Hiking the Na Pali Coast Trail to Kalalau Beach in Kauai, Hawaii

Photo: Frugal Frolicker (used with permission).

We are traveling to Hawaii in September, 2019 during one of my Seventh Week Sabbaticals. I work six weeks and take off every seventh week as a sabbatical. Sabbaticals have completely revolutionized my life.

I don’t always travel when I’m on a sabbatical. Usually, I stay home and rest or pursue side projects. This is a rare occasion where we’re taking a full blown vacation over a sabbatical week—our first vacation since 2016!

I chose the island of Kauai for our vacation because it is home to some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. It’s known as the garden island. Parts of Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park were filmed on Kauai.

I love beaches, and I love mountains, and Kauai is everything in one package.

Kauai is able to maintain its “garden island” reputation in large part because it receives more rainfall per year than any other place on earth, raining 330 out of 365 days.

Helicopters circle the island, taking you on an unforgettable tour that feels like you’re being whisked through a 60-minute screensaver.

Photo: Frugal Frolicker (used with permission).

While the northeastern part of the island boasts world-record rainfall, the southwestern part of the island is much drier. In fact, it’s home to the Waimea Canyon (known as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific”).

Photo: Aaronbernstein | CC BY-SA 3.0 (used with permission).

The Waimea Canyon is over a mile wide and stretches 14 miles in length, but perhaps most impressive are its stunning depths of more than 3,600 feet. If the size wasn’t dramatic enough, the canyon features a gorgeous rainbow of colors accented by waterfalls. Reddish orange terrain contrasts with lush green grass and, when there isn’t a spectacular blue sky, the canyon takes on a purplish hue in overcast weather.

While there are some incredible hikes near Waimea Canyon, there is also an easy-to-access lookout point which requires only a 2-minute walk from the parking lot.

What’s not so easy to reach is the marvelous Kalalau Beach.

Photo: Frugal Frolicker (used with permission).

Photo: Keven Siegert (used with permission).

Photo: Keven Siegert (used with permission).

Kalalau Beach

Possibly the most exclusive beach in the world—complete with your own private waterfall—Kalalau Beach is accessible only by an 11-mile hike along the Na Pali Coast Trail. While the trail is open to the public, most visitors only ever hike the first two miles to Hanakapi’ai Beach. Continuing beyond this point requires a permit which you must purchase in advance, and permits can be difficult to obtain.

Photo: Keven Siegert (used with permission).

Beyond the initial two miles of the Na Pali Coast trail, on the road less traveled, hikers are rewarded with jaw-dropping views unlike any available elsewhere on the planet. Rugged cliffs rise straight out of the ocean to dramatic heights of over 4,000 feet. The cliffs feature lush foliage from top to bottom with folds as though the landscape were draped in green satin.

Photo: Frugal Frolicker (used with permission).

Photo: Frugal Frolicker (used with permission).

In making the 22-mile round trip to Kalalau Beach and back, hikers must cross a dozen streams. These streams are also your only water source—and you’ll need to drink a lot more water than you can carry. This means you’ll need to filter water as you go, and while many streams cross your path along the way, there are some stretches of many miles where there is no water source. You’ll want to top off whenever you can so you’re not left parched in the stretches of trail that have no cover and leave you exposed to the baking sun.

The total elevation gain is well over 5,000 feet each way. The climb from sea level to high altitude and back earns the trail its 9-out-of-10 difficulty rating.

But besides being difficult, the Na Pali Coast Trail is also considered one of the most dangerous trails.

Photo: Keven Siegert (used with permission).

Photo: Keven Siegert (used with permission).

Crawlers Ledge

While the cliffs provide incredible views, they’re also what make the hike so perilous. On Crawlers Ledge, a rocky path hugs the outer edge of a cliff that provides no more than 18 inches of standing area and as little as 6 inches in a few narrow places. This is enough room for one foot. There is no other way through. The trail, and Crawlers Ledge, is the only way to get to Kalalau Beach. There are no roads, and not even boats are allowed to land on national park shores.

It takes 8 hours to complete the 11-mile hike one way to the destination beach, assuming the weather is good. If it’s not, you might as well turn around. Besides being miserably muddy, it’s far too risky to attempt something as precarious as Crawlers Ledge with anything less than optimal weather. You want to complete this stretch in as dry, and wind-free, conditions as possible. One misstep, or muddy slip, will send you cascading hundreds of feet to a sure death on the rocks and waves below.

There are no security guards. There are no lifeguards. There is no cell service. There are no lights. You cannot call for help if you twist an ankle. Even if you could, it would be a long time before anyone could get to you.

Photo: Frugal Frolicker (used with permission).

People have died on this trail, but it’s typically not from falling off one of the cliffs. The real danger is flash floods. It rains more on Kauai than anywhere else in the world, and rainfall high up in the mountains has to come down. This is what creates the signature waterfalls Kauai is known for, but it’s also what causes streams to swell.

Day hikers are surprised to find the stream they just crossed 30 minutes ago swelled to much larger than it was before.

DO NOT cross flooded streams. This is how people lose their lives on Kalalau Trail. The surging water can wash you away in seconds.

