90* is the ideal range to be in 95% of the time.

Along with the weather changing, the days have gotten longer. To give you an idea about how dramatic the difference in light is – look at this chart showing the type of light. In the summer in Seattle there are only about 1-2 hours of real night level darkness where as in the winter it is above 10. That makes a huge difference in the number of activities it is possible to easily do outside after work.

In fact, due to all of those changes, it is so easy to go outside that it is getting harder to tack our outdoor time. It used to be easy because there were such clear barriers between inside & outside time. We spent 10+ minutes getting ready to go outside between chasing down jackets, hats, gloves, etc. for 2-5 of us. Now we just wander in and out – not having to change layers at all – which makes accounting for time trickier.

Here are some data about Q2.

For activities, the leaders from Q1 remain popular – walks, the park & running. The new addition is hanging out in the yard which is our second most popular activity by frequency – thanks to a slide, trampoline and it being warm enough to get out the water play table.

Looking at who I spend outdoor time with – the general trends are the same. I end up doing a lot with my two boys – the two older children. The second most popular is having my wife and daughter join us as well for a full family outing. I did manage to clock time in almost every permutation of family during this quarter, which is cool.

Hunter, my eldest, edged out Theo this quarter for a few reasons – his bedtime is later and it is still light during that time so we often run an errand on the bike or do something in the yard, like splitting wood. He has also only taking afternoon naps 50% of the time, which means there is often a mid day opportunity to do something. I do want to keep an eye on the balance though – an unintended learning from this data set.

Finally, here is a collage that includes pictures of a few of my favorite outdoor activities from Q2: hanging out in the yard, various beaches around Seattle, Tulip Town, local parks and bike rides

2017 Exemplar: Eric Liddell

I am about to finish the biography about Liddell that came out recently – For the Glory. I want picking an exemplar to involve more than just reading a biography every year though so I have a few more things planned for the second half of the year.

First I plan to read the one book he wrote – a devotional study. It’s creation is mentioned in the biography and one of his close friends and co-workers notes that his character is well reflected by the writing. That should be a good way to get to know more about what made him click.

Finally, I happen to be going to Paris later this year, the place Liddell won his Gold Medal in the 400 meters during the 1924 Olympics. I’m going to see if I can get on the actual track and log a lap to compare splits. That seems like an apt way to walk a quarter mile in his shoes.

I really wish going to China was an option to see the area around Xiaozhang (the rural area he worked in for a number of year) & Weihsien (the internment camp he eventually died in), but that likely isn’t possible in the near term.

Our 2017 Sabbath Year

I previously wrote about principles that guide our family’s thinking about the concept of a sabbath year. Those principles were written to be generic enough that they could apply to all of our future sabbath years. While I’m sure we will iterate these ideas over time as we learn from experience, they represent the current thinking.

The next step is to take those principles and apply them to our current life state in order to come up with a specific plan for our 2017 sabbath year.

I predict that every sabbath year will look slightly different, because every period of life offers different circumstances. For example, having young children to take care of is going to make a year look much different than a year in which there are no kids to take care of.

To start, here are some of our current life circumstances that we think will impact the year ahead.

Circumstances To Account For

  1. We have three young kids – 3, 2 and 10 months old. So any year we plan must take that into account. Children are a lot of work which makes resting difficult. Furthermore, many things which might be relaxing for adults alone provide tons of extra work when children are added to the equation. If I were single, living in a remote cabin in the woods with no electricity or running water might be really relaxing for me. I’m not certain that doing so with three young children would have the same effect.
  2. My wife is pregnant with #4 – Our next baby is expected to arrive in early November – month 5 of our planned sabbath. This means that we need to account for the months leading up to that when my wife is pregnant, tired and somewhat limited in the physical activities she can participate in. We also have to plan for the actual delivery of the baby and the period after that while my wife’s body recovers. Finally we need to account for the period of newborn sleepless nights and getting the family’s new routine in place – I’ve found it takes 3-6 months after adding a child to get back in a groove.
  3. My employer agreed to a six month leave of absence – For the last six years I’ve been working at a startup that I joined as #10. In that time it has grown between 20-50X depending on which metric you look at. We’ve had a great employee-employer relationship, and, as I approached this sabbath, I brought up the discussion to see if there was a better option than me outright quitting. We agreed on a six month unpaid leave of absence with a few different possibilities for how to engage after that. Being on a leave of absence comes with a number of super helpful advantages for our family. The flip side is it also means I won’t be non-working for a full 12 months as I had originally planned. We decided the pros outweighed the cons – more on this later.
  4. Starting the sabbath in Seattle – Despite popular opinion and the thoroughly data backed analysis I produced, Seattle is not always grey and rainy. For about three months of the year it is one of the nicest places on earth, bursting at the seems with natural beauty, amazing events and comfortable weather. Those months start as our sabbath does which gives us an amazing opportunity to enjoy them.
  5. Renting our current home – This might seem minor but actually gives us a ton of flexibility. If we owned our home, we’d be on the hook for a mortgage or finding a renter. Because we’re renting, we can potentially live somewhere else temporarily without much financial downside. We do have to be cautious about how much extra work (and thus not-rest) moving would create though.
  6. Flexibility to end somewhere different – We have been living in Seattle for two years and aren’t sure we are going to be here long term. Because of that, if we chose to spend the sabbath somewhere we enjoy, we might not require a move back at the end.
  7. A number of planned events – As we looked at the calendar for the year, we also noted a number of planned events – a family reunion, a few weddings, a marathon (or three) and all our usual holiday convening. Though there is some flexibility around all of those, considering them would be part of our planning cycle.

