In Praise of the Working Sabbatical

Last fall I packed up my practice, drove cross country and set up shop in Austin, TX for a month.  Subsisting almost exclusively on Tacos, BBQ and tequila, it was one of the best months of my life.

While it started out as a way to kick back and re-charge, I was amazed to find how productive I was on the road.  Days seemed longer, the work was more fun and I had plenty of time to think big picture (both about business and life).  I came back with a revamped business plan and a renewed passion for my practice.   Nothing has had a more positive impact on my business than those days I spent on the road, think and planning with a clear head (and with my phone in airplane mode for days at a time).

Somewhere between Arkansas and Tennessee on the drive home, I decided that it would become a regular and vital part of my business life.   This year, I’m working from San Pedro, Belize for the month of February (and writing this from my patio on an 85 degree day).  Things could certainly be worse and I’ve traded tacos for the local papusas and ceviche.

But, it honestly goes a lot deeper than just unwinding and taking some time off.  There is an incredible amount of good (both professionally and personally) than can come out of it.   For example:

  1. It forces you to become efficient. Think of it as a stress test for the way you work.  When I’m at home, there really aren’t that many consequences for being inefficient or not properly planning my day.  Worst case, I get a little less sleep than I’d like to.  Not ideal, but far from fatal.   When you’re planning a long trip away from home base, it FORCES you to think about the way you operate and how you can improve it.  It forces you to be lean and disciplined.  It forces you to be thoughtful and to plan rather than just grind things out with your head down.  How do I make the most out of this 3 hour window of time?  How can I get the most of this meeting?  Does this conference call need to happen at all? What can I automate or systemize?  Who can help me if something happens? What am I spending time on that simply doesn’t need to be done at all?    Almost overnight, operations get leaner, better thought-out and significantly more efficient.  Scarcity of Resources = Innovation + Improvements that will continue to serve you long after you get home.
  1. Direction is exponentially more important than speed. Work gets busy.  Life gets busy.  It’s incredibly easy to find yourself in the weeds on a daily basis.   If you don’t have time to think/plan big picture, then, almost by default, you put your head down and run as fast as you can to get everything done without really making sure you’re heading the right way.    Getting away from things is a chance to step back and make a course correction.  The time and space necessary to think about things in a broader sense is a precious commodity.  But making a few big picture tweaks can have a greater impact than a few thousand hours of grinding it out.    The person steadily walking to the right destination will get there sooner than the person sprinting their hardest a few degrees of course.
  1. It can be much easier to go away for a month than a week. When going away for a week, it’s a struggle to get ready to leave and its stressful to play catch up when you’re back.  You’re also trying to fit a month’s worth of activity into 7 days and getting frustrated with every work matter that yells for your attention.    When I travel, I will be the first to admit (to myself and my co-travelers) that I will be working a somewhat normal schedule.  Just setting the expectations up front makes the process exponentially less stressful.  I’m not running around trying to fit every activity in; I’m working my normal schedule (with a few extra taco breaks thrown in) and exploring the landscape on nights and weekends.  By the time I head home, I’ve gotten to see and do more than a normal vacation without having my business life thrown into disarray.
  1. Boredom is a blessing. Remember going on a road trip when you were a kid?  Without iPhones or DVD players, you just stared out the window for hours at a time and just thought.  That’s it.  Just thinking.  Not checking your phone every 10 minutes or sending one more email before bed.  Just thinking.  Especially if you’re traveling alone, all that time and space to fill can be a bit unsettling at first.  But, if you can embrace it, it’s amazing what your brain is really capable of.   It will make connections and birth ideas in a way that just doesn’t happen when jumping from task to task.  After you spend 5 minutes cursing spotty Wi-Fi and poor cell coverage, you start to realize how productive you really are when you can unplug from the tyranny of the urgent.
  1. It will probably make you a better and more interesting person (fingers crossed). It will take you out of your comfort zone and you’ll learn a myriad of different perspectives on different topics.   Every day, I feel like I learn something that I can translate to my life back home.  Whether that’s learning about operations from an ex-pat bakery owner or about sales from the sketchy guy trying to sell you weed on the beach, there are life lessons everywhere.  They just seem to stand out more when you’re in a new place.  Your eyes just tend to open a little wider.
  1. It’s really fun. Like really, really fun.  You can feel a bit like a pirate.  Honestly, sometimes that’s a good enough reason.

This is a long of way of saying that, if you ever find yourself with an opportunity to have an adventure, you should absolutely take advantage of it.  Once you get past the initial fear and inertia involved, it’s an incredibly valuable and rewarding experience.  While it feels like a bit out of norm professionally, the return will likely greatly exceed the cost.

Personal Bonus:   After swimming with sharks down here, dealing with other lawyers doesn’t seem so bad after all…

Cheers to the Open Road.