Wait it out. The water will recede as fast as it flooded. You can rebook a missed flight, but you only have one life. It’s not worth it! Be smart and don’t cross streams when they are flooded, and you’ll be just fine.

You can make it to Kalalau Beach in a day by hiking for around 8 hours. This is a moderate pace that accounts for occasional photo breaks. Keep in mind, you’ll likely have a backpack weighing something like 30lbs with all of your camping gear, which will keep you at a moderate pace.

You want to pack as light as possible, because it’s a long trek, and you’ll soon wish you left unnecessary items behind. Not to mention, the last thing you want on Crawlers Ledge is an overly large pack on your back.

Some people break the hike to Kalalau Beach into two days, opting to stay overnight in Hanakoa Campground at mile 6. The mosquitoes are pretty bad here though, whereas at the beach they’re mostly nonexistent. For me, that’s enough encouragement to keep moving and complete the 11 miles in one day.

I initially planned for us to hike to the beach in one day, camp overnight, and return the following day. But after reading enough trip reports from other hikers urging others to “not make the same mistake we did,” and to “stay at least two nights,” I thought better of it and decided we will stay two nights and make the hike back on day 3.

We’re fortunate to even be able to go because torrential rains in 2018 caused devastating floods which rendered parks in Kauai inaccessible for over a year.

2018 Flood

In April of 2018, Hanalei, Kauai received a record of 50 inches of rain in just 24 hours. Residents of more than 50 years said this was the worst flood they’d ever seen, which makes sense as it may have just been the rainiest day in U.S. history.

Amazingly, no injuries resulted from the flooding, but landslides damaged roads and caused highway closures which cut off access to the northern part of the island entirely. Bridges are still undergoing nightly reconstruction work as of August, 2019.

State parks Haena, Na Pali Coast, and Polihale were all closed indefinitely to allow for the clearing of landslides and repairing of trails.

Haena State Park, which saw over a million people per year, had its visitors reduced to zero.

Photo: Frugal Frolicker (used with permission).

The Park Reopens

It took over a year for the parks to finally re-open in June of 2019.

State park officials are experimenting with a new daily limit on park. The park previously saw 3,000 visitors per day, but daily access upon reopening was limited to just 900.

The Na Pali Coast Trail in Haena State Park is one of the most beautiful, difficult, and dangerous hikes in the world. You’d think the risks would deter most people, but they seem only to enhance the allure.

Photo: Frugal Frolicker (used with permission).

After being closed for over a year, adventure seekers were more eager than ever to hit the trails. But with the new cap on daily visitors, the limited number of permits required to venture beyond the first few miles of the trail (to experience Kalalau Beach), disappeared almost as instantly as they were made available.

Getting a Camping Permit

While my planned trip wasn’t until September of 2019, I decided to look at the system for acquiring a camping permit back in July.

The first step is to create an account on the Hawaii government website. Once you have an account, you can access the online reservation system.

The earliest you could acquire a permit at the time was 14 days in advance. Curious, I tried to see if I could select a date in the next 14 days.

All of the spots were taken. Zero were available for every one of the next 14 days.

“Wow,” I thought. Must be a busy time of year. I’ll check back tomorrow.

The next day, I checked and, once again, all of the spots were taken. Zero available.

“Huh. I guess I better try earlier in the day!”

Photo: Frugal Frolicker (used with permission).

A week later, I checked the reservation system again—this time, in the morning.

Every single one of the spots for the next 14 days was taken. Zero available.

“This is crazy…”

Is there a way people are booking further in advance somewhere else? Are those who make reservations in person given a longer time frame? What does one have to do to get a permit?

I started to worry, because I already have a place booked to stay in Kauai. Our flights are booked as well, and we’re traveling there no matter what, but I couldn’t obtain a permit until 14 days prior to my arrival at the earliest.

I checked the timezones and found that Hawaii time is 5 hours earlier than my local time. I figured their online system would probably let me book 14 days out starting at midnight Kauai time.

So I woke up at 5:15 AM Central Time and checked the system.

Zero available for the next 14 days.

“You’ve got to be kidding me. Something must be broken.”

Photo: Frugal Frolicker (used with permission).

I had to try one more time. The next morning, I set my alarm for 4:56 AM. I logged into the website. I selected my desired location, filled out all of the fields on the form, and instead of using the date picker, I manually typed the future date I wanted in the input box.

I waited.

As soon as the second hand on my Apple Watch struck 5:00:00 AM, I clicked “Continue”.

Instead of the red error message this time, it let me through!

I didn’t complete the purchase, since my trip wasn’t until September, but I went back to the reservation form and refreshed.

36 spots available.

Refresh.

25 spots available.

Refresh.

12 spots available.

Refresh.

Zero available.

In under a minute—about 30 to 40 seconds—all of the permits were gone.

I’d figured out what was happening: the permits were so limited, and in such high demand after the parks were closed for a year, that they were simply all taken within seconds of becoming available.

I started to worry I might not be able to secure a permit, and that these months of dreaming, researching, and preparing had all been for naught.

Photo: Frugal Frolicker (used with permission).

The Journey of a Lifetime

September is an ideal time to visit the Na Pali Coast Trail. It’s considered the off season, but it’s great for reliably good weather. October is when Kauai starts to get an increase in rainfall and trails get really muddy.

