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Lessons from a Sabbatical

Picture of a Desk

You may have read about how I came to take a sabbatical. Now, a number of months into it, I would like to share what I have learned in terms of making a sabbatical effective and fulfilling. I had some idea about a number of these factors at the start, based on conversations with people and by reading. But now having lived through it and having learned the importance of some things by not taking them seriously enough at first, I am more confident and motivated to share it. So without more ado, here are six factors that make a successful and fulfilling sabbatical.


A sabbatical is also work. It may be work that you define for yourself or maybe it lacks deadlines or deliverables in a strict sense. But it is still work, and therefore it requires a workspace. It is hard to overstate the need for a conducive workspace. A workspace is an individual’s cocoon. Simple things can make it or break it. Things like a good chair, a desk at a nice height, a good computer with Internet, space to keep a notebook, pens, books, access to coffee, a set of speakers or headphones, and maybe even lab space, these are the bare necessities of a good workspace. It may seem cool to work on a sofa or at a dining table, but it can get weary quite rapidly. You want to be comfortable, alert and focussed on your work, not thinking about rearranging furniture.


A sabbatical is work, remember? You may possibly not have a deadline, but it is important to keep working. A working schedule is an effective way to form a habit that allows you to focus on work rather than daydream about how your sabbatical has gone so far. Make a daily plan and work for two sessions a day. Each session can be 2–4 hours long. Anything shorter, in my opinion, does not allow the mind to focus, and anything longer could be fatiguing. During a session, it is easy to give in to the temptation of checking your phone every time it beeps. Now, I am not saying never check email, messages, social feeds, sports scores or news during a session, but rather do it at intervals that you define, not when the cunning phone wants you to.

Food, Exercise and Sleep

A sabbatical is work, and all work and no play can be quite dull. There’s nothing quite like food and exercise to spice it up. Eat on time. Eat smaller portions and eat often. Be a foodie. Cut fresh fruit yourself and eat it in the middle of the day. Get in the kitchen and make yourself a favourite dish. Hit the gym. Run, cycle, lift or play. You need to get your heart-rate going, and you need to take your mind off work. Sleep well. If an afternoon power-nap is your thing, do it. If an extra half hour in the morning charges you up, sleep in. Come to think of it, you should be taking care of your physical well-being, whether or not you are on a sabbatical. But the daily forces of regular work may not permit all these luxuries. So harness the freedom of the sabbatical!

People and Family

A sabbatical is different from regular work, since you don’t have any co-workers. During the course of a regular work day, it is quite easy to meet at least 4–5 different people whose company you like and spend time with them over coffee, lunch, one-on-one discussion or even a group meeting. During a sabbatical, you may need to take the extra effort to cultivate a gym buddy, or ring friends and meet one for lunch or coffee. This is also a time to make more time for family. Take your kid out to play. Maybe teach her bicycling or build Lego with her. Take your partner out on a lunch date. If your partner works, you know how hard it is to align the free time of your partner and school-going kid to plan those vacations. Well, you have one fewer constraint now!


A sabbatical is also different from regular work, in that it doesn’t pay money. If money indeed makes the world go round, it is important to know how your money is doing. Nothing dampens morale like anxiety, and nothing kindles anxiety more than a feeling of doubt about things that matter to you. For instance, your money. So leave no room for doubt and track your money. It is useful to make up a system to track how you are doing financially with as few steps as looking up 3–4 numbers and entering them in a worksheet. You don’t want this to consume an entire session of work, and you certainly don’t want to be doing this every week. Once a month should be plenty often to see where you are versus where you expected to be. An unexpected deviation, and you can then give more time to understand and correct.


Work is work because it has a goal. If a sabbatical is work, then it needs to have goals too. Too often we tend to think of a goal in terms of deadlines and deliverables. In reality, if we have a fair idea about our goals, then deadlines and deliverables are merely tools that enable us to pace ourselves. It is important to formulate goals for a sabbatical. The goals can be abstract and could become more concrete over a period of time. Setting and meeting a lot of deadlines can be like a drug, so it may be a good idea to intentionally not have deadlines. After all, you want to feel fulfilled not wasted. Note that having a daily plan and working two sessions a day is not the same as setting a series of deadlines. Think about the nautical explorers who discovered distant lands unknown to them. They had daily plans and worked regularly, and they had an abstract goal of exploration and discovery, but they didn’t sweat small deadlines.

In a nutshell, work in comfort, work often, stay healthy, be with people, mind your money and work for a goal. Every endeavour of yours will be successful and fun, most of all, your sabbatical.