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The Prepared Mind: The Importance of Going Fallow

The Prepared Mind: The Importance of Going Fallow

The sabbatical: What is it and why should you care?

The concept of the sabbatical is based on the Biblical practice of shmita. Relating to agriculture, every seven years, a sabbath (or rest) year was ordered to give the land a break from agricultural production. In a similar way, our minds, like the soil, need rest to be able to continue to grow and provide.

A “sabbatical” has come to mean an extended absence in the career of an individual. But there is a hook — most people come back from these experiences still forcing production in exhausted soil. They feel under pressure to fulfill some goal, e.g., writing a book, or somehow operationalizing their experience for others, or even productizing it in some way.

We have a very hard time just doing something for the sake of doing it. With proverbs like “an idle mind is the devil’s workshop” or references to “killing time,” allowing ourselves to go fallow does not come easily.

In his 2009 TED talk, The Power of Time Off, designer Stefan Sagmeister explains how he decided to start closing the doors of his New York studio for a full year every seven years:

Like many things in my life that I actually love, I adapt to them and over time, get bored by them. And in our case, our work started to look the same.

Sagmeister first thought about taking a work sabbatical when reflecting on the typical flow of our lives. He estimated most people spend 25 years learning, 40 years working their career, and then 15+ years in retirement. But, Sagmeister proposed, what if we cut off five years of retirement and interspersed them in between the working years?

When he experimented with this new schedule, the result was both creatively and professionally beneficial. As he explains in his TED talk, in that first sabbatical year, Sagmeister created a film, explored new design styles and materials, and experienced new cultures and ideas.

The work that came out of that year flowed back into the company, and into society at large.

[Related: Practical Wisdom for High-Power Situations]

Signs you need a sabbatical.

A sabbatical is an opportunity to unplug and press pause. It doesn’t have to be a full year or six weeks. Giving yourself an opportunity to pause is about disrupting the inertia to which we most often succumb.

Most of us can’t opt out and go completely fallow, but we can create space for an intentional shift in thinking. Changing our thinking changes our decision-making, which eventually leads to behavior change.

We can embrace an opportunity to gain perspective that enables a mental shift in attitude, thoughts, or emotions that otherwise would not have occurred. We all need to create that kind of shift for ourselves on a daily basis.

Here are five signs that you’re due:

  1. You used to love your work and now you can’t stand it.
  2. Your boss or partner tells you things aren’t working out.
  3. You’re constantly distracted by your phone or social media.
  4. You’re facing a challenge or adversity.
  5. An opportunity comes knocking on your door that you want to follow.

Creating space could be signing up for a class, up-leveling your business, getting better at something, or saying a truth that may not have been said before. The whole idea is to connect to yourself.

If you had an extra five minutes or an hour, what could you do differently? What would you say? Who would you be with? Those are great clues about what would work for you.

Start by creating space in your day. We constantly shift and go into autopilot. We succumb to the back-to-back meetings, the constant stream of e-mail and information coming our way.

Taking a few minutes to journal your thoughts and feelings at different times of the day can be really informative. Your mood improves when you consciously bring thoughts into the moment.

Consider checking in with yourself before checking your social media feed and asking:

How do I feel? What am I thinking right now? Is this where I want to be?

When you check in, tune out others and focus on yourself. We’ve been counseled since we were children to be first, be right, to win — none of that has anything to do with slowing down. In racing against the clock and against others, we didn’t learn how to care for ourselves very well.

There is a reason why we are told on airplanes to take care of ourselves first. We have to learn to take care of ourselves to be the best self we can be.

[Related: Six Reasons Why Selfish is the New Black]

How to create a sabbatical.

Sabbaticals are all about rejuvenating and acquiring nutrients. They are a time to explore topics you’re deeply passionate about or try something new outside of your comfort zone.

But if you read through this article and still feel like it’s impossible for you, there are ways to get the benefits of disconnected, unstructured time off without risking your job. Not everyone can take a big break in their life or career. Start with a day, or an hour.

Take off one day a week.

Dr. Matthew Sleeth, author of 24/6: A Prescription for a Healthier, Happier Life, has indisputable proof that life doesn’t have to be quite so frantic all of the time: himself. His experience changed his life, leading him to write his book — a guide to refocusing your life around the principle of taking a much-needed rest day.

As Dr. Sleeth recalls:

For most of my life, I worked in emergency medicine. Ten years ago, I was given a 24-hour Sunday shift. I felt wiped out, and I was dreading Sunday each week, so I decided to take Saturday off to have a very simple day to read and explore my purpose in life.

Be unreachable for a set period of time.

Learn how to disappear, for a bit. Start with 90 minutes twice a week.

It’s a powerful trick that lessens stress, increases productivity, sparks creativity, improves work/life balance, and changes your perspective of work.

Medium member Josh Spector reveals his tricks and shows what you’ll get from pulling your own disappearing act.

Learn to take "mini-sabbaticals."

According to Harvard psychologist Shelley Carson, one of the best ways to enhance your creative output is to separate work and consumption. As she explains, even taking an hour a day for a “mini-sabbatical” to be in an “absorb” state, where you gather information and inspiration without doing any work, can be an easy way to get new ideas.

If you’re feeling stressed, unmotivated, and burnt out, there’s no point in trying to just push through. Instead, our best ideas often come when we’re not working. And a sabbatical – no matter how long – is a fantastic way to rest and rethink how you’re approaching hard problems.

If you find yourself blaming your (mental) tools, do something about it. Learn about mental models, learn from craftsmen talking about how they learn and get better at what they do, and most importantly, take ownership.

Moving forward requires change, but change by itself does not mean that you are moving forward. As Socrates said:

The un-examined life is not worth living.

[Related: How to Take Back Control of Your Life for a Happy Career and Balanced Lifestyle]


Christine Haskell, Ph.D. is a leadership consultant and adjunct faculty at Washington State University. She helps busy leaders take responsibility for their learning and development. Writing on the topic of “Craftsmanship and The Future of Work,” she shares lessons from master craftsmen and women on personal and professional mastery. Sign up for her (semi-regular) newsletter here.

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