Tentative Plan

With those circumstances in mind, we laid out a plan for how the year would unfold. We are breaking it up into four periods, each of which will cary extra emphasis on a specific subset of the principles. The idea is to create a natural progression through the year.

Period 1 – Rest and enjoy

3 months – July 12 – Oct 12

The focus of this period will be unwinding from current things, resting and enjoying the chapter we are in. We plan to spend lots of time outside and with people we love.

There are a number of specific events we’re looking forward to and we have a list of cool things in and around Seattle that we would like to see as long as we can do so at a relaxing and restful pace.

We are figuring out what the family routine will look like, but the tentative plan is to make time for each parent have a few hours of alone time every day to exercise, read, think, visit with friends, etc.

Most days will include a family activity: a short hike, a trip to the museum, a visit to the splash pool, etc. This will be similar to our current Saturdays.

There will still be a lot to keep up with having three kids three and under – wake up/nap/bedtime routines, meals, diaper changes, dishes, garbage, cleaning, etc. Having two hands on deck should mean we go from a feeling of constantly underwater to one of sitting above it. That alone should allow us to feel more relaxed and then having a few hours per day of alone time will be a welcome and enjoyable change of pace. Our responsibility will be to use it in a restful & enjoyable way. I would personally like to make a dent in my pleasure reading stack.

Period 2 – Going Lean

3 Months – Oct 12 – Jan 12

The focus on this period will be stripping back the unnecessary in order to create more space for the critical.

This will be made easier as we’re having another baby, which tends to force that sort of prioritization for a while.

I actually do a super nerdy thing where I list out all of my life priorities and assign a priority level from p0-5 (zero is the highest priority). Lately I can only focus on items p4 or lower, though periods of DEFCON 3 pop up where I have to temporarily ignore the p4 items.

During this period I plan to operate on DEFCON 1 or 2 such that I am only putting attention into the highest priority items. This means that unlike the previous period where we will be traveling and sightseeing some as a way to enjoy, in this period we do not plan to do that. I have a few things I already know I need wrestle with, like the New York Marathon and Star Wars 8 coming out – neither of which are p2s for me.

Our current plan is to live on the East Coast in my wife’s hometown for this period. We’re excited to spend extra time with family and experience a new location. The relocation should also assist with temporarily dropping lower priority items as it creates a proximity lever.

The family routine during this time will probably look a lot like a normal day in the previous period, except I expect my load to be much heavier as my wife prepares for and recovers from childbirth. The biggest impact will likely be the lack of big adventures and a change in how we spend non-child raising time. I expect I’ll be sleeping whenever possible as opposed to trying to read much and I will be avoiding new projects like the plague.

Period 3 – Looking Around

3 Months – Jan 12 – Apr 12

The focus of this period is taking a broad look at what is possible. There will be a lot of data collection but not much action. The goal is really to make sure we have as comprehensive as possible a picture of what our options are for the next six years and as detailed as possible a view of what those actually look like. To answer the question ‘what is the life we want to create for ourselves?’

Scanning isn’t something we avoid in regular life but it isn’t something we’ve been able to put a ton of effort into due to daily tactical responsibilities. Instead of the detailed dossier I want to have, what we have now is an unwritten (until now) list of rough ideas we think are interesting – running a surfing retreat, starting a tech company, being the first family on Mars, opening a artichoke farm, becoming a nomadic family, etc. The goal is to finish the period with a more detailed description of what those lives look like – what type of work would we do, how would we spend our days, what would our finances look like, what things must we give up, what are the biggest difficulties, what are the risks, etc.?

We know a lot about what it takes to live in a West Coast city, work for a tech company and live a fairly normal life. We like that life pretty well, but while it gives us plenty of chance to exercise certain skills and passions, it leaves others atrophied. How might we create a life that allows us to utilize all of our talents and passions? Does it require minor adjustments or an overhaul?

There is a ton of ambiguity about what our days will look like in this period. We have no idea where we will be living, when I will resume work, how much I will be working or the specific type of work it will be. Because of that, is it hard to plan much. We trust that details will fall into place more as we get closer.