Over the months, I’d spent untold hours researching this “bucket list” hike, desperately hoping everything would work out for us to go. From all accounts I’d read, this was truly a journey of a lifetime. Unforgettable. Those who’d completed the trail, and made it to Kalalau Beach, say it was a highlight of their life and something they recall often.

All that remained was getting the elusive permits.

A Lucky Break

I had planned to publish this post back in July, but something happened right before I hit publish.

In preparing to publish, I figured I should include a link to obtain a Napali Coast Park camping permit as a convenience for those who may come across this post via search.

I went back to the park reservations page to copy the link (something I wouldn’t have done if I wasn’t writing this post).

This ended up being extremely fortunate, because I saw a red announcement on the page:

Napali Coast camping permits are currently available 2 weeks in advance. As of August 1, 2019, permits will be available 90 days in advance.

They were increasing the reservation window from 14 days to 90 days!

Since our trip is in September, I hadn’t planned to check back in to the reservation system until the end of August. That would have been at the previous maximum of 14 days prior to our planned trip. Had I done that, I would have been sorely disappointed to find the dates I wanted already booked.

I’m so glad I saw the message in time!

On August 1st, when the reservation window extended to 90 days, I was able to secure camping permits for our trip in September.

I’ve been beaming ever since.

Another lucky break was discovering the Kalalau Trail Facebook Group. This is where I learned the exact time at which the reservation window was to be extended on August 1st, 2019 and how I was able to snag a permit the moment they became available. The people in the group are incredibly helpful, and the search feature will reveal a wealth of information about the trail and how to prepare.

Speaking of Facebook…

The group is moderately sized, and posts in there typically garner something like a few dozen likes.

At first glance, I couldn’t figure out what it was about this one particular photo that caused it to receive 1.2k likes.

…and then I saw the name.

To think I was only a few weeks out from running into Mark Zuckerberg.

Zuckerberg invested north of $100 million in a 700-acre plot of land with his own private beach on the north shore of Kauai, so his visiting the Na Pali Coast Trail is not terribly strange.

For me though, Kalalau will be a very rare treat.

Kauai has consumed my dreams for months. I’ve spent more hours, days, and weeks that I can count reading, watching, researching, and acquiring backpacks, camping gear, water filters, camera mounts, dehydrated food… and I’ve had a BLAST doing it all.

I think I’ve had just as much fun anticipating as I will experiencing.

Now, the trip is mere days away.

I saw this post on Reddit the other day, and I’m afraid this might be me when I come back.

Dealing With Burnout

What are some strategies to avoid and deal with burnout?

Sabbaticals prevent burnout. But if you’re already burned out, what do you do? Recently the World Health Organization classified burnout as one of its diseases. That’s not great news.

Sabbaticals prevent burnout. But if you’re already burned out, what do you do? Recently the World Health Organization classified burnout as one of its diseases. That’s not great news.

You have to be patient. You have to be kind to yourself. You have to reset your expectations of what acceptable output is for you.

Be okay with expecting less out of yourself. Define what is “enough” right now. What is a successful day today? What is a successful day tomorrow?

Be okay with less during this recovery phase, because it’s hard enough recovering without also beating yourself up for not being able to accomplish more.

Write100K

I attempted to write 100,000 words in a single day with my Write100K project.

You can watch the archived live stream in the two videos parts below (we had technical difficulties part way through and had to create a second video):

Part 1:

Part 2:

The primary goal of the Write100K event was to write the draft of my next book, which is called Sabbatical. I’m excited to get this book into your hands.

If you’d like to stay in the loop regarding availability of the book, I recommend subscribing to the sabbatical.blog newsletter.

In the off chance you are currently subscribed to the seanwes newsletter, note that this is a different newsletter that is separate from the one at seanwes. You’re not on it unless you came to this website and signed up.

The sabbatical.blog newsletter is also where you’ll get to go behind the scenes on my 2020 Seventh Year Sabbatical journey. I’d love to stay in touch.

If you’re new to sabbaticals, I have some articles on this website that may be of interest to you. Feel free to look around. Here are a few places to start:

I also have a couple recent episodes of the seanwes podcast to recommend:

Thanks for subscribing to the newsletter!

Do reply to the welcome email. I’d love to hear from you.

Should You Schedule Sabbaticals Around Holidays?

I received an email from a reader:

Question: Do you try to schedule sabbaticals around or over other holidays?

Background/context: I have kids and they have certain weeks off, plus I usually take off certain weeks around certain holidays. If I start Seventh Week Sabbaticals right now, that means a sabbatical would fall right before a holiday. Later, another sabbatical would fall during a holiday. I can imagine my wife will say, “Why can’t you take off that week instead?”

We don’t adjust the Seventh Week Sabbatical schedule ever. It’s a calendar event I created in 2014 that is set to repeat every seventh week. It’s not manually adjusted for any holidays. It falls where it falls.

We do, however, still take all normal holidays and weekends. So we work five days per week (Monday–Friday), take off Saturday and Sunday, take off holidays, and take off every seventh week.

A sabbatical is not synonymous with a holiday.

  • A holiday is typically a day of observance.
  • A sabbatical is the absence of everything (including observance, celebration, etc.).

