Sabbath Year – After Eight Months – Trying The Other Side

I have now been back at an office job for about one month. After seven months of experiencing a sabbath where my wife and I were both at home, we’re getting to experience a different way of doing a sabbath year. It will end up being a nice A/B test for our first iteration. By experiencing both ways, we’ll get to see what we like about them and hopefully be able to plan a better version in six years.

Some Background

When we first started planned our sabbath year, we had to decide what it would look like. Would I continue working, scale back my hours some, take a less stressful role or stop working all together? I think all can be appropriate and have talked to people that have tried similar rest periods using each of the above methods.

In our case, because we had three young children, and a fourth on the way (now here), we decided it would be best for me to stop working altogether, if possible. That would allow my wife and I to split the workload at home and give us the best chance at both having some opportunity to rest.

As we began to pursue that plan, we were presented with an opportunity by my employer at the time to take a six month unpaid leave of absence, rather than outright quitting. After a bit of talking at home we realized that we liked that generous offer for a number of reasons. First, it would reduce the logistical work of actually taking time off – including the effort needed to switch insurance providers and the time required to find a new job. Second, it helped reduce the risk of a big undertaking like this. Third, it made dealing with stock grants a bit neater – a problem in start up world that can get messy for longtime employees of rapidly growing companies. Finally, it meant that if for some reason I hated not working, it would be easy to come back earlier than planned.

Six months ended up turning into seven months because it took us a little longer than planned to iron out the details of my new role. Had I returned to the same role, or even another previously established role, it would have been faster. But we ended up creating a new team in the company that I stepped in as the leader of – that meant figuring out some details around how that team would be measured, what our goals would be and how compensation would work. That took a few weeks of back and forth to find an arrangement everyone was happy with.

Early Observations

Before I write about my observations of trying to sabbath while working, I have to note that in many ways we’re comparing apples and oranges here. We’re in a new city, living in a new house, have an additional newborn child at home and I’m in a different type of role than I’ve ever been in before. So things are notably different in every way than they were before or during the first part of our sabbath year.

All of that said, here are some things I notice:

1. The closer your current situation is to what you are used to, the less each day will drain you. Having gone through all sorts of transition during this year as I stopped working, we moved around and my wife had a baby, I noticed how much time it took for us to get back into a rhythm each time. The closer the change was to something we were used to, the easier it was. Me being at work is something we were very used to and so we’ve settled into it quite well.

2. Working an office job is much easier for me, and thus more restful, than being at home with 4 young kids. Even right now where a project has me making hundreds of cold calls per day, being at the office is much less stressful for me than being at home. This means that overall things are more restful for me, but it also means that I come home recharged and better able to handle the evening routines. Strangely enough my wife also said that having me not in the house is easier for her because there is only one cook in the kitchen (metaphorically and sometimes literally) so it is easier for her to plan things and know when she needs to be involved (all the time). It probably also helps that I’m much more hands on in the mornings and evenings since that is all of the time I get with the kids now as opposed to before when I had all day to see them, so was less eager during those windows.

3. Having a work schedule makes it easier to schedule other things. One thing we struggled with during our leave was finding quiet time for each of us away from the kids. Part of the trouble is we just wouldn’t plan and most days would turn into a bit of a blob where we were all home playing and neither parent was carving out time to get away. Now that I’m working again I have meetings scheduled and so we have to talk about my schedule, which makes it a bit easier to plan other things we want to do.

4. There is less overhead to getting personal work done if you’re already getting work done. Another part of the struggle with finding time to think about deeper topics during the first part of our sabbath year is the overhead it required. If I wanted an hour to work, I really needed to book an hour and a half of time – some time before hand to get my things together, transport time, time to get settled in at the coffee shop or library and then return time afterwards. If I’m already at my desk, in my office, where it is quiet – adding an extra hour of personal work only costs us an extra hour – a 33% savings from before. I’ve actually been using my lunch break really effectively for this. I had a number of TED talks I’d flagged that were related to topics I was thinking through and watching them while I eat is a great way to get through that material with little impact to our schedule.

5. I feel much better spending money now that money is coming in again. I had us on a pretty strict budget in order to be able to last through a year with no income. Our luxury spending was way down. Now that money is coming in again, we’re ratcheting it up a bit in ways that are helping us rest, such as more childcare, ordering in meals periodically to save time cooking and fun purchases that entertain the kids.

At this point, if I had to make a recommendation to someone about to take a sabbath year, it would be to keep as much the same as possible, but to perhaps scale back their working hours by 25-50%. That combined with some trimming back of other project or activities seems to be enough to carve room to rest while still providing enough structure to avoid everything going haywire.

Sabbath Year – After Seven Months – The Trouble With Choices

I am currently in the third phase of the sabbath year plan I designed for this year. During this phase the goal is ‘looking around’, which I described as:

“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?'”

