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. Later I will explore this particular iteration and how to apply these concepts to the situation I am in right now.

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 an adult I am allowed to eat candy for dinner, but that doesn’t mean it is a good idea. Many of the laws of the Old Testament 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.

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 of the day to day 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 in a mid-life crisis that we are not where we truly want to be and do not see any way to get there.
  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 affect 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 or use it as a lever.
  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 an Ironman, 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 what we believe.
  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 right tired, which is not the right way to start the next leg.
  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 likely taken a misstep.

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. The pausing of the unnecessary and lean living is a shedding of weight that would hinder our progress. The evaluation will allow us to calibrate our aim.

2017 Focus: Quarter 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 doing less, I can achieve results that are exponentially greater than the sum of the results from split focus.

I detailed my 2017 focus here (read that first if you want more context). Here is how I’m progressing.

2017 Theme: Sabbath Year

2017 Challenge: Define & Launch A Sabbath Year

The launch of my sabbath year is slowly becoming a real thing. I’ve taken the first steps to put it into action and begun to lay out logistics.

After years of keeping the topic limited mostly to family & close friends, I recently gave my work concrete notice. I had roughly suggested the idea previously to my manager and one of the founders, but there was no firm timeline or next steps associated. There are still a lot of details to figure out, but the fact that I will be taking a leave from the workforce is looking fairly certain at this point.

As of now, it looks like the start date will be mid-year – sometime between now and August. This means I need to accelerate my planning a bit more as I’ve been somewhat light on that to date. I’ve not come in any danger of going over the seven hour a week planning limiter that I set for myself.

Along with planning logistics, I have done some rough thinking on the overall philosophy of a year of rest. Funny enough, more than a handful of people in my close circles are going through similar processes of taking rest or time away from their primary labor. Though most of those are shorter, in the few month range, their philosophies often share common motivations so we’ve been able to have some great discussion.

2017 Habit: Time Outside With Family

This year I renamed this particular focus item and changed a few things about it. So far I am extremely happy with the result of that process change. It has encouraged the right behaviors, repeatedly, without any strange side effects or end-of-year rushing.

To give one concrete example, I start my week on Monday, so by Sunday I am usually aware of how much time I have remaining to hit my weekly goal and trying to find extra minutes where I can. Walking to church takes about 20 minutes while driving takes about 10 – I typically prefer my mental state after walking but often time pressure & the weather push me towards driving. Lately the extra 40 minutes of outside time has helped tip the scales the other way though and I’ve been walking, even if it is cold or a bit rainy. To me that is one example of a decision I wanted to influence this year.

One process change I might consider in the future, however, is a phased ramp up where the goal is slightly easier at first and progressively gets harder during the year. For this year particularly I suspect Q3 is going to be really easy to hit 7 hours per week on account of the nice weather, long days & my break from a day job. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few weeks hit the 30 hour range.

As for results, of the 13 weeks in the first quarter I’ve managed to hit the seven hour goal 7 times.

This might seem unimpressive, but it was actually quite hard. Seattle winters are cold, wet & dark – none of which make being outside with toddlers easy and all of which increase the time overhead of getting outside (putting on jackets, shoes, gloves, hats, etc.) On top of that I am at work during the day during the week which means there are only a few hours where I am home and the kids are awake and those are usually hours where I’m doing wake up or bed time routines.

I realized how aggressive the seven hour goal was during a recent vacation to warm weather. My total for the week was only 16 hours and I had nothing to do but be outside. A lot of time is eaten up by nap times, meals (minus a few picnics) and driving to sights we wanted to see. I also took some me time to surf which doesn’t add to the total.

So far I’ve found that if I can get ~2 hours logged by Friday I can usually fit the other 5 in over the weekend.

To get some interesting data, along with recording time, I’m keeping track of what activity we took part in and which family member I was with.

We can see that our primary activity is walking – we do a lot of that around our neighborhood on account of the low overhead. A few blocks at toddler pace takes about a half hour, which is usually all I can fit in after dinner.

Most of my time outdoors is spent with the boys, or as an entire family. It is not very often that I have all three kids by myself and am outdoors on account of taking all three out is really hard. I have not once been outside with just my baby girl – I’ll need to change that in Q2. I have been outside with just Suzanne a few times, but I guess I didn’t log those – another thing to correct.

I will add that on top of that time shown in this table, I also spent another 31 hour outdoors without any family members. This includes runs by myself, surfing and activities with non-family members. I’m excited that less than 1/3 of my total outdoor time was solo this year, discouraging that was part of the motivation behind this goal. (I don’t have great baseline data on this from last year unfortunately.)

Finally, here is a collage that includes pictures of a few of my favorite outdoor activities from this year so far: New Years polar bear swim, bundled up, running, gardening, picnicing and playing in the snow.

2017 Exemplar: Eric Liddell

I started my study on Liddell by watching the movie that most people know him from, Chariots of Fire. It had been a long time since I’d seen it and this time I had something particular to pay attention to. I really enjoyed the movie.

I am now reading a biography about Liddell that came out recently – For the Glory. This seems to be the most in depth one written to date, so the timing is fortunate.

