Yearly Focus

Sabbath Year Review

Last year our family took a year off from normal life. I took a leave from my job, we put our stuff in storage, we moved to a new city and everything about our life became very different. Now that we’ve reentered normal life, we’ve been asked, and asked ourselves, ‘Was it worth it?’

With perspective from a few months back at normal pace, but with the time still fresh in my mind, I want to take an opportunity to reflect on than question. In general, I believe my answer is yes, but not for the reasons I had suspected.

Reflecting on The Stated Goals

Before we dove into the year, I was intentional about doing some thinking and setting a light structure for the year. I had defined seven things I wanted the year to consist of: a sabbath to the Lord, rest, enjoying this chapter, pausing things, living without, evaluating & a year set aside.

Of those, I feel we did well at a few. It was definitely a year set aside, there was lots of evaluation and we I certainly deeply experienced this chapter (enjoy wasn’t always the most accurate word).

One we learned more about – setting aside a year as a sabbath to the Lord. That is still a concept I’m wrapping my head around but I feel that it stayed close to the center and surfaced often.

There are a few we got better at eventually, such as pausing things and resting. It took me 10 months to stop training for marathons and about as long to realize that even with two stay-at-home parents, hiring babysitters is a really good idea. We had typically only used babysitters for times when we needed them because we had a commitment, we’ve now learned we sometimes need them so that we can have time with no commitments.

I don’t feel we did very much towards ‘living without’, the idea that we would cut back our consumption and luxury, and I think I’m ok with that. For example, scaling up the amount of babysitter time we used went a long way for promoting rest, even though that was one of the things I would have assumed we would have gone without since we had two full time parents.

Reflecting on the Flow of the Year

My intention was to emphasize the above seven attributes at different times of the year in order to create a bit of a flow throughout the year. I had imagined four periods: rest & enjoyment, going lean, looking around & looking ahead.

Generally, we kept to those stages, and that design was great for allowing us to progress through things in a way that made achieving our goals possible. Here are some more detailed thoughts.

Period 1 – Rest & Enjoyment: We spent a lot of time as a family in sunny summertime Seattle doing the outside activities we love. We also got a chance to visit family and friends without having to worry about vacation days. It felt mostly relaxing, except for the giant effort required for moving. In retrospect, that was one element we wouldn’t do again during a sabbath year. This post summarizes the feeling well.

Period 2 – Going Lean: We were forced to go really lean as we had our fourth child and had little energy for anything other than the most basic. While this wasn’t an ideal undertaking for a restful year, having a fourth child while I also had to work full time seems even less ideal. Looking back, I feel that we have to curb our judgement of the sabbath year around the quantity and ages of our children. I suspect every sabbath will present its own unique difficulties, but I doubt any will be quite as trying as this one. This post summarizes the feeling well.

Period 3 – Looking Around: In the period designed to allow us to look around at what life had to offer, we did so, but not quite as much as we had hoped and it took longer than expected. Where I had hoped to explore a few dozen ideas, some a few hops away from our preexisting situation, in reality we explored 3-4 options, mostly just a single hop away. We did get a chance to live in a city on our shortlist and explore a few neighborhoods. I also got to explore a number of potential career changes by having conversations with people in those areas and trying out a new role after my work leave ended. What was positively surprising to me was how beneficial taking time off could be for making good long-term decisions because of how all inertia was stopped. I wrote about that more here.

Period 4 – Looking Forward: Because the third period stretched a bit longer than planned, the period of looking ahead and making decisions was pushed back a bit  was cut short, meaning most of the reentry work was actually pushed back into after the year ended. While not-ideal, it did mean that a lot of hard work was reserved for after the year of rest.

Reflecting on the Decisions & Changes We Made

Before the year I speculated on some of the things that could change in our life as a result of the sabbath year. Those included changes to how we earned an income, where we lived and how we did life. I was explicit that no changes were necessary, that if we decided to return to things as is because that is what we felt was best, that would be fine.

We in fact, did make a few decisions, some were departures from our old way of doing things and some were just making them concrete.

1. We decided that the next few years aren’t a period for taking on big risks or flirting with overcommitment. There are times where shooting for the stars is a great idea, but right now our margins of time, energy & patience are too thin. Doing things with high variability and risk aren’t worth the potential upside. This is going to be a guiding principle that affects a lot of smaller decisions – for example I will not be starting my own company, I won’t even consider it for ~5+ years.

2. We decided on having Seattle be our long term home with plans to snowbird (or rainbird) in southern California in the winter eventually. We had trouble deciding on a single place to live and the idea of two locations seemed really attractive and meshes well with some other ideas we have about life. At first, we considered doing things to opposite way, with San Diego as the home and Seattle as a summer vacation spot, but for a bunch of reasons (ranging from family, to global warming, to taxes, to the age of our kids, the job market) it made more sense to make Seattle our home base.

Part of this came from gathering data while we lived in San Diego. I had assumed that living there, where the weather is nicer and the beach is nearby, would would result in me surfing & enjoying the outdoors more. In reality, in my current stage of life I spend a lot of time indoors in an office and inside taking care of kids. Comparing two years worth of outside time data, I noticed that there was a difference in my outdoor time between San Diego & Seattle during the coldest months of the year, but that minimized come springtime and actually flipped come summer. This data helped me feel confident in our current plan.

