On Sabbaticals and Micro Sabbaticals

29 December 2022

I went on sabbatical during the fall 2022 semester. I am a professor at a school in Orlando, and the time away from teaching and administrative duties was much needed. It gave me the gift of time and space to concentrate on my creative work. 

You’d be forgiven for finding the idea of doing creative work during a sabbatical oxymoronic. After all, the biblical sabbath is associated with the abstinence of creative work. In the creation narrative in Genesis, god did his creative work in six days. On the seventh day, known as the sabbath, god stopped creating and rested.

It is common practice in higher education for professors to go on sabbaticals. Having the time and space away from teaching and administrative duties and to focus on research projects is an essential feature of the job. For professors, sabbaticals are synonymous with creative work, once every seven years. The research done on them yields books and articles.

Same goes for writers and artists, who often apply for residency programs. Residencies are essentially sabbaticals for artists who need the time and space to do creative work, far from the world’s distractions. Residencies range from weeks to months.

As I noted elsewhere, I am a professor at a “teaching” institution. This means my school’s administration discourages research and creative work. If not discouraged, research and creative work certainly figures little into our expectations and duties. In what appears to be a tacit acknowledgment of how overworked professors are, my institution thinks about sabbaticals in the biblical sense. Sabbaticals are for “renewal.” They are envisioned as recharging professors’ batteries, rekindling their passion for teaching, and getting them powered up and excited to return to the classroom. And, as such, they are ultimately justified as serving the school, not the individual.

False perks

It is well known in internetland that Google has a perk called 20% time, or side-project time, wherein employees can take up to 20% of their working hours to focus on “personal” tech projects. But these personal tech projects are actually “corporate” tech projects, Gmail and AdSense being notable fruits of the labor.

While these perks and practices sound great, they serve the corporation and not the individual. It not unlike a corporation’s meditation guru who sells the practice as being helpful for productivity at work. Institutions and individuals that frame sabbaticals (and meditation programs) as being beneficial to a corporation or to a worker’s productivity are actually missing the whole point.

What is billed as the freedom to work on projects that interest the individual — or, in the case of sabbaticals, as a time for “renewal” — really is a Jedi mind trick for employees to do better, more productive work for their employers.

Micro sabbaticals

Sabbaticals are lifelines in that they are periods of time during which creative individuals can devote energy to personal projects. Artists and authors need them to do deep work. Solitude, introspection, and reflection are nutrients for the health and vitality of a creative soul.

But sabbaticals are hard to come by. Not everyone is afforded with the luxury of time. And, because my sabbatical ends in January and its pleasures will be out of reach for at least another seven years, I’ve been brainstorming ways I can prolong its energy.

How can we, when faced with the relentless tedium of a day job, implement the idea and the processes of a creative sabbatical into our everyday lives? One that doesn’t serve the day job? One that offers true creative freedom? One that is unattached to ideas of work productivity and efficiency?

Maybe a better question to ask is, how much time in our overextended lives right now can we protect for ourselves? What opportunities do we have to slip away and to focus on our curiosity?

Enter micro sabbaticals.

Micro sabbaticals are easy to do. They’re as easy as scheduling a block of time on your calendar for creative work and protecting it. It is sacred tme. It is an appointment with yourself. Treat it as seriously as you treat your appointment with your doctor.

You probably cannot block off six months of time, but can you do a week? If you can’t block off a week, can you do one day? Or how about a few hours of your day? Can you take yourself on a creative date once a week?

How can you protect your day’s quiet, precious moments from the onslaught of other people’s problems and the weapon of mass distraction we call our smartphones?

Can our time in the mornings and evenings be better spent reading, writing, and creating than mindlessly scrolling through TikTok or compulsively checking email? Can we schedule time away from crappy Netflix shows and other “content” to create, to think, to go for a walk in the woods or a city? Can we just drift?

We should be intentional about our creative time. We should make it a priority. Let nothing get between it and ourselves. It is your life, after all, and I’m inclined to agree with Annie Dillard when she said “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”