What is obvious about him so far is his work ethic and concern for others. Neither of which was my focus for this year, but perhaps I’ll learn more about his sabbath and rest in time.

2017 Focus: Theme, Challenge, Habit & Exemplar

With the start of a new year, I take the time to set my focus for the coming year. I believe that by doing less, I can achieve results that are exponentially greater than the sum of the results from split focus.

I have been fairly effective at it over the past four years and am now confident in my ability to achieve something pretty big if I focus on it for a year.

If you would like to know more about the categories and how my yearly focus process has evolved, please see this recent blog post about the categories, or review the results from past years (2013, 2014, 2015 & 2016).

2017 Theme: Sabbath Year

In 2012, for a reason unbeknownst to me, I started to feel really called to the idea of a sabbath year. This is a concept that dates back a few thousand years. In Leviticus 25 (which is a part of both the Christian Bible and the Jewish Torah) 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.

This idea spoke to me. Was it meant as more than the simple literal interpretation implied? Was resting the fields a way to get the people to rest themselves? Why would an all knowing God command his people to do this? Does this apply to me today? Could I even make this possible? What would my life look like if I did this every seven years?

Over the following years, and after many conversations with friends and trusted advisors, the idea evolved from a whim, to a possibility, to a probability. During that time I decided to start my counting the year I started at my current company, 2011. This means that in 2017 I will finish the sixth year and start the seventh.

2017 Challenge: Define & Launch A Sabbath Year

My challenge for 2017 is to turn this idea into a reality. To define my sabbath year process and launch the first iteration of it before the end of the year.

(The sabbath year will not line up with the calendar year and as such will run into 2018.)

At this point I have not even defined what the year will encompass. My family does not have fields, so what is it that I will rest as a technology worker? Does that mean I will not work at all, or part time, or simply treat my weekends differently? (I had a friend that did something similar by limiting their work to 40 hours and not starting any new projects.) Was tending to fields only a part of the work the ancient Israelites performed? How does this impact my wife’s year? How is rest even possible when raising children? How should it impact the children?

Since this is my first iteration, I also have a chance to define principles that can ring true in future iterations as well. What we do this year might look very different than what we do seven or fourteen years from now due to life circumstances – but some principles should ring true.

Success for this challenge requires doing all of:

  • creating a written philosophy about our family’s sabbath year practice
  • composing a plan for the current iteration
  • starting this iteration before Dec 31st

Limiters I am putting in place include:

  • maximum of seven hours each week for pre-launch planning

Tiered results – extra stretch goals to reach for after achieving the binary result:

  • spend <75% of 2016’s family budget during the sabbath year
  • the partial sabbath year that I can review by Dec 31st is, in my opinion, two standard deviations away from the standards set by the last six years.

2017 Habit: Time Outside With Family

The word sabbath comes from the lingual root of the word rest. I have historically not been very good at resting, but am much better at it when in outside. (I have previously collected data on this.)

My habit this year will be to spend at least seven hours per week outside with at least one other member of my immediate family. I will track the number of weeks I successfully do this.

I included the extra caveat of it being with family for two reasons. First, over the last four years I’ve done challenges that had me outside, mostly by myself; surfing, cycling, running & hiking. I want to make sure I am not creating a new motivation to do more things by myself. At this point in my life, having three kids under three years old – being with children is both a joy and responsibility. Second, I want to make sure I continue to introduce my children to the wonders of the outdoors. I think I’m doing a pretty good job at that, but this challenge will push me to do it even more and likely to get more creative about it.

I chose seven hours as the target because it is possible by spending one hour per day, or by spending one full day of the week, perhaps a weekend. Since my goal is at least seven hours, a camping trip that puts me outside for >24 hours will not count for any more than a long day hike – both will make the week a success. By doing that I will increase my chances of creating a regular habit that lasts into future years, rather than spikes of activity to bring a yearly average up – something I noticed I did in past years.

I will surely bump into a definition that causes trouble. What counts as outside?

I will defer to my judgement at the time, keeping in mind the initial intent of rest. I often find that roads I run on feel more restful on certain days and times than others – the same can be just as true of a national park.

2017 Exemplar: Eric Liddell

I was not able to identify someone that really exemplified the sabbath year to model after. There are a lot of similar concepts of sabbaticals in academia, missions work, church leadership and even at some large companies. Certain Jewish people still practice a form of the sabbath year as well. Skimming through that I wasn’t able to really identify a strong advocate that wrote about the topic, or that was written about. I do not know anyone personally either.

In lieu of that, I selected someone well known for their practice of the weekly sabbath. I am reserving the right to change this later this year if I come across someone more relevant, however.

Eric Liddell, of Chariots of Fire fame, the famous Scotsman who did not run in an Olympic race because it took place on a Sunday, the sabbath.

Though that was the event he is most well known for, his life exemplified devotion, discipline and love in many other ways. All principles that are core to the idea of a sabbath year.

Liddell is someone I can learn a lot from studying. He wrote one book and has had numerous written about him by people that knew him, so I have a good bit of material to work with. This year I will be learning more about what he thought about the sabbath, how he practiced it and why that was important to him.