Detox from work

While or even before I was in college, I fantasized about the concept of a sabbatical where after a certain number of years worked, the employer would grant an extended leave of several months. I am not bothering to research it for this post, and that is deliberate because I want to describe my impression at the time. I understood it apply to tenured college professors who would be able to take a semester or even a full calendar year off after something like 5 years of teaching, maybe 10. Whatever the number, a person could enjoy multiple sabbaticals during his career. During the sabbatical, the person could pursue some leisure, but often they would do some unpaid work such as in government advisory panels or some charitable foundation.

In my youth, the appeal of the sabbatical was that often there continued to be a paycheck, perhaps reduced, but still assured. Also, the person’s job and office would remain as he left it, allowing him to step back in immediately and pick up as if he just returned from a short vacation.

None of my work opportunities offered anything like this kind of break. Most offered paid vacation, but that started with 2 weeks a year and then increasing to more days only after many years of service. A vacation is not the same as a sabbatical. Vacations are valuable, but they lack the opportunity to adjust to a new rhythm of life and work.

I was so enamored about the concept that I decided to mimic it for myself. In a job, I would save up enough money to finance my own extended break of about 6 months. Unlike a sabbatical, this required severing ties with the old job. Even if I were able to return to the same employer, I would have a different job with a different cubical and working with a different team. There was little difference between returning to an old job and going to a new one, so I opted to go to a new one.

The first such break clarified my mind as to the purpose of the break. At least for myself, I did not find much leisure about it. The only leisure was the absence of having to fill in a timesheet and that required doing the work to justify the reported hours. I suppose my experience is a consequence of my self-financing. From the very start of my break, I would look nervously at my dwindling savings worried that I would not be able to find something in time before it was exhausted.

Despite that failure to live up to its promise, I learned that it is valuable in a completely different way. The experience is like a detoxification or a rehabilitation.

Working necessarily requires adjusting the employer’s schedule and culture. Before flex-time became widespread, there were very precise times for the start of the day and the end of the day. You are expected to be reachable from the very first to the very last minute of the duty period. Even the initial flex time had each person commit to a specific schedule, presumably more convenient for that person, but there would still be a central core period of hours where everyone was expected to be at work at the same time.

Even though working schedule is a relatively trivial burden for working, adhering to that schedule requires an adjustment to the sleep cycle, and the times when breakfast, lunch, and dinner would be possible or needed. I needed to plan on waking a couple hours before start time so that I could ready myself fully for the new day. That meant going to bed earlier, and also eating earlier.

It does not take long for this schedule to become habit. For the first few weeks during a long break, I continue to follow the same daily schedule with other activities substituting for work assignments. I continue to follow the same eating schedule, and even eating the same type of things.

At work, I eat lunch menus for lunch time. For me that involves a sandwich and one or two caffeinated soft drinks. I continue that pattern during the start of my break but I remind myself that I prefer to have the main meal around mid day. With that schedule, the sandwich time does not shift to the evening, instead it is dropped entirely. The primary reason for eating a sandwich for lunch is that it was quick and I needed to eat something. With a main meal mid-day, the evening meal would be something like a couple crackers and cheese, eaten slowly. Even when I am by myself, I eat the snack at a pace similar to when having a conversation: a long time between bites.

The benefit of the long break is to rediscover this rhythm and then try to take advantage of it. After the end of the break, I would be conditioned for this alternative rhythm and then have to go through the stress of having to readapt to the scheduled needed for business.

My first two jobs had the opportunity to get to a restaurant and enough time to order something, wait for it to be prepared, and then eat at a non-rushed pace. Later jobs were less accommodating. You might be able to get out and get something from a restaurant, but it would be from places with a reputation for preparing things quickly to fit within a shorter lunch period. I did not enjoy the rushed experience for hot food so that is when I adopted to the sandwich lunches.

I describe food because it is easy to recognize. There are other forms of conditioning that occur in work. That conditioning involves certain schedules when certain things happen, things like meetings. Also, the conditioning involves adjustment needed to deal with certain individuals and with the organizations within the employer. These adaptations ultimately affect how and what I do for the job. Some of this is beneficial because it is conditioning me to be compatible with the employer’s culture. Other aspects are more accidental but still disruptive in terms of my potential productivity.

There is a need to escape the unhelpful aspects of the workplace culture. In my case, the escape was complete because I would go to a different workplace. Even with my hypothetical sabbatical, the absence often would be enough for that old patterns to disappear, or no one objects when you return with a different attitude.

A big benefit of the long breaks concern education. Jobs generally offered some form of education benefit. This typically came in the form of tuition reimbursement for courses taken outside of working hours, but there were times when they would allow training during working hours. The education had to be related to the job, but in my experience they were fairly generous as to what qualified as relevant. This kind of education scheduling does not work for me.

For semester duration classes, I need to have plenty of time during the day for study and homework. I tend to study in multiple short periods instead of a single long one. I also objected to the semester type course. Those types of courses worked well enough for undergraduate study, but I found them ineffective for graduate work. I found those courses to be annoying. I prefer to self-teach.

As my career progressed there became more online training opportunities. I took advantage of them during my later extended breaks. The online courses would cover material in short segments, sometimes as short as 5 minutes, and there would be exercises for each segment. The segments would also inspire some experimentation. The key thing was that there was no fixed schedule to get through the material. Some days I would go through several segments and then I would take a break for a day or two. There was no adherence to a specific time and weekday for the course. That worked better for me.

