I Just Ended a 12-month Sabbatical. This Is What I Learned.

During the summer of 2016 my wife and I sold our company, Content Marketing Institute, to the London-based event company, UBM. As part of the agreement, the plan was that I would stay with the organization until the end of 2017.

On January 1, 2018 I was free to do whatever I wanted. Sounds easy, right? The opportunity of a lifetime, perhaps? An opportunity, yes. Easy? Not in the slightest.

In late October, I penned my goodbye love letter to the content marketing community. The reaction to this was truly amazing. While I was expecting notes and well wishes from the community, I was not expecting the dozens of job offers, advisory roles, writing opportunities and countless other odd requests. To be honest, I felt overwhelmed. Everyone wanted to know what I was going to do next and I didn’t have an answer. For the past 15 years, I had known exactly what I wanted to do. I always knew what was next. For the first time since college I didn’t have an answer to “Joe, what are you going to do?”…and it grated on me.

After many long conversations with my wife, I (we) decided not to do anything career-oriented next. I wanted a reset. I wanted to spend time with my family, my wife and two teenage boys. I wanted to spend more time working on our non-profit, Orange Effect Foundation. But other than that, I didn’t want to do…well…anything. I didn’t want to speak professionally as much anymore. I didn’t want to travel for business anymore. And I definitely didn’t want to attend any more meetings.

I started researching the idea of a sabbatical. Technically a sabbatical is a break from work, like a professor taking a year off and then going back to teaching, but I thought the word had merit for a break in-between what’s next. I decided in November of 2017 to take a one-year sabbatical…and starting January 1st I would take the entire year of 2018 off.

Sabbatical Preparation

Preparing for a sabbatical is just as important as the event itself. Here are some things that helped my sabbatical journey.

Get Your Story Straight

Everyone is going to ask you what you are going to do, so having a consistent story is important. Many of your friends, family and colleague are not going to understand why you are doing this or how a sabbatical is even possible.

I tested out interesting responses to the question in the beginning. “I’m going to buy some sheep and tend to them,” was a favorite of mine from the movie Good Will Hunting, but it works much better in the movie (take my advice on this). Ultimately, I came up with a sentence or two and communicated it consistently to everyone who asked.

“I’m taking a sabbatical in 2018. I’ll be spending more time with the kids, traveling less and working on the novel I always wanted to write.” This worked for me. It honestly doesn’t matter if it’s true. Your goal is to satisfy the people who ask so they have some kind of comprehension about what you are doing. You have to be very careful not to hurt other people’s feelings. The fact that you get to take a sabbatical is a big deal and most people either don’t get or ever take this opportunity.

Set Your Goals

Just because it’s a sabbatical doesn’t mean you don’t set goals. Pick two or three main areas where you could change your habits. I set goals around reading more books, exercising more, finishing a novel, and increasing family activities. To help facilitate this, I carried around a journal almost everywhere I went. It not only contained my listed goals, but it was a good place for me to write down my thoughts about the journey. Your brain will be working differently during this time of non-work, so having somewhere to write down your new thoughts is critical.

Get Your Money Right

My wife and I were in the enviable position of not having to worry about generating revenue in 2018 since we sold our company, but there was still plenty to do. We checked our stock portfolios and made sure we had enough money in certain accounts. Whatever your plan is, make sure you have enough to go the distance. The last thing you want is to run out of money and force you to change course.

Social Media and Email

Before the sabbatical I was a rabid user of Twitter, Facebook and Email. To prepare for my sabbatical on Twitter, I pinned a tweet to my profile that I was going offline. Make sure you do this a few days before you leave for sabbatical so you can respond to anyone important. On Facebook, I detailed what was going to happen in a post a few days beforehand. This was probably the most important place because there were quite a few people outside my inner circle who were not aware of my intentions. Finally, setting some kind of “out of office” or “Slow to respond” is necessary for email.

Prepare a “Just in Case” List of Activities

Thanks to my wife, she created a “Bored Joe List” of activities that we could turn to whenever I became discouraged or truly didn’t know what to do. It was a Godsend.

Seven Things I Learned / Sabbatical Benefits

Outside of just learning how to be a better man/human being, there were some clear areas that made all the difference.

The First Month Is the Most Critical

My wife and I were both concerned that I couldn’t make the adjustment. That I would miss certain aspects of work. Or get caught up in social media. Or even live in email hell.

With my thoughts on doing a complete reset, I made the decision to go electronics-free for the first 30 days. I used my phone for texting only and allowed myself to watch television or go to the movies, but that was it. No social media. No email. Nothing.

In hindsight, this was probably the best decision of all. By going essentially internet free, there was no way I could possibly continue my daily behaviors of the past. And if there was anything truly critical where people needed to get a hold of me, I listed my wife’s email on my “out of office.”