A sabbatical is intended to be margin. It’s the space between everything else. It’s extra. It’s time set aside exclusively for rest and rejuvenation. It’s freedom from obligation.

Sabbaticals are different from holidays because holidays are not inherently restful.

People often schedule events, other work, travel, plans to visit family, etc., during holidays. They fill up their holidays. As a result, if a holiday is ever truly restful, it’s by chance, not by design.

The sole purpose of a sabbatical is rest. The one rule of sabbaticals is: do not schedule anything for your sabbatical. It’s not the absence of an event but the presence of margin. This is what makes a sabbatical rejuvenating.

Yes, sometimes sabbaticals fall on holidays, where you made specific plans for that holiday. It happens, and it’s okay to follow through with your holiday plans.

It’s also okay when your sabbatical week falls the week before (or the week after) a holiday where you have plans. Take your holiday. Follow through with your plans. Visit family. But also take the sabbatical week. It is a different thing designed intentionally for rest. Don’t manually adjust where the sabbatical falls to have it purposefully align with an existing holiday. Let it fall where it falls. This makes more sense when you start to understand the difference between sabbaticals and holidays. One is restful, the other is not.

While you’re more than welcome to continue taking off the certain weeks you take around holidays, when you take more than seven weeks of sabbaticals per year, it completely changes things. You are no longer desperate for the couple of weeks of time off per year. You’re not perpetually burned out anymore. So while it might be a crazy thought to imagine not taking off certain weeks like you used to as a vacation, know that by next year, you will feel quite different (in the best possible way).

Below is what holiday time looked like for me at the end of 2018 with sabbaticals. I let the sabbatical fall where it falls—it simply repeats every seventh week since I created the original event in 2014. I don’t change the sabbatical schedule.

  • November 19th–25th I took a sabbatical week.
  • December 4th–7th I took a business trip.
  • December 24th–26th I took off to visit family for Christmas.
  • January 1st I took off for New Year’s Day.
  • January 7th–13th I took a sabbatical week.

(By the way, you can view my sabbatical calendar on the Schedule page.)

If there’s any work that needs to be done by any certain point, I know exactly what times I have available to work in between my sabbaticals, trips, and holiday commitments.

It’s just like when someone asks on Friday if you have time for a call. When looking at your availability, you ignore the weekend (because you’re not working) and simply say, “Are you available Monday at 8:00 AM?” Similarly with sabbaticals, when there’s work to do, schedule it during times of availability, and account for deadlines accordingly.

Remember, things take as long as the amount of time you give them.

Weekend Sabbatical

If you’re familiar with Seventh Week Sabbaticals, you might think the idea sounds great. It would be nice to take off every seventh week and recharge!

There’s only one problem: you don’t control your schedule.

Even if you wanted to take off every seventh week as a sabbatical, there’s no way your boss would let you.

For many years, I had no alternative to sabbaticals for those with a day job. I said, “Part of being able to take off every seventh week means you have to control your schedule.”

While you do need to control your schedule to take full advantage of Seventh Week Sabbaticals, there are smaller ways you can start taking purposeful rest right now.

Have a Day Job? Take a Weekend Sabbatical.

You probably work 5 days per week and get weekends off.

You can’t take a full Seventh Week Sabbatical yet, but let’s look at what you have control over: weekends.

Weekend Sabbatical (for day jobbers):

Take off the LAST weekend of every month as a sabbatical (Saturday and Sunday).

While the Weekend Sabbatical is not quite as deep as a full Seventh Week Sabbatical, it’s still life-changing. This practice will pave the way for full sabbaticals and get you in the habit of making time for purposeful rest.

Follow the #1 Rule: Do not schedule ANYTHING for your sabbatical.

The Weekend Sabbatical still adheres to the same rule as the Seventh Week Sabbatical.

There’s only one rule: do not schedule anything for the sabbatical.

The purpose of this rule is freedom from obligation. I have an entire post dedicated to this rule: Freedom From Obligation (and the #1 Rule for Sabbaticals)

Before continuing, click that link and read the article.

Taking a Weekend Sabbatical won’t help you unless you follow the one rule.

Obligation isn’t restful, so you will defeat the purpose and restful effects of the sabbatical if you schedule anything for your Weekend Sabbatical.

If you’re wondering, “Sean, does this mean I can’t do anything on my sabbatical? Do I just stare at the ceiling?”

No, of course not. I also answer that question here: Freedom From Obligation (and the #1 Rule for Sabbaticals)

Here’s a quote:

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.

The reason this rule is so important is because margin itself is what you’re scheduling, and margin is not a luxury.

You will be amazed at the clarity that comes from this blocked-off time. A moment in your day when you’re not rushing from one thing to the next will feel incredible.

Examine your weekend.

You work 5 days and get 2 days off. What are you doing on your days off?

Well, you’re probably doing lots of things. Weekends may not be so “free” for you.

Like everyone in life, you start each day with 24 hours.

During the week, work takes up more than 8 hours. You have a routine built around work and do your best to accomplish other tasks and chores in the time you have left. Maybe you poke at your side project in the evening now and then.

You start every weekend day with 24 hours as well. The good news is, work doesn’t take 8 hours away from your weekend day.

