Freedom From Obligation (and the #1 Rule for Sabbaticals)

I’m going to tell you the #1 rule of sabbaticals. No, it’s not “you do not talk about sabbaticals”. That’s Fight Club. Please do talk about sabbaticals!

When I first started taking Seventh Week Sabbaticals, I thought of that week as “bonus time”. In my mind, it was a whole week of extra space that could be filled with anything.

So what did I do with that extra space? I filled it.

That’s what we all do automatically. We fill time by habit. We look at our calendar, and if there’s nothing there, we say, “Great! I can add more things!”

I didn’t yet understand that margin is not a luxury.

My friend would say, “Hey, we should get together some time for coffee! When are you free?”

I’d look at my calendar and see that I had a sabbatical week coming up in a couple weeks. Perfect! Plenty of open time to schedule some events.

“How’s Friday at 1:00 PM in two weeks?”

“Sounds great.”

I’d go about my day.

Someone else would message me to schedule dinner. I’d look at my calendar and see a nice large blank space coming up for my sabbatical and schedule the dinner there.

Gradually, I added more and more things to my sabbatical week. A meeting here, an interview there, and more promises to attend events. I filled time automatically by habit.

We Don’t Know How Much We Need Rest

The time came to take off my sabbatical week. I’d finally made it!

On my first day off, I became aware of just how much I needed the rest. After pushing myself for so many weeks, I didn’t realize how burned out I was.

When you’re going, going, going, you don’t realize how much you need rest until you slow down.

Just because you don’t realize you need rest doesn’t mean you can continue to push yourself without lasting damage. Running on fumes will result in burnout.

Obligation Isn’t Restful

The first day of my sabbatical felt like therapy. I needed this downtime more than I ever knew. I was only beginning to enjoy the restorative properties of this rest before I realized something terrible:

I had a meeting the next day.

Attending a meeting was the last thing I wanted to do. I wanted to do absolutely nothing. It wasn’t until Day 1 of my sabbatical that I understood how important having nothing is to resting.

I thought about that meeting when I went to sleep. The next morning, I woke up to an obligation: I had a meeting that day. I’d already said yes. I’d made a commitment to this meeting. There was no backing up. I was obligated to attend.

Obligation completely negates the purpose of rest. You cannot truly rest on sabbatical if you have obligations or commitments.

I treated my sabbatical as “empty space” and “free time” to fill. As a result, I ended up with a week of obligations.

I trudged through the rest of the sabbatical week attending meetings, calls, interviews, and events I did not want to have. It was the opposite of rest.

I just wanted to do nothing.

But I couldn’t do nothing. My past self had made sure of that. My past self had filled my calendar with plenty of events and obligations. This ensured I couldn’t rest effectively.

Why did I do this to myself? How could I avoid this problem in the future?

The problem was, while I was in work mode, I’d just go, go, go. I didn’t think about the fact that I might be tired in two weeks. I just scheduled things blindly.

The solution was to understand that the sabbatical version of myself was a different person.

I had to accept that I did not know how much I needed rest until I gave myself the opportunity to rest.

Now, it may very well be that the sabbatical version of myself is doing just fine and actually wants to do all of these things. Great! But the sabbatical version of me needs to be the one to make those decisions in the moment.

I cannot make the decision to commit the future version of myself to something on my sabbatical when I don’t yet know how much I will need to rest.

I knew I had to come up with a better system. I needed to implement a rule that would solve this problem once and for all.

The #1 Rule: Do Not Schedule Anything for the Sabbatical

I must first make a clarification to preempt the question that inevitably comes up.

People always say, “So you’re saying I can’t do anything on my sabbatical? What am I supposed to do? Stare at the ceiling?”

No, I’m not saying that.

You can do anything and everything on your sabbatical. But that is a decision you get to make on sabbatical—not beforehand.

The purpose of the sabbatical is freedom from obligation. When you go into a sabbatical, you should have NO prior commitments, so that you can say “Yes” to anything in the moment.

Again, we’re trying to solve the problem I mentioned earlier where your past self commits to something your future self doesn’t want to do! You don’t know how much you need rest until you have the opportunity to rest.

Having obligations will destroy the restful properties of a sabbatical.

Say “Yes” to Anything You Want—On Sabbatical

It bears repeating: the rule that you cannot schedule anything for your sabbatical does not mean there are any limitations imposed on your sabbatical.

You can say “Yes” to absolutely anything you want on sabbatical.

There are no limitations.

Many times, I will choose to do things on sabbatical that look like work to someone on the outside. That’s okay. I can do whatever I want.

There is not even a limitation that says I can’t work!

