Maintaining Routine Through Sabbatical

I warned you on my About page this blog might be all over the place.

While I consider this blog a public draft of my upcoming book, Seventh Week Sabbatical, the posts I publish will by no means be in any particular coherent order!

I find it much easier to run with what I’m thinking about. I like to write on topics where I feel momentum. I can always edit, cut, and rearrange later.

Today, I’m writing about what’s on my mind: routine. Specifically, sabbatical routine.

There are many concepts and pieces of the overall sabbatical idea that I’ll mention in passing today that I will expand on further in future posts. That’s okay. I’m looking forward to being able to cross link core sabbatical concepts as I write more posts moving forward. We’ll then be able to build off of some of the foundational pillars. Once I know we’re on the same page, we can get to more fun, nuanced details.

Alright, enough preamble!

I Had Trouble With a Sabbatical Routine Because I Didn’t Have a Normal Routine

I remember when I first started taking Seventh Week Sabbaticals years ago, it was hard to figure out what my day should look like on sabbatical.

At some point I’ll write a post about your first three sabbaticals—because you’re going to be completely out of whack until your third sabbatical (I see it happen repeatedly for everyone). It doesn’t click until your third sabbatical.

Even once I was accustomed to the rhythm of Seventh Week Sabbaticals, I had a difficult time figuring out a routine.

Part of why I had difficulty is because I didn’t have much of a “routine” during my normal life! I just woke up, worked all day, and slept. It wasn’t great, but it worked, I suppose.

How could I expect to develop a good sabbatical routine if I had no normal one?

Because I was working such crazy long hours, when it came time to take a sabbatical, I only knew how to completely turn off. I was either ON or OFF.

This meant sabbaticals during those years involved a lot of sleeping in and lounging around. At least, that’s what the “rest” sabbaticals looked like. I’ll write a future post on the three kinds of sabbaticals (rest, project, and travel).

The problem at the time was I had no routine to begin with—let alone a sabbatical routine.

Having no routine back then “worked” only because all I did was work. If I was awake, I worked. I didn’t have a strict routine.

How I Developed My Normal Routine

First, I will outline how I developed my current routine (it’s been a multi-year process). Further down below, I will explain how I’ve adapted that to a sabbatical routine. I don’t think you can have the latter without the former.

Two or three years ago, I finally developed a serious morning routine—one that starts the night before. I did this in preparation for writing my book, Overlap, in 14 days. It took me 3 months to develop this routine. I kept a daily journal about my book writing process, and explained in the first entry how I developed that habit.

More recently, I turned it a more structured process anyone can follow: 3-Month Guide to Waking Up at 6am Consistently.

What started as a morning routine developed into a full day routine. I used to work until bed time. I finally stopped doing that in the past two years, and made a commitment to stop work at 5:00 PM every day for what I call a “mini date” with my wife. The idea is to spend intentional face time with her every day. We also go on a walk during this time, so it’s good extra exercise. I wrote more about “mini dates” in my post on the Five Habit Tracker.

I had previously justified working into the evening because there was “always more work to be done”. One day, I realized how stupid that was. If there’s “always more work to be done”, what’s the point in working late every night? It’s not as though I’m ever going to finish the work. I might as well stop at a reasonable time and resume things tomorrow!

If you know anything about habits, you know it’s not a good idea to merely try to stop doing something. It’s much more effective to replace a bad habit with a good one. Rather than simply trying to stop work at 5:00 PM, I committed to spending time with my wife at 5:00 PM. I have a literal appointment on the calendar.

People joke that I’m “penciling time in for your wife”, but it’s no joke. You make time for the things that are important to you. You don’t “get around to it if you feel like it”. So you better believe it’s on the calendar.

At this point, I have a normal routine that I’ve developed over the past two years. I’ll show you that routine first, then an adapted version for sabbaticals, followed by an explanation of how I came to that version (and why I don’t just forego the routine while on sabbatical).

(NOTE: My routine has changed since I originally wrote this post. I now stop work at 3PM. I also get 8 hours of sleep per night instead of 6 hours. Last updated: February 28, 2019.)

Sean’s Normal Routine

  • 4:30: Wake
  • 5:00: Run
  • 6:00: Write
  • 6:30: Breakfast
  • 7:00: Work
  • 12:00: Lunch
  • 12:30: Work
  • 3:00: Exercise (HIIT, strength, stretching)
    • I listen to audiobooks while I exercise.
  • 4:30: Mini Date/Walk
  • 5:00: Read
  • 5:30: Dinner
  • 6:00: Read, write, watch videos, or work on other projects.
  • 8:00: Shut down (turn off screens, shower, get ready for bed, etc.)
  • 8:30: Lights off

Sean’s Sabbatical Routine

  • 4:30: Wake
  • 5:00: Run
  • 6:00: Write
  • 6:30: Breakfast
  • 7:00: Free time
  • 12:00: Lunch
  • 12:30: Free time
  • 3:00: Exercise (HIIT, strength, stretching)
    • I listen to audiobooks while I exercise.
  • 4:30: Mini Date/Walk
  • 5:00: Read
  • 5:30: Dinner
  • 6:00: Free time
  • 8:00: Shut down (turn off screens, shower, get ready for bed, etc.)
  • 8:30: Lights off

How I Developed My Sabbatical Routine

It’s not complicated how I arrived at the sabbatical routine: it’s literally my normal routine with the “work” slots replaced by “free time”. (We’ll talk more about what one might do during said free time in a future post.)