So why does it seem like weekends just tend to disappear? They’re here, and they’re gone. They goes by so fast, it’s like trying to take a photo of lightning.

Where does all of the time go? Your time is gobbled up by commitments.

Your time is like a pie with 24 slices. Sleep takes up 8 hours (I hope!), which means you’re down to 16 slices. Little by little, you give each slice away. Sometimes you planned to give a certain number of slices away. Other times, a slice was taken from you when you weren’t paying attention.

Many Saturdays, you start with a commitment to give away 6 slices right from the beginning. During the week, you said “Yes” to a party at noon on Saturday. You said “Yes” to afternoon coffee with an old friend. Oh, and there’s that group you’re a part of with weekly meetings at 9:00 AM. You said “Yes” to that years ago. And Saturday dinners, of course. You’ve done those for as long as you can remember.

You don’t question any of these things. They’re just a part of your weekend.

The full day was accounted for. Now, the day is gone.

  • Did you do what you wanted to do?
  • Are you happy with how you spent your time?
  • Would you change anything?
  • Do you feel well rested and ready to go back to work on Monday?

None of those activities are “bad” things. But you want to choose how you spend the limited time you have. When you mindlessly follow an outdated routine, don’t be surprised when life takes you in a direction you don’t want to go and you’re left unfulfilled.

It’s time to take back control.

Break some (old) commitments.

You are where you are now, with the commitments you have, thanks to what your past self allowed.

A version of you in the past said “Yes” to something. You made a commitment. You allowed something. You agreed to go along. You set expectations.

Something that took me years to learn is commitments aren’t set in stone forever.

That sounds weird at first, because when we think of commitments, we think of them as something you take seriously. Commitments imply a sense of permanence—a sense of lasting.

When you commit to something, you’re saying you will stick to it. It’s good to commit to things. You want to be a person of your word. You want to be seen as reliable.

Where you can run into trouble is thinking that commitments must be forever.

Setting expectations is a good idea, but not all expectations should last until we die.

If you’re not careful, you can find yourself stuck in old commitments.

Your commitments were made in a different time and in a different context. They were made with different goals.

Right now, you may have new goals, but you may still be stuck in commitments that are taking you in a direction you don’t want to go.

If you don’t take a step back, you can find yourself in a place where you’re fulfilling commitments that don’t take you where you want to go.

You can find yourself fulfilling commitments that are not in service of your goals, which means you will end up somewhere you don’t want to be.

I needed to be reminded of this and maybe you do too:

It’s ok for your commitments to change.

You’re not a liar if you don’t do something for the rest of your life. You’re not a liar if you don’t stick to a commitment until the day you die.

It’s ok for commitments to change. The main thing is, when they do change, set proper expectations with people. Explain the reason, be respectful, and express gratitude.

People may not be happy when you decide to stop doing something you committed to doing a long time ago. They came to expect it and rely upon it—maybe even take it for granted. This is understandable. People don’t like change. Be patient.

Be kind, and acknowledge their feelings.

Stand firm, however. This is your life. The commitments you make should always be in service of your goals.

The right time to break a commitment is when your goals have changed.

  • What do you want to accomplish?
  • Where do you want to be?
  • Who do you want to be?

You must reclaim your time. To say you “don’t have time for a sabbatical” is lazy and untrue. The first step is to acknowledge your control over your time.

If you don’t want to take a Weekend Sabbatical because doing so would require having some uncomfortable conversations, then at least be honest with yourself: you don’t want to be uncomfortable for a moment to improve your life in a significant way for years to come. At least be real about the truth.

You have time. You simply give it away.

One of the first things you may be tempted to do when you hear this is make excuses. It’s understandable: you’re under threat and want to protect yourself. When you’re called out on having time but giving it away, you will want to point to things you don’t control as reason for why you’re blameless. This is dishonest.

Look for the things within your control you choose to do that you know waste your time. You will find those things with honest reflection. Those are areas where you can reclaim your time.

You don’t lack time, you lack clarity in what you want and have time commitments that reflect your lack of clarity.

Without clear priorities, your time will disappear, and you won’t know why.

My goal is to help you give time back to yourself so you become a more rested and healthy person so you can give to others without burning out.

You can take a Weekend Sabbatical.

As a person with a day job, family, and responsibilities, the only thing keeping you from taking a Weekend Sabbatical is your decision to do so.

All that is required to give yourself the gift of rest, clarity, rejuvenation, and perspective with a Weekend Sabbatical is the decision to schedule an event on your calendar for the last weekend of the month right now.

Part of you wants this. That’s the only reason you’ve read this far. Some part of you knows you need to set aside time to find yourself again. You know you’re overworked and stressed. You know you need rest. There is some part of you that knows this, even if you’ve done your best to ignore it in your mission to push forward no matter what.

Listen to yourself. Pay attention to that small voice begging you to slow down.

If you can’t clear your schedule for one weekend a month to give yourself much-needed rest, it’s time to reevaluate your priorities.

You have a guide to breaking old commitments above. You understand you have control over your time. You’ve listened to the small voice telling you to rest.

Now it comes down to three simple steps:

  1. Decide sabbaticals are a priority to you.
  2. Break old commitments that no longer serve you.
  3. Schedule a recurring “Weekend Sabbatical” on the last weekend of the month (and keep it free of obligations).