3. I changed my work mentality from that of trying to retire early to realizing it is good for me, personally, to work. This was a direct result of me not enjoying not working very much. As a result of that I’ve decided that I shouldn’t be in a hurry to stop working and should instead be optimizing for how much control I can have over what work I do and what work I am able to do next.

As a direct follow up to this item and #1 up above, we’ve decided to increase our spending on things that will save us time and energy. Our approach used to be to try and do things ourselves and save money wherever we could. We are now dialing that frugalness back for a period to make sure we aren’t overwhelmed. Our goal is to identify the highest levered ways to convert our money into more free time and relaxation. For example, we will be buying more healthy prepared meals to save on meal prep time a few times a week, hiring a house cleaner, scaling up the amount of babysitting/nanny hours we have and possibly other approaches. This will be tricky for us. It will be especially tricky to rewind our frugal habits but still keep them at the ready for later periods where we might chose to use them again.

I would still like to be able to decrease the weight that compensation plays in a my future job decisions by saving up enough money that I could, in theory, retire, but I do not plan to actually retire. It is more likely that I would use that flexibility to be very selective in what projects I work on and to broaden my range of potential projects to include those that do not offer high compensation.

4. After two years away from being a product manager, the role that leads a software team in prioritizing what to build, I decided to return to that role. I really like creating new things and product manager is a role where you get to do that in a way that has short and long term impact. This was a direct result of me researching other roles and even trying out a new role for six months. Despite my success in that new role, it isn’t how I want to spend my time going forward. I’m glad I got to experience that and confirm it.

5. In my searching and exploration phase I exposed myself to a lot of ideas that helped me reject some false tradeoffs I’ve long held. One is a lie I’ve believed for a while that the highest paying corporate jobs at the biggest companies are stodgy, un-impactful and dehumanizing. I believed in contrast that if you really do what you really believed in, it probably wouldn’t pay much money and will be at some small company, likely a non-profit. I now believe impact, enjoyment and compensation are almost entirely orthogonal. There are jobs that happen to pay a lot of money that make a huge positive impact and that are very interesting for certain people and there are jobs that pay very little that are soul sucking and that also do nothing morally good for the world. I now feel more free to believe that working for a large company can be just as mentally stimulating, morally rewarding and impactful as working for small company, or oneself. What is important is evaluating the individual situation – the company, role, team and work being done.

6. Along with rejecting some ideas I’ve held, I also became more comfortable explicitly accepting some beliefs I’ve loosely held. One is that that doing high quality work is in itself good, even when the task seems far from the objective. We can’t always know where our work will take us or measure our true impact. The idea of doing good work, no matter the work, is well illustrated by a likely apocryphal story that during a visit to NASA President John F. Kennedy noticed a janitor carrying a mop and asked: “What are you doing?” To which he got the response, “Well, Mr. President, I’m helping to put a man on the moon.” There are big goals I would like to help achieve and I’ve realized, the right place for me right now might be mopping the floor, and that is perfectly fine.

7. I wrestled with the notion of identity and how hobbies played a role into that. Most of my life, either surfing or running has been a big part of how I spent my free time and also part of where my identity came from. Just read through this blog to see that in action. I’m now entering a phase of life where neither of those is going to be a big part of my life and I needed to do some thinking about how hobbies fit into my life, which hobbies were the best fit and what that meant for where my identity came from. I still have a lot to figure out here over the coming years, but have some ideas in place to begin to explore.

8. As a direct result of items #1-6 above, I decided to kick off a job search which eventually ended with me accepting a job as a product manager in Google’s Cloud organization. This particular role is not one that I would have selected, had I not been able to process through all of the above.

I realized that right now I am in a unique position to work in a role that I enjoy, on a project that I find interesting and potentially very impactful, at a company known for excellence in execution, compensating employees generously and treating its employees well. It seemed like a wise decision to take advantage of this opportunity.

Key Learnings

Throughout the year, we learned a lot the hard way. I wanted to pause and document a few of those to help me in the future and to perhaps solve others following in my footsteps.

1. Moving during a sabbath year. It is hard for me to be strictly against this, because in the end, us moving helped us make one of our biggest decisions. I would caution against moving in any other circumstances though because it is a ton of work. Moving takes up about a month of free time in my experience – so doing so 3 times in a year takes up 1/4 of the year, which isn’t ideal.

2. How much to scale back working. During our year I took off work completely for ~7 months and resumed working in a lightly structure role for ~5. Based on that, my recommendation to others would be to be cautious about how much you scale back. If you have never gone for a period of 3+ months without working, I wouldn’t recommend going cold turkey for a full year unless you have some strong structure or something particular to keep you busy. It is probably best to scale back hours by 25-50% for your first attempt. Or to perhaps find a new and interesting job or volunteer project that you can do part time to keep some familiar structure in your life.

3. Be mentally prepared for some heavy introspection. ‘Know thyself’ is what the Greek philosophers preached. But despite the easy access we each have to ourselves, getting to know ourselves is actually quite difficult. Being mentally prepared for some challenges here would go a long way.

4. Your to do list won’t necessarily clear. During the year, my todo list surprisingly increased. I went from ~20 items to 36 and recurring scheduled tasks increased from 28 to 47. The increase in recurring tasks likely had more to do with me having time to formalize things I was doing from memory before, which is good. The increase in regular items seems to be normal gas-like behavior, projects expand to fill the time you give them. I was able to drop my backlog of articles & videos I’d saved from 35 to 15 though, so I did make some progress there.