Other than allowing myself to read the morning paper, I cut myself off of all news and articles. A total clean slate if you will. To be honest, the first few days were excruciating. I never realized how much I used my phone for everything, especially killing time waiting in lines or sitting on the couch. I replaced that time with reading, thinking or actually talking with human beings. I also completed about five 1000-piece puzzles over that time (with the help of my family).

The biggest reason that the 30 days without electronics worked is because my wife and I (mostly my wife) planned out January as our “30 days of fun.” In the beginning of January while the kids were on winter break we planned all kinds of family activities like the art museum, going to see the Cleveland Cavaliers, Dave & Busters, bowling, watching high school basketball and more. Once the kids were back in school, my wife and I became tourists in our own wonderful city of Cleveland, doing things we never made time to do in the past. Much of it included craft beer tasting from around the area.

You Quickly Identify Bad Habits

Right away, I realized I was addicted to certain behaviors like checking the stock market continuously during the day, wasting time of Facebook, and tinkering with email. I had no idea how much actual time and brain power these activities were extracting from me. The fact that I’ve been able to change these behaviors for good is one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever given to myself.

You Notice the World around You

I’m a guy, so I’m naturally self-absorbed, but I never knew how bad it was. All my thinking, most every day, revolved around my work, my time, my goals. So much so that it hurt my relationship with my wife and children. I had no idea about this until halfway through my sabbatical.

It started as small things, but huge things to my wife. I noticed that the dishes needed to be done. Or the laundry needed flipping. Or something around the house needed to be fixed. Or my son was working on a school project. The perfect analogy is the movie Field of Dreams. The players are out there, but some people can’t see them. Then once you see them, you can’t believe how you missed them in the first place.

Looking back on all this, I want to go into the past and slap myself. The truth was, I became blind to most of these things, and it took a reset for me to see the world without my ambition getting in the way.

I still have a long way to go, but becoming aware of this is the most critical.

It’s Not Doing Nothing, It’s Doing Different

A few months ago I started to take inventory of what I accomplished during my sabbatical (I can’t help it. I count and track everything). I became discouraged when it seemed like I didn’t accomplish anything huge. My wife helped me realize that I did so many amazing things, but there were different than anything I’d accomplished before. Such as:

  • Learning how to speak partial Italian
  • Taking a bucket-list trip to Sicily with my father and meeting 60 of my cousins for the first time
  • Spending more time with my children this year than the past five years combined
  • Rediscovering my love and friendship with my wife
  • Breaking my personal records for running a half-marathon and 10k race
  • Almost finishing a novel (85,000 words as of this article posting)
  • Losing my United Airlines status (from not traveling on business anymore)
  • Helping Orange Effect Foundation with grants to support 127 children in 26 states with speech therapy services or speech-assisting technology
  • Learning how to play craps
  • Selling my Star Wars action figure collected
  • Painting the kitchen and all the radiators in the house
  • Setting up lights in the backyard (after breaking them not once, but twice)
  • Becoming closer and spending more time with my good friends
  • Reaching my goal weight (thank you Weight Watchers) and waist size
  • Lowering my daily sugar intake
  • Making lunches for my boys every day
  • Doing the dishes every day

Parenting Is Mostly About Being Present

As of this posting, my boys are ages 17 and 15. I started my business in 2007 when they were six and four. In between, I traveled approximately one million miles in and out of 20 countries, and gave over 400 marketing presentations to help grow the business and reach our goal of selling it.

Needless to say, I wasn’t around very much. In many cases, my wife was a single parent. The sabbatical changed all that. I was around in the morning. I made their lunches. I was there when they came home from school. I drove them to school activities. I sat next to them while they were on their computers. I helped them get ready for bed. I prayed with them at night.

Initially, I thought I had to create some projects that the kids and I could do together. But what I found out is that I just needed to be present. I showed up. That’s 90% of parenting.

You Really Don’t Miss Anything

It’s been over 365 days since I began my sabbatical journey. Initially, I was worried I would miss something of importance. Something would happen in the marketing industry, or politics, or the stock market that I just couldn’t miss.

Nope. I didn’t miss a thing. Everything that is important to me became more important. There was only one thing I truly missed during the journey, and that as interacting with some of my work friends from the content marketing industry. I still miss those people today, but I learned that I have to do a better job continuing those relationships without work being involved.

What I Would Do Differently

This was tough for me to consider, because I think in the end the sabbatical worked out the way it should. So I’ll answer this with “these are the things I wish I realized sooner in my life but it took a sabbatical to do it:”

  • The substantial time I spent with my phone hurts my relationships with others and the world
  • My work goals were and are important, but they are not more important than family and spiritual goals
  • Sometimes being in the same room with my children is enough
  • Everyone should carry around a journal
  • Leaving little notes around the house for your partner is probably the best thing you can do for your relationship
  • Listen more and be slow to judge
  • Trying new things takes effort, and you need to work at it
  • There is no such thing as too much coffee
  • Doing the dishes every day makes me a better man
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