Confessions of a Recovered Workaholic

Sean McCabeMy name is Sean McCabe. I am the founder of seanwes, and I’m a recovered workaholic.

For 10 years, I worked 18-hour days, 7 days a week.

“But I love what I do!” As if loving my work meant it was any less of an addiction.

It was an addiction. I buried myself in my work.

I slept just 5–6 hours a night for more than a decade. I told myself I felt better sleeping less and sleeping more made me feel worse. Besides, it was a waste of time. I was “one of the rare ones” who could get by just fine on less sleep (I was wrong—click and listen for just 5 minutes).

I ate two out of three meals at my desk. I consumed dinner with a TV show, after which I returned promptly to my office to work again until midnight.

There was work, and there was sleeping and eating (although little of the latter two). I cared about sleeping and eating only as much as they enabled me to work more.

I was not physically active for most of my 20s. I sat at a desk (I didn’t own a standing desk). I didn’t walk, I didn’t run, I hardly even went outside.

“The business would not grow itself,” I thought. There were only two modes:

  • Mode 1: Working on the business.
  • Mode 2: Feeling guilty about not working on the business.

I didn’t like feeling guilty.

Had you asked me if I had any friends, I’d say, “Certainly! I mean, not a lot of friends, but who needs a lot of friends? I have a few friends. Good friends! Of course I have friends.” Had you asked me to name their names, I’d have no trouble providing a list of half a dozen people.

It wasn’t until some years later, upon reflection, I realized every single person I’d have named as friend was someone I paid. They were all on payroll—except my wife.

Wait, no…

My wife was on payroll as well.

I let loose an expletive.

The realization hit me like a ton of bricks.

  • My health was poor. This was masked only by the fact that I was in my 20s. When you’re young, you’re like a rubber band—you bounce back—but bad habits catch up with you (mine would later).
  • There was no end in sight. I felt like I was treading water. There was always some surface-level reason (like meeting payroll), but I never took a step back to reflect on the big picture.
  • I had no quality non-work relationships. All I did was work. I didn’t invest in relationships. There were people in my life who might call me friend, but I certainly wasn’t being one.

The only relationship I kept up was the one with my wife. But I put that relationship in maintenance mode. I didn’t invest in my marriage beyond a few dates per month. Time was my most precious commodity (never mind that it was the one thing for which she was starved).

There was time spent working and time spent feeling guilty.

I didn’t like feeling guilty.

I convinced myself I didn’t have time.

  • I didn’t have time for sleep.
  • I didn’t have time for exercise.
  • I didn’t have time for relationships.

Don’t you understand? There’s work to do!

When I say I worked 16 hours a day, 7 days a week for 10 years, I’m talking about an average. There were some 14-hour days, but there were equally as many 18-hour days—and 20-hour days.

How to know if you are burned out.

Burnout is bad. I’ve experienced it. It took a full year to recover, and I consider myself lucky it took only that long.

You can’t afford burnout. Whatever you have to invest in preventing burnout before it happens is worth it.

If you wait until burnout happens, it’s too late.

If you’re wondering whether you’re burned out, you already are.

If you feel burned out right now, you have a long road to recovery ahead of you—and that journey must begin now. Don’t put off what is already going to be a lengthy process. Don’t continue pushing.

I’ll write more about recovery from burnout in the future, but for now, I will focus on preventing burnout in the first place. Whether you’ve been burned out in the past or are burned out now, you need to know how to prevent your next burnout from happening.

Going “all in” on a break.

I knew what I was doing was not sustainable. I knew I needed a solution. I was running myself into the ground.

I needed a break. I had to stop. Something had to change, some how…

I couldn’t keep working 7 days a week.

I couldn’t keep working 16 hours per day.

I know only how to be obsessed. I have an all-on or all-off kind of mentality. Either I’m going to be the best or I don’t care at all. It’s like a light switch. There is no gradient to my intensity. You get the full thing or nothing at all.

You might also call it an addictive personality.

Either way, I know myself enough to understand that if I’m going to do something, I’m going to go all in.

That’s probably why I became a workaholic.

But I couldn’t keep going this way. I needed to make a change. I needed to save myself from destruction. I had to take time off somehow, but I only know how to go “all in”.

This begged the question: what would it look like to go “all in” on a break?

Four years later: sabbaticals changed my life.

I now take off every seventh week as a sabbatical.

In a moment, I’ll tell you what I did and how it all works.

But let me first show you how different things are.

Today:

  • I sleep 8 hours per night.
  • I take off all major holidays.
  • I take off every seventh week.
  • I exercise 90–120 minutes per day.
  • I work 5 days per week and take off weekends.
  • I work no more than 8 hours per day (often less).
  • I spend 30 minutes every day talking with my wife.

How in the world is this even possible? How did I go from having “no time” to doing all of this—and still working 8 hours a day?

I sleep more, I actually exercise, I don’t work weekends or holidays, I get all my work done and there’s still time to spend a dedicated half hour conversing with my wife every single day. We call these daily chats Mini Dates. We also go on at least one “full date” each week.

It’s incredible.