On the topic of returning to work half way through the year – I debated this one prior to and after finding out about my company’s offer for a six month leave. My conclusion was that even though the verse that inspires much of this sabbath year principle talks about resting our fields for a year, it is the spirit and not the details of the law that are important. I had a friend take a sabbath year where they continued to work, but intentionally scaled back and held off on certain projects – that can be as much of a sabbath, or even more, as a year of not working at all but doing many other things that feel busy. In this spirit I am fine with returning to work, but would likely look to set up the first six months in a way that was conducive to the sabbath year principles – either fewer hours, less strenuous projects or staying in familiar territory rather than taking on bold new ventures. This will be an area I will have to pay close attention to.

Period 4 – Looking Ahead

3 Months – Apr 12 – July 12

The focus of the final period of the year will be planning for and beginning to enter the next six year cycle. During this time we plan to take the short-list of potential lives that we developed in the last period, narrow it down to our final selection, and begin to break down potential next steps. Though I don’t want to get started on that path until the sabbath year is over, knowing what it is will allow us to prepare for it specifically in our prayer, rest, reflection, conversations, and re-entry planning.

Much like the previous period, we don’t have much clarity as to what our days will look like in this period because we aren’t certain where we will be living, what the details of my work will be, or what we will be preparing for. We do know that around five months into each new child’s life is usually the time we start to feel like we arrive at a new normal – so this should be a great time to get the engine started up again.


Conclusion

The four periods of our year flow through a progression of unwinding, stripping back, scanning, and planning. Though all seven of the sabbath year principles will be present throughout the year to some degree, some will be overemphasized during specific periods. Three (a sabbath to the Lord, rest, and a year set aside) will be general and consistent themes throughout the entire year. Four (enjoying this chapter, pausing things, living without, and evaluating) will be overemphasized in specific periods.

We are really looking forward to this first experiment in taking a sabbath year. I suspect it will be the hardest since a) it’s our first attempt and b) we will have four kids under the age of four. We should learn a lot from it though and will look forward to improving the concepts and applying them in future sabbath years.

What Does A Sabbath Year Look Like?

For 2017 I challenged myself to define & launch a sabbath year. This is a concept I’ve been thinking on for the past ~6 years but as the start date has been getting closer, my need for a clear definition been increasing.

In the last month I’ve been talking with other people a lot about this upcoming sabbath. Two people have poignantly asked me, ‘what does success look like for you?’ Though I had a rough idea, I realized I needed to think on the concept more. Endeavors a squandered less frequently when they have a clearly defined and measurable goal defined before they start. While I can’t say I do this with every endeavor I undertake, it sees particularly important for one that will cost a year of time and over $100,000 between opportunity & actual costs.

Here I want to explore the general concepts of a sabbath period as could apply to any period in my life, or really that of anyone else as well. In the next blog post I will discuss my plans for this year’s iteration and how I plan to apply these principles.

Why a sabbath year?

The concept is Biblical – it dates back thousands of years. The verse that most explicitly discusses the concept is from Leviticus 25 – it says:

25 The Lord said to Moses at Mount Sinai, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you enter the land I am going to give you, the land itself must observe a sabbath to the Lord. For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops. But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the Lord. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards. Do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the grapes of your untended vines. The land is to have a year of rest. Whatever the land yields during the sabbath year will be food for you—for yourself, your male and female servants, and the hired worker and temporary resident who live among you, as well as for your livestock and the wild animals in your land. Whatever the land produces may be eaten.

That was part of the law of the Jewish people, something they were supposed to follow precisely. Some still do, many don’t and some practice compromises with varying levels of ridiculousness.

For a contemporary Christian, the old testament law is interesting. Most, if not all of it, is no longer considered the law, the same way an updated contract supersedes an old one (which is why Christians are ok wearing polyester and eating shell fish). I don’t believe the sabbath year stands as a law to contemporary Christians, but I do believe that much of the Old Covenant still contains great wisdom. As a child I wasn’t allowed to eat candy for dinner, as an adult I now can, but that doesn’t mean it is a good idea. Many of the laws of the Old Testament, even if they stop being a law, continue to provide value today because of the fact that people still struggle with the same basic things we struggled with thousands of years ago; greed, anger, jealousy, false idols, sloth, etc. These are the things that law was designed to protect against and so we can learn from that law in order to find ways to protect ourselves from the same things.

I think there is a reason that God would tell His people to rest their fields. The simple argument is that this is a good agrarian principle to replenish the soil. I think it goes beyond that. If you are a farmer, as the majority of people were between when this was written and today, resting your fields inherently means a lot of things about how you spend your time that year and the years preceding. The full depths of which I believe lay beyond speculation and require experimentation to understand.