There is no rule that you can’t work on sabbatical. The only rule is that you can only say “Yes” to something (including work) while you’re on sabbatical.

If you decide on sabbatical you want to work on a project, great! Go for it. It’s your sabbatical. Do what you want.

The goal is not to “not work”. The goal is freedom from obligation. Freedom from obligation is everything.

“Work” you don’t have to do will feel like play. It can even be restful!

Some sabbatical weeks, “doing whatever I want” looks like working on a marketing campaign. It’s what I wanted to do. It doesn’t matter if someone else thinks it’s “not a true sabbatical”! That’s the best part about sabbatical: there are no limitations. I can choose to say “Yes” to anything I want on sabbatical.

A true sabbatical is where you have freedom from obligation and the choice to do what you want, when you want, where you want.

As I write this, I just finished a sabbatical week. I wrote 25,000 words while on sabbatical and built and designed this website. You might think that doesn’t sound very restful. You know what? You’re right! It wouldn’t be restful if I had to do it. But it was restful because I chose to do it.

I feel absolutely fantastic. This last sabbatical was maybe one of the best of the 36 sabbaticals I’ve taken, and it was one where I maintained my routine through the sabbatical. I wrote more than I do during normal work weeks, and I feel extremely rested.

When you get to do what you want, when you want, where you want, it rejuvenates you.

When you go into sabbatical and are met with obligations, you will curse your past self and come out drained.

Virtually everyone ignores this rule when they start taking Seventh Week Sabbaticals. Eventually they come around. Don’t feel bad: it took me years to figure it out. I only hope to save you some pain should you choose to take my advice instead of learning the hard way.

The Beauty of Possibility

When you choose to abide by the #1 rule of sabbaticals, you will enter your sabbatical with a sense of unprecedented freedom.

Say “Yes” on your sabbatical. Not before.

Trust the process.

You’ve entered your sabbatical. There are no events. No meetings. No calls. There is nothing but pure possibility.

Release the shackles, leave the ball and chain behind, run through the fields of tall grass and experience the beauty of possibility.

This week can be anything you want—anything you decide to make of it. Say “Yes” to anything!

  • Spend the first 2 days doing absolutely nothing. Yes
  • Make an outline for a book you want to write. Yes
  • Spend a day watching some documentaries. Yes
  • Go outside and take a walk before sunset. Yes.
  • Take a day trip to a neighboring city. Yes
  • Spend a day just reading books. Yes
  • Meet an old friend for coffee. Yes

These are just ideas. You get to decide. Every day is your choice.

Keep in mind though: your sabbatical week will almost certainly not include all of the above. I used to think I’d have all the time in the world during my sabbatical week. I’d write a big, long list of things I wanted to accomplish and end up doing only 2 or 3 of them.

When you’re not used to taking off every seventh week, you’ll assume you have more time than you really will. A week is not a long time. You’ll gradually adjust to it and learn to estimate more accurately after a few years of practice.

The Travel Exception

There is one exception to the “do not schedule anything for the sabbatical” rule.

The exception is you have to plan some travel in advance.

Over the years, I’ve observed that sabbaticals fall into three different types:

  • Rest Sabbaticals
    • These comprise 50% of the sabbaticals I take.
    • Most sabbaticals are what I would call rest sabbaticals. These are typically made up of mostly low key, chill days. I prioritize rest, sleep, and taking it easy. I made poke at a side project, but not really “work” on much.
    • I like to spend a lot of time learning on rest sabbaticals. I enjoy reading, taking courses, and watching videos.
  • Project Sabbaticals
    • These compromise 30% of the sabbaticals I take.
    • Examples might include: writing a book, recording music, drawing, coding a website, outlining a future course I want to produce, designing marketing campaigns or sales funnels, etc.
  • Travel Sabbaticals
    • These compromise 20% of the sabbaticals I take.
    • I haven’t traveled much in recent years on sabbatical, but it’s not necessarily for lack of want. As the oldest of 13 kids, we didn’t take many family vacations growing up. I’ve always wanted to travel more. I’ve made a personal decision to work hard all of my 20s, build a strong financial foundation, and travel a lot in my 30s and beyond (without having to stress about expenses).

Now, of course, traveling often involves a lot of planning. You have to book flights and hotels far in advance to avoid paying unnecessarily exorbitant amounts right before your trip.

For this reason, there is need for a “travel exception” to the #1 rule of sabbaticals. While you should strive as much as possible to avoid scheduling anything for your sabbatical, travel plans are the one exception that make sense.

Book your flights, reserve your hotels. If you plan to have a travel sabbatical, do what you need in advance to set your trip up for success and minimal stress.

Remember the spirit of the rule: freedom from obligation.