This isn’t some radical 4-hour work week we’re talking about here. I regularly work 8 hours per day because I want to. Remember, I still truly love my work! I enjoy helping people. I like writing. Teaching makes me come alive.

But I don’t have to work 18-hour days to accomplish my goals or grow my business. I don’t have to be a workaholic.

How did I get to this point? What changed?

It’s all thanks to sabbaticals and changing my habits one small step at a time. It doesn’t happen overnight, but by making small changes, your life can look drastically different a few years from now. Imagine being a wholly new person, completely transformed in just a few short years.

It’s possible with sabbaticals.

This blog is a public draft of my upcoming book, Seventh Week Sabbatical. Subscribe to the newsletter to read my book as I write it.


I wrote this post as an introduction for the top of my About page.
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Otherwise, read about the Origin of Seventh Week Sabbaticals.

Discipline Doesn’t Stop When You’re on Sabbatical

When you think of the word discipline, you may get flashbacks. These flashbacks could be of a coach who treated your team more like a military unit than a sports group.

You may associate the word discipline with strict parents and a regimented childhood.

Discipline might make you think of an authoritarian regime.

I’m not talking about that kind of discipline.

Self discipline is your ally. It is not your enemy.

Discipline is doing the hard thing you know you should do but don’t want to do.

A post shared by Sean McCabe (@seanwes) on

Self discipline comes from within. It’s not something anyone imposes on you. No one is telling you what to do. No one is forcing you to do anything. You set your own pace.

With Seventh Week Sabbaticals, people often say, “Oh, that’s great you take so much time off! You may get less work done, but work isn’t everything.”

They miss the point. We get MORE done because we take Seventh Week Sabbaticals. Why?

We get seven weeks worth of work done in six weeks.

How is this possible? Because things take as long as the amount of time you give them.

Not only do we get the same seven weeks worth of work done as everyone else (in less time), but we also come back from sabbatical CHARGED UP. Because we’ve rested, we return to work with energy and enthusiasm.

There is a spike in productivity when we return from sabbatical because we’re amped up and ready to go. We’re looking forward to getting back to work.

As a result, we actually get more work done than people who don’t take Seventh Week Sabbaticals!

But seven weeks worth of work doesn’t get done in six weeks without discipline.

Discipline is what enables us to perform at a high level.

It’s not about the number of hours you work but how productive you are when you do.

We don’t have to work overtime to get seven weeks worth of work done in six weeks. We just have to stay disciplined when we do work. That means:

  • Minimize distractions.
  • Prevent the possibility of interruptions.
  • Prioritize and protect focus like your life depends on it.

Discipline frees you up to rest guilt-free on sabbatical.

Discipline is your friend.

In Maintaining Routine Through Sabbatical, I talk about how I keep my early morning schedule and continue to exercise throughout my sabbatical.

I treated my first couple dozen sabbatical weeks like lazy vacations. I’d stay up late, sleep in, and just sort of veg out. Sometimes I would do productive things, but mostly I just let the time slip away from me.

The week would go by in a blink and my sabbatical would be over.

In more recent years, I’ve made a point to stick to routine during sabbaticals. In other words, discipline does not stop.

Staying disciplined during the sabbatical does not mean I have no freedom. In fact, the exact opposite is true: I have more freedom than ever.

When I wake up early and maintain my early morning routine, exercise, and writing, I feel good about myself. In the first few hours, I’ve already done so much. Then, I have the rest of the day to do whatever I want! Nothing feels more restful. It’s a fulfilling kind of rest, as opposed to the lazy kind of rest I was practicing before. The lazy sabbaticals where I slacked around did not feel like true rest. They left me feeling unproductive, unfulfilled, and guilty.

When I stay disciplined on sabbatical, the week feels longer. I have more time in a day. I have more time to do nothing if that’s what I want to do! But I maintain a structure that creates this freedom. I can then use the freedom to rest, create, think, or do anything I want.

Discipline doesn’t stop when you’re on sabbatical—and that’s a good thing.

Margin is Not a Luxury

Why are people so busy?

There are many reasons, but two stand out to me:

  1. People say “Yes” by default (which is a mistake).
  2. People feel like being busy means they’re important.

There is only one word that can create time: “No.”

Yes fills time. No makes time.

You don’t have time because you’ve said “Yes” too much. It’s your fault and no one else’s. No one else is responsible for your lack of time. Reevaluate the commitments you’ve made. Take ownership and take charge.

It’s hard to say “No” because we often feel a sense of obligation and don’t want to offend anyone. We feel bad and don’t want to disappoint people. While no can be a hard word to say, it’s the only tool we have for creating more time.

“Yes” and “No” are not right and wrong, good and bad. They’re left and right, up and down. Learn to see the words “Yes” and “No” as directional, not emotional.

You may think of margin as a luxury you don’t have time for, but you must see margin as a necessity for your sanity.

How will you ever have margin if you’re always filling up your free time?

Schedule Margin

You will never find margin. Margin will not happen to you. This is because we fill time automatically by habit.

If something is important, you put it on your schedule. Similarly, if you’re ever going to have margin, you need to schedule margin on your calendar. Treat margin as you do any serious commitment.

Margin is an event. It’s not the absence of an event—margin itself is the event. When you schedule something else during your margin, you’re effectively double booking yourself. Don’t double book yourself.