Did they still labor at all during those years? What did they do about multi-year crops? What about their animals? How should my rest relate to the work and rest patterns of people from the past? What should I be doing and how much of it should I do? These are some of the questions I started with as I built my principles.

Sabbath Year Principles

What is the purpose of a sabbath year?

  1. A Sabbath to the Lord – At the heart of the sabbath is the concept that it is set aside and holy. It is not supposed to be aimless, but God-centered. The sabbath rest is not its own foundation, but rather it is a rest designed to allows us to focus on the foundation of everything else in our lives.
  2. Rest – Rest is good. It is good in itself and it is also good for productivity. Just as we rest some hours of every day, some days every week & some weeks every year – we should have restful years every so often as well.
  3. Enjoying This Chapter – I plan to retire eventually – to have the means to longer need to work for an income. Thinking about my life as a single unit, I realized that I don’t want to save all of my retirement years for when my body is old, my mind is less sharp, many of my friends are dead and my kids have moved away. Given the chance to have N years of retirement, I would rather spread them around and enjoy various phases of life – some when I’m young, some when I’m middle aged and some when I’m older.
  4. Pausing Things – A year set aside for rest creates a natural chance to stop doing many things. Some of those things might be sustained only on momentum, some of then might be things we realize we do not need to resume after the year concludes.
  5. Living without – The extra time I will have during a sabbath year comes at the cost of not having extra money. Because of that, we will have to learn to live without certain luxuries. This contrast creates room to learn and grow. It is a natural defense against hedonistic adaptation – the tendency to get used to what you have, however nice and new it is, until you eventually take it for granted. Living without certain things will teach us where we have room to become more efficient & highlight where we need to be more grateful.
  6. Evaluating – Planning something large usually involves three levels of thinking – visionary, strategic and tactical. It is hard to be in more than one mode at any time and truth be told, it is really hard to get out of tactical thinking when every day seems overwhelming. Taking a year to step back from many day to day tactical concerns will help create room for more strategic and visionary thinking. It will help to evaluate priorities, understand how our life aligns with what we value, and, if needed, make adjustments. It is a check-in to make sure we do not head down a slightly askew path for too many years, only to realize that we are not living the life we desire.
  7. A Year Set Aside – The time spent in sabbath should be observably different than normal periods in the way time is spent and attention is focused. No year is without any rest or any evaluation, but the sabbath year should be filled with it to the point of overemphasis in order to increase our affinity with it. Over time, practices from sabbath periods will make their way into normal periods, but that simply gives opportunity to further differentiate the next sabbath year.

What is NOT the purpose of a sabbath year?

  1. This is not a long, photogenic, vacation full of expensive trips, exciting activities and endless consumptive fun.
  2. This is not our family’s only chance to try new things, like; living in a new country, experimenting with a new career, etc. Those are things we can do any time. Though we will certainly have extra time during a sabbath year, trying new things often requires a lot of work and thus go against the goal of resting. If trying something new is a priority, we should make appropriate room for it during a normal year.
  3. This is not our chance to rebalance investments in our priorities. It is hard to invest in everything appropriately when urgent matters push aside important ones, but saving the sabbath year as a time to rebalance will likely create the wrong effect long term. Balance should be continual.
  4. This is not our only way to implement big changes in life. We can at any point make big changes – we do not need to wait for a sabbath year.
  5. This is not a time to take on big projects that we weren’t able to do during other years. This is not a chance to write a book, build a house, start a business, train for some new big race, etc. Through the process of rest and evaluation, we might be inspired to a new idea – if so, we should plan to start off the first year of the next cycle pursuing that goal.

What does failure look like?

  1. Rest that is not God-centered – To neglect the top item on the list, even while satisfying the others, would defeat the core principle of the year. The purpose of the rest and reflection is align our lives more fully with our faith.
  2. Neglecting rest – This is the one I will most easily fall into. Given a vacuum of space, I will attempt to fill it with accomplishments and projects. Doing fun or interesting things that are a lot of effort will result in time that isn’t actually restful. If that happens I might end the year tired, which is not the right way to start the next six years.
  3. Not making the year different enough – If the year looks like any other year, it has not been set aside properly.
  4. Failing to evaluate – If we do not take the opportunity to realign with our priorities and think about how we can best achieve our long term goals over the next six years, we have wasted an opportunity. If we simply return to the same life without having explicitly decided to do so, we have not appropriately reflected. This is the lowest concern, because if we have accomplished the other three, we have done well, just not as well as we could have.

What does success look like?

I want to enter the next six year period like a coiled spring, planted on a firm foundation, pointed towards the priorities our family values the most.

The rest will give us a chance to wind the spring up and ensure the coils are tight. Our foundation in faith and values will be fortified, giving us a stable launching pad to depart from. The pausing of the unnecessary and lean living is a shedding of weight that would hinder our flight. The evaluation & reflection will allow us to calibrate our aim towards the proper target.