  • Step 1 of developing a sabbatical routine is developing a normal routine.
  • Step 2 is to simply replace “work” time with “free time”.

It’s literally that simple.

But what might be more interesting to talk about is why.

In the early days, I would have no routine whatsoever on sabbaticals. That sounds great in spirit, but it devolved quickly in practice.

I may wake up at 4:30 AM when I’m following my normal routine, but that doesn’t mean I like waking up early. As I wrote about in Chapter 12: Rise and Write of Overlap, I’m a night owl at heart. I default to being a night person.

Why then do I wake up early? Well for one (as you know if you’ve already read the chapter), I logged my output and proved I’m literally twice as productive when I work in the morning.

I don’t wake up early because I enjoy it. I do it because I like who I am when I do.

Now that you know I’m a night owl by default, you can probably imagine what happens on these routine-free sabbaticals: I go to sleep later, and later, and wake up later, and later. The whole week just completely devolves.

When I wake up late, I feel sluggish. I don’t run. I don’t write (or if I do, it’s not nearly as much). I’m reactive instead of proactive, and I’m slave to the world’s agenda for me. I’m not in control, I’m being controlled.

It’s a disaster.

Here are several other reasons I maintain my routine on sabbatical:

  • I feel better overall when I wake up early.
    • NOT in the morning (obviously). I don’t like waking up early. But I always appreciate the fact that I did afterward. I’m on top of the whole day.
  • I feel productive.
    • It’s not just a feeling either. I track my time with RescueTime (which absolutely everyone should do), and I can report that I’m objectively twice as productive. It’s tracked.
  • I get things done.
    • Again, reactive vs. proactive. Waking up early means you set the tone, you set the agenda. What do you have for the world? Not what does the world have for you?
  • I’m proud of what I got done.
    • There’s nothing better than feeling a sense of pride. The days where I go on a walk with my wife at 5:00 PM and I tell her, “Today has been fantastic. I’ve been unbelievably productive, I feel well rested, and I’m proud of what I accomplished. I feel great,” are the best. It’s infectious too.
  • The day doesn’t just disappear.
    • This is maybe the biggest one. My wife and I have talked about this a lot (we’ve taken sabbaticals together for years and we’ve both experience all of the different versions). It’s unanimous: when we follow our early morning routine on sabbatical, we feel extra refreshed. The sabbatical feels like it’s 1.5X as long. When we follow no routine, stay up, and sleep in, the sabbatical disappears in an instant, and we feel empty.
  • I’m happier.
    • A simple, but important reason. I’ve outline a good number of reasons why above.
  • There’s no real reason to change.
    • Think about it: why did you come up with your normal routine? Because it works. Why stop using something that works? Just replace “work” time with “free time”. Continue living in a rhythm that’s been successful for you, and enjoy the freedom you have from obligation! There’s no need to fix what isn’t broken.
  • If you don’t follow routine, it’s harder to get back on routine once sabbatical is over.
    • Ugh. This is the worst. I’ve experienced this and so have my employees. The reason you come back to work groggy, unfocused, and frazzled Monday morning after sabbatical is because you didn’t follow routine. You completely let yourself go and somehow expected to “snap” back into place come Monday. It doesn’t work that way.
    • Maintain the sabbatical routine and you will be excited to go back to work on Monday. Your rest will feel better, and your work will be more productive.
    • If you are fortunate enough to have a boss who gives you sabbaticals, earn that sabbatical by respecting your boss enough to come back to work refreshed and ready to roll on Monday morning. That means disciplining yourself to follow routine during sabbatical.
    • Ooh… that’s an entire post on its own I can write: discipline DOESN’T STOP when you’re on sabbatical. I think people have this notion that rest = no discipline—or that you no discipline whatsoever should be involved if you’re “resting”. That’s a myth. Discipline is a lifestyle.

In total this post spawned four more topic ideas!

Today is Day 4 of my 36th sabbatical week (I counted). It was an extremely productive day.

  • I woke up at 4:30 AM.
  • I ran 3.5 miles.
  • I wrote 3,000 words.

All of this before lunch time. I still have the rest of the day to do anything I desire!

Yesterday, I met a friend for coffee on a whim. We had a lovely, several-hour conversation that I will think about for a long time. Later that evening, I recorded a video and wrote even more.

