The Power of Everyday Sabbatical

by Jesse Lahey on March 1, 2017

Several years ago, I called to reconnect with one of my mentors from my college days at Xavier University. Early in my conversation with Gene, I mentioned that I thought I recalled reading in Xavier’s alumni magazine that he’d recently completed a one-year sabbatical. (As at most colleges and 15% of US companies, Xavier periodically provides what is essentially an extended paid vacation so that a staff member can recharge and perhaps focus on a special project, such as writing a book or learning something new. The typical sabbatical program provides 2-12 months of paid leave for every 5-7 years worked, but the details regarding length, frequency, and pay vary greatly among employers.)

“No, I haven’t taken a sabbatical,” he responded. “I try to make every day a sabbatical.”

The “everyday sabbatical” concept reminds me of something Steve Jobs told Standford graduates in 2005:

For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I’m about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Everyday sabbatical is how I want to spend any given workday, even if it were my last day alive. It means that I start the morning looking forward to the day ahead, focusing on a project or two that are special to me, truly enjoying and appreciating the people I’m with, and feeling charged that evening by how I spent the day.

With everyday sabbatical, you don’t pine away during the workweek, long for a year-long sabbatical, a week-long vacation, or even a weekend. You don’t need to, because you are happy and re-charged all along the way.

As leaders, it’s important to figure out how to make every day a sabbatical for ourselves — and to help the people on our team make their own everyday sabbaticals too. That’s the essence of employee engagement — when people love their work and make the organization better every day, and everyone from top to bottom stays energized and effective.

One person’s everyday sabbatical will look very different from another person’s. Personally, my perfect workday includes some deep, creative work; some time to connect with other people and make progress toward a shared purpose; some physical activity; some learning; and some teaching or coaching. It’s up to each individual to experiment in order to figure out the right mix of activities that consistently makes their workdays personally fulfilling and organizationally profitable. Leaders can help by providing coaching, as well as supportive policies and practices.

In addition to figuring out what everyday sabbatical means for yourself, it’s also helpful to figure out what it doesn’t include. For me, everyday sabbatical does not mean:

  • Everyday vacation. While I love to chill out at the lake, or travel to interesting locations, I know from past experience that I do NOT want every day to be a vacation. After 2-3 weeks of vacation, I start to feel purposeless and even isolated from all the people I care about who are not joining me on that particular vacation. Sooner or later, I need to create something, to make a difference in people’s lives, to generate economic value — in other words, to work!
  • Digital distraction. Everyday sabbatical means getting the most out of the present moment, enjoying the people I’m physically with and the activity I’m engaged in at that moment. It does not mean interacting with other people though texts or social media or email, nor is it being absorbed in digital entertainment.
  • More than 2-3 hours of meetings, phone calls, or travel time. We each need to know how we are wired. I know I’m an “ambivert” — although I do get energized by going places and spending some time with people, I also need to reserve a few hours of solo time every day for deep work.
  • More than 1-2 deadlines or “Must Dos” per day. To feel like I’m making a difference in the world, I need to make progress every day toward big, important outcomes. That requires focus. It requires clear priorities. Anytime I notice a pattern where someone is asking me to put out their fires every day, or changing our strategic priorities every few days, I do whatever it takes to change that situation. I’m not doing anyone a favor if I let myself burn out and lose passion for the work.

Workplace sabbaticals are now offered by nearly one-fourth of Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For, giving employees time to rejuvinate, unlock creativity, and unleash higher performance.  It’s a benefit that typically kicks in only once every 5-7 years. Everyday sabbatical is an idea that has the power to deliver these advantages on a daily basis for you and everyone on your team.

What would you include (or exclude) in your everyday sabbatical? What is stopping you from taking one step this week toward bring that to life … and taking another step next week?

For more reading: there’s a fascinating chapter about how corporate sabbaticals are currently practiced by some of the world’s best large (and small companies) in my friend David Burkus’ book Under New Management

Jesse Lahey, SPHR, is the host of the podcasts Engaging Leader and Workforce Health Engagement, and he is CEO (chief engagement officer) of Aspendale Communications. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. If you know anyone who would benefit from this information, please share it!

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