Block out time by putting an event on your calendar called “margin,” “break,” or “sabbatical.” If you don’t schedule margin, it won’t happen. People will fill your time automatically if you don’t protect it.

You may feel like you don’t have time to schedule margin in your life. You don’t have time to schedule margin because you don’t schedule margin. It’s a perpetual cycle. You have to be the one to break. Choose to schedule margin even though you feel like you can’t.

You will never magically have more time. You have to get ahead of it and put margin on your schedule.

Try this out today: create a new event on your calendar called “margin.” Consider this a beginner’s guide. Later, you can work your way up to taking Seventh Week Sabbaticals.

  • Block out an hour.
  • Block out two hours.
  • Block out an afternoon.
  • Block out a day or whole week.

You’re not allowed to schedule anything else during this time.

You can do whatever you like with your margin: sit, walk, think, rest, relax, travel, write, plan—anything you’d like. But remember, don’t schedule anything for your margin. You need freedom from obligation. Margin itself is what you’re scheduling.

You will be amazed at the clarity that comes from this blocked-off time. A moment in your day when you’re not rushing from one thing to the next will feel incredible.

Actually, it will feel wrong at first. You might even feel guilty. Don’t feel guilty. Embrace the discomfort of space and living with your own thoughts. This is important time. It is a necessary to take a break from reacting to the world.

Avoiding burnout and stress is not a luxury; it’s survival.

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 says you can’t work on sabbatical. The 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.

Sabbatical vs Sabbath

“Are sabbaticals some kind of religious thing?”

I’m often asked if I take sabbaticals as a part of a religious ritual of some kind.

This stems from a confusion between the words sabbatical and sabbath. While similar in sound and root, the two words have different meanings.

Sabbatical

I’m an all-in kind of person. If I’m going to work, I work hard. Whatever I do, I want to be the best. Maybe it has something to do with being the oldest of 13 kids. I’m not sure.

I don’t know how to do something half way. I tend to obsess.

This is great for my career advancement and for my business. It’s not so great for my health.

I needed a way to go all in on a break. I didn’t know what that looked like or if such a thing existed.

When researching rest and what it would look like to take an extended break, I came across the concept of sabbaticals. Most examples cited an extended career absence for those in academic fields.

A traditional sabbatical is one full year of paid leave granted to a professor in their seventh year of employment. This sabbatical year is usually for a specific purpose—such as research or writing a book.

A sabbatical is an extended career absence, usually in the amount of one year every seventh year.

When I came across this idea, my first reaction was, “A year is a long time! A really long time.”

Why isn’t there a small scale sabbatical? Something more frequent?

What if, instead of one full year off, I took off every seventh week?

Thus, Seventh Week Sabbaticals were born.

(Spoiler: After years of Seventh Week Sabbaticals, I realized the immense power of rest and time off. I came back around to the idea that initially seemed “too extreme” for me; two years ago, I made the decision to also take off every seventh year. I will take off one full year in 2020 as my first Seventh Year Sabbatical. I’ll talk more about this in a future post.)

Sabbath

The first time I heard of a sabbatical, I too wondered if the word held any religious connotation. While sabbatical does not have a religious connotation, sabbath does.

What sabbatical and sabbath have in common is they both encompass the idea of rest and the number seven.

The word sabbath has been watered down with informal use to the point of nearly being synonymous with rest, but it does have religious roots. In fact, when referring to observation of the seventh “holy day” (either Saturday or Sunday depending on whether Jewish or Christian), the word Sabbath is usually capitalized.

Differences in capitalization may help you distinguish between the two:

  • sabbatical: not religious
  • Sabbath: religious

While Sabbath is the religious observance of one holy day per week, sabbatical refers usually to a full year of paid leave for academic purposes.

Fallowing the Land

There is biblical admonition to let the land lie fallow in the seventh year to restore nutrients to the soil. However even the pagan Romans followed the practice of land fallowing.

Before the advent of chemical fertilizers, fallowing the land helped add back three essential nutrients to the soil: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.

Each harvest removes more nutrients from the land. This causes a progressive loss of soil fertility.

As soil fertility decreases, yields decline.

You cannot over-farm the land and expect the same harvest without replenishing the soil.

You may think fallowing the land is an ancient practice that’s no longer needed thanks to modern farming systems. But the excessive use of chemical fertilizers can cause environmental pollution and degradation1.

In other words, attempts to alleviate one problem by taking shortcuts often end up creating new problems.

Rest to Sustain Productivity

Sabbaticals are not inherently religious, but there is some wisdom (and science) to the ancient practices of intentional rest.

Chemical fertilizers solve some problems and create others, in the same way that energy drinks make you feel as though you can operate without sleep. We know energy drinks are merely a temporary “solution” to the problem of needing rest.

After a little while, exhaustion catches up with you.

Shortcuts end up costing you in the long run. Foregoing rest will ultimately result in burnout.

It’s nearly impossible to put a price on the opportunity cost of burnout. It’s just not worth it.

Prioritize sustainability. Set aside time for purposeful rest.

Try a Seventh Week Sabbatical.


1. https://www.sciencedirect.com/book/9780123485366/soil-in-the-environment