I wrote a second post today as well, which I will publish shortly. I will also share the video I recorded soon.

(Update: I posted the video.)

I’m already excited to wake up tomorrow and write more!

Tomorrow

You have a nice, full, busy day. You eat dinner. Next thing you know, it’s getting close to bed time—at least if you want to stick to that new morning routine you’re building.

But there are so many things you want to do! You want to work on that side project. You want to play that game. You haven’t caught up on your social media feed. Your inbox still has messages. You want to go through your “Read Later” or “Watch Later” list or enjoy another TV show.

What do you?

Well, if you’re anything like me, you probably just… do it!

The night is young. The night brings with it the promise of infinite time. You can always sacrifice tomorrow—the imaginary future—to feed your short term desires.

You can always sacrifice sleep. It’s like making a charge on your credit card. “That’s a problem for future me.”

I’m proud to say I finally feel like I’ve reached a point where I no longer do this. I have finally become content with shifting the things I want to do to the next day in favor of maintaining my routine.

I had a bunch of items in my “Read Later” list that I wanted to read. I had two YouTube videos I wanted to watch. I had a blog post I wanted to finish and publish that evening.

“No,” I said. And I went to bed at 8:30 PM.

It sounds insane, but here I am and it’s “tomorrow”. I woke at 4:30 AM. I ran 3.5 miles. I wrote 2,170 words (before I started writing this). I had a great conversation with a good friend. And it’s still only 10:00 AM. I have the rest of the day! I’ve already been super productive, and there will be plenty of pockets of time for me to consume those things I wanted to last night—only, I didn’t sacrifice my sleep, my routine, my health, or my productivity. I feel great.

Origin of Seventh Week Sabbaticals

Sean McCabeMy name is Sean McCabe. I am the founder of seanwes.

In 2014, I started taking Seventh Week Sabbaticals.

I work six weeks and take off every seventh week. I also pay my employees to take off every seventh week. We don’t have “unlimited time off”, we have mandatory time off.

It is my mission, by 2047, to get every company in the world to pay their employees to take off every seventh week.

Before you think I take 7.42 sabbatical weeks each year because I must love taking time off, let me assure you the opposite is true.

I was heading toward burnout

I started my first business at age 17. As I write this, I’m about to turn 30.

For the entirety of my 20s, I worked. What I don’t mean is that I had a job and also did other things. I mean, I worked and did nothing else but work and sleep.

In my first decade of business, I worked 16 to 18 hours a day, 7 days a week.

I love my work.

But I was heading toward burnout.

I just didn’t know any other way to be.

It seems I have two modes: ON and OFF. Nothing in between. I’m either all-in or I don’t care at all.

When you’re in your 20s, you’re practically invincible. You can stretch yourself and bounce back like it’s nothing. I could work crazy hours and get up at 6:00 AM and do it all again with no breaks. Just go, go, go.

But as time passed, I could feel that I was wearing down. I knew was I couldn’t keep going at this grueling pace indefinitely. It took many years for me to come to this realization.

I have experienced real burnout before. I was so burned out, I didn’t even know I was burned out until six months after the fact. That’s a story for another day, but I’ll tell you this much: it’s not pretty.

Whatever you think you can’t afford to lose—whatever is causing you to push, and push, and push yourself beyond your limits—is not worth it.

What you truly can’t afford is burnout.

Once you’ve burned out, you’re out of commission. It’s not impossible to come back, but it’s a long process of recuperation.

  • You think you’re saving time by pushing yourself.
  • You think you’re preventing problems by overworking.
  • You think you’re getting more done by grinding harder.

But the time you will lose by being burned out is a million times worse than the time you think you’ll lose now.

“All in” on a break

I knew I couldn’t keep going at the same rate without risking burnout. I knew I had to slow down—I had to take a break somehow.

But the only way I know how to be is “all in”.

Well, okay then.

What would it look like to go “all in” on a break?

I came across Stefan Sagmeister’s 2009 TED talk, The power of time off. He talked about taking off an entire year every 7 years.

The problem for me was I needed something more immediate. I couldn’t wait seven years to rest, I needed a solution now.

I decided to take this idea of the sabbatical and create a small scale version of it.

Rather than take off only the seventh year, the way I could go “all in” on a break now was to take off every seventh week.

Thus, the Seventh Week Sabbatical was born. I’ve been taking sabbaticals ever since and never looked back. It’s the single best thing I’ve ever done for my career.

P.S.

Fun Fact: Initially, and for many years, I referred to my time-off concept as “Small Scale Sabbaticals”. But the name never stuck (no one but me ever used it), and no one knew what it meant when they first heard it.

It wasn’t until this year that I came up with “Seventh Week Sabbaticals”. I like it a lot more. It’s descriptive, and you immediately understand what it means.

Seventh Week Sabbaticals.