My biggest complaint about the modern workplace is its approach to education. Both my employer and I want to achieve continual learning. The problem is that we don’t agree on how that should happen. I think this education should be during working hours. I like to think that at least 10% of the hours of work could be spend on education. The employer thinks that correct number is 0% with the exception of mandatory courses such as the annual refresher of basic computer security practices.

Personally, I adopted the approach of continual education outside of working hours. This meant more of my day was spend working at least according to my definition of work. My problem was that I had trouble convincing others to do likewise. People have a much better appreciation of work-life balance than I do.

As my career progressed, I spent more of my time either working or preparing for work. Most people would probably judge me as having a poor work-life balance. I do not multi-task very well. I tend to bring work into my relationships, and my relationships into work. It is far more comfortable for me to do one at a time. This is another reason for the long breaks. Those breaks were my time to set work aside for a while and focus on other things.

As I mentioned, I started the pseudo-sabbaticals very early in my career. After the third one I began to notice something about my work. People were appreciating the work I do that did not directly align with the job description. I was more fluid about defining my job in a way that satisfied the employer, but also in a way that made it very difficult to replace me. I was stretching or even overflowing the job description. This was as mysterious to me as it was to them. Somehow I was being valuable in a way that could not be expected from anyone else.

I attribute this to a more subconscious training or conditioning that was occurring during the pseudo-sabbaticals. During the sabbaticals, I had to figure out how to fill in unstructured time. With that practice, I took this skill to the work’s more structured time. While work had more constraints concerning the nature and timing of work, there were gaps in the schedule. There were also be periods where I would be bored and have little that needed my particular job category skills. I unconsciously filled in those gaps by doing other things, usually something in response to what I heard was needed. These other things were outside my wheelhouse but they also were outside everyone else’s. I was filling in gaps.

One client described it perfectly. I was like the mortar that binds the bricks or rocks. In an organization, there are lot of hard rocks. Although they are useful, they do not fit together well. My approach to work filled in those gaps and bound the rocks together. If this is in fact a skill, I am not aware of a discipline that has a course on it.

The closest thing I can think of is systems engineering or perhaps operations research. Those do essentially the same thing, but what I do is much less formal. Systems engineering and operations research themselves have a rock-like status within an organization, so that they too need a little help from some fresh mortar.

It is at this late stage in my career that I wonder whether something like a sabbatical is actually a legitimate option for career training. This is the only time a person can learn how to fill in unstructured time. Doing so develops skills in how to create jobs where none were defined before. I think this did happen with my multiple episodes of extended absences but perhaps I just have the right temperament to exploit this opportunity. The key element of extended absences is the completely unstructured time. Outside of basic life support, there is nothing specifically required to be done at any particular time. Also, things that do need to be done can take much longer than normally would be allowed in a work setting.

The following is a recent example.

After remodeling my landscaping, I discovered that I needed to put my mailbox in a different place, and that place would be more exposed to the rain. I needed a new mailbox. I spent over a week considering different options, even to the point of putting them in shopping carts and then removing them. I really wanted a wall mount large capacity locking mailbox. I wanted it at the corner of the house but it would be awkwardly close to the power meter.

I then considered a pole mount one just a few feet from the house, and then pedestal version that would bolt to the concrete. I finally settled on ordering one of the latter type but it would take about a week to arrive. At the time of ordering, I was pretty settled on where it would go, but as time went on I found new objections. In fact, the very same evening after ordering it, I tried to cancel it, but by that time it had already been shipped.

Once it arrived, it just stayed in the box for a couple days. I was still uncertain as to where to put it, or even whether I would put it anywhere. I eventually unpacked it and assembled it in the basement just to get a feel for how it needs to be installed. It just sat in the basement for a couple days. I was still bouncing around at least six different spots to place it, each one with its downsides.

Over this time, I was observing the mailman cross between the houses next to the houses instead of following the sidewalks. My landscaping provided an inviting path for him to work next to the house. I did not object to this as some others may. Instead my concern was that both of my neighbors were clearly planting things that blocked that path. The mail man was stepping between the neighbors plants to get to my house.

It was at this moment, I realized that the proper solution was to put it far out in the front yard, next to the city sidewalk. The mail man would have to get to the sidewalk to get to that mailbox and there would be no point to cut through the yard from either direction.

I also imagined it sending a contemporary message. I liked that I had a socially distanced mailbox.

My point is that this entire exercise was completely optional. I had a workable mailbox and I was not aware of the neighbors voicing any concern about the mailman’s path. Also, once I had the equipment, the timing was completely optional. I really could be still waiting for the right idea even now. I even imagined installing it as an ornament in the back yard.

This is the unstructured thinking that comes up frequently during an extended down time. Even though the same scenario can play out as an after-work project, I doubt I would have come up with this solution in that scenario. I would be primed with the pace of normal work. There would be more urgency to install the mailbox as soon as it arrived, and more certainty that the original plan was the right one. The plan came first, the ordering second. In the work place, there is an unstated obligation to follow the plan. Even when something comes up that tells us we might want to reconsider.

Recent events provides a good analogy to the workplace obligation to follow the plan. We ordered vaccines from the very earliest time of the pandemic. At that time, we had an exaggerated fear of its severity. By the time the vaccines became available, there were many signs that we should reconsider. The pandemic was not a high-consequence as first appeared. Also, the vaccines are not without their own danger. There was no stopping the distribution of the vaccine. We ordered it for a reason, so now we must use it for that reason. We’ll deal with the consequences as a separate exercise. Most importantly, we expect no one to fault us for following through with what started as a reasonable plan.

If more people in health policy had more sabbatical experience, we may be in a completely different world right now, one that more resembles the world we had before all this started.


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