I’ve started to set aside time for me to go do this research, and so far have felt a bit overwhelmed. That is what I am going to write about today.

The trouble is there are just so many options.

Three Main Decisions

We are primarily deciding on three things as a family right now: where we want to live, how we will earn an income and what sort of lifestyle we want.

Those three decisions are very interconnected, as you can imagine. Some places are better for certain jobs. Some jobs make certain lifestyles easier, harder or impossible to live. Some places are conducive to certain lifestyles.

Our current scope for each of those three items is fairly broad. Geography is less important to us than what a place has to offer, my professional skills leave me open to a wide range of jobs/industries and we’re generally very open to living outside of the norm if we see the benefits of it – meaning our lifestyle selection is quite broad as well. All three of those having multiple options means the total number of permutations is really high. If there are 5 cities we’re considering, 3 types of jobs 3-5 different types of companies and another 3-5 lifestyles to consider, there are up to 375 unique combinations.

In the face of an overwhelming amount of choice, it feels easier to default to the known. There is comfort in reducing risk by going with something already quantified – whether that is actually comfortable or not. The downside of this, however, is that it gives up the chance at obtaining ‘the best’ and settles for ‘pretty good’. It also atrophies your ability to make changes, which makes you susceptible to your ‘pretty good’ becoming ‘not so good’ and you not having the ability to do anything about it.

How To Explore

I’m trying to be methodical in my exploration – starting by building a broad list – using known ideas to explore near neighbors and information from one decision item to explore the next. I’ve enjoyed working at a software company, what other types of companies offer similar circumstances? If San Diego is a place we want to live, what sorts of jobs are there?

I’m also trying to be lean in my evaluation – learning in the lightest weight way possible – reading an article about the farming lifestyle is less expensive and disruptive than actually trying it. Talking to someone for an hour is often more insightful than reading a book. Shadowing someone for a day is the lowest commitment way you can get a true sense of how you will enjoy every aspect of it.

Deciding Together

This task is made even more difficult though because, for me, these decisions are not made individually. As we look at where we want to live, how we will earn an income and what sort of lifestyle we want – we continually realize that our family consists of more than one opinion. In some areas, the two voting parties mostly agree – neither my wife nor I want me to be at an office 80 hours a week, nor do we think that is what is best for non-voting stakeholders (also known as our four children). But in other areas we disagree – I prefer yearlong consistent nice weather, my wife likes seasons. Most areas are somewhere in between those extremes – slight differences in preferences and slight differences in weights for every facet we analyze. How we balance these differences and make tradeoffs adds an additional difficulty level to it nonetheless.

Looking Within

As I start evaluating options, the hardest part is not actually the overwhelmingness of the scope or the fact that I sometimes have different preferences than my wife. The hardest part is understanding me.

As I compare options and weigh the pros, I am forced to face myself in a very real way. The decisions force me to know myself and wrestle with my inconsistencies in a way that is very uncomfortable.

If I have two job options, one that pays more and one that I am more passionate about – the decision I make reflects which of those two things I value more, my money or my passion. As I weight two similar places, one with warmer weather and another that is less expensive, I am forced to put a price to the amount I value sunshine. Then things get really real. I eventually have to make decisions about people I care about. I have to decide if a particular interesting project is worth more to me than being with my family for 10 extra hours per week, or if warmer weather is worth more to me than my wife getting to live near her sister. I am forced to reconcile my true feelings and priorities, and acknowledge when those are inconsistent with the way I see myself, the way I present myself to others or the way others see me.

Not having many choices might help me avoid this task.

So, in a strange way, the task of this phase of my sabbath year is more perfectly aligned with my sabbath year’s purpose than I ever intended. The act of intentionally choosing is forcing me to take a magnifying glass to my own heart, to prod at and dissect it, to find rotten and cancerous spots that are crowding out the healthy cells that are supposed to be there and to decide what to do with them.

Yet again I have found that the relaxing, hammock-sitting, book-reading sabbath year of my imagination has proven to not exist. Instead the year of rest has turned into a year of deep introspection, self learning and growth-area identification.

On A Positive Note

To end on an upbeat note, I will share one encouragement.

Over the past week I’ve been wrestling with a particularly difficult decision that arrived unexpectedly. It forced me to weigh a few priorities that have held the forefront of my attention at various points in my life and make a decision about which of those would remain in front going forward. Through this time, as I grasped for information to help me understand the tradeoffs, I turned to friends for advice. I’ve spoken to about a dozen people, each with their own expertise and throughout it realized how many great people I have in my life and how many of them I’ve met in the past six years – the period of my most recent sabbath year cycle.

I feel thankful for that and encouraged as I look towards the next six years, not knowing who I will meet or where I will meet them, but optimistic that I will be able to continue to surround myself with the type of people who I respect and trust.