Just Started a Sabbatical? Read this first

Just Started a Sabbatical? Read this first

So you've just started a sabbatical? Congratulations! This is the start of a journey of self re-connection and self rediscovery that will stand you in good stead for many years to come. But there are a few things to be aware of in order to get the maximum benefit from your break.

The thing to remember is that there are only a few ways to botch a sabbatical and these are 

  • not taking enough time for your sabbatical and
  • working

One of the only ways to botch a sabbatical is to not take enough.

If you're taking a sabbatical for reasons of exhaustion, know that there is a minimum amount of recovery that is necessary. Starting to get into work mode before that amount of recovery has happened will see you again in the same situation of burnout and exhaustion. 

In an earlier article, I talked about how constant exposure to the stress hormones of cortisol and adrenaline is a core feature of the modern workplace and how this leads to a slow and insidious and growing addiction to this cocktail. And now we start to see why your cortisol addiction is so dangerous. It is one of the main reasons that people bounce too early from their sabbaticals.

Navigating the early sabbatical

The first few days of sabbatical are equal parts glorious and terrifying. You wake up from an afternoon nap, the sun three quarters past the meridian and birds chirping outside and you revel in the luxury of a sleep well slept until consciousness arises and then you panic -- sleeping in the afternoon? Whatever will become of me?

The tension between what is good for you and what you're addicted to plays out throughout the day. There are times when you cannot believe your good fortune that you get to do all the things you want to like binge Netflix, read, exercise and so on. And at other times you feel an intense impulse to work.

It is this latter impulse that bears looking at closely. In the first few days of your separation from the workplace, there will be times in the day when your thoughts turn to starting your own business or improving on something that you worked on at your last job, or stealing clients from your erstwhile employer because....

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This is the trick of the addiction. There is no "because". There is no good reason to return to work. And yet the mind will not sit still. It lunges at the bars of freedom like a caged beast, if you will permit the absurd metaphor. And it does this because it is addicted to stress.

Logically, everyone can agree that taking a few months off after a decade plus of working is not a one way ticket to homelessness. But then what explains this urgency you feel? That is the addiction at work -- pulling at your insecurities, invisibly reshaping the texture of reality, filling your head with its own irrefutable logic.

Anyone who has tried to quit smoking knows how tricky the addiction is. The kind of excuses and warped logic that it brings to the mind, logic that can only make sense to an addict looking to justify one more hit. 

This is precisely what happens to you in the early days of a sabbatical. You feel that your entire value has been taken away from you and this can be a scary and disorienting feeling. This is precisely what the cortisol junkie wants. Not only do thoughts like this cause some of that delicious stress that the junkie is craving, it also leads you inexorably back to work and that cortisol-rich environment.

Imagine you're on a trek with friends and as nightfall arrives, you stop at a little hut. While the rest of your friends bed down in their sleeping bags, you start to pace up and down the little hut.  Bewildered, your trekmates ask you what you're doing. Without breaking step you answer - 'we've come here to walk so I am walking'.

This story above is clearly absurd and you can see the absurdity in it. But for some reason, you cannot see the absurdity in your own situation, where you have taken time to rest and recharge but instead you are working. This is the power of cortisol addiction. It warps your preception to the point where you cannot even see the logical contortions required to justify your actions.

Fear is a very powerful motivating force, but it is also as easily dispelled. Fear counts on you not turning to face it, to take a closer look, to see what's behind the mask of this fear. Like the old Mountain Dew ad, the only thing behind the mask of fear is victory.

Simply being aware of the fact that the thousands of thoughts about work in your head are all a withdrawal symptom from the cortisol-rich environment will itself give you the resources to not succumb to the pressure of the addiction.

There are many more techniques to deal with this situation which I'll talk about in subsequent posts but for now it should suffice for you to know that the situation improves with time. Just give it time and your body will reset itself to a healthy state of cortisol-dependency and your fears about the future will fade away. And you will be amazed as to how we see the world not as it is but as we are.

The main goal of sabbatical is to reconnect with oneself. And how can we know that we have done so? Well, the first clue would be that we no longer identify with the preoccupations of the person who went on sabbatical -- that burnt out husk of human, that bundle of fears, that twitchy, nervous frightened little thing. As long as we have their preoccupations at the top of our minds, we are still that person, disconnected from our core self.

When their fears and motivations drop away, that is when we can start to tell that we are making meaningful progress towards being ourselves again. If you bounce from your sabbatical while you are still the person who went on sabbatical, you've ended your sabbatical too early.

And this is the most important thing you need to know about the early days of the sabbatical.