Why take a sabbatical?

January 29, 2020 • ☕️☕️ 9 min read

I’ve chosen to start this year by taking a sabbatical. And no, that doesn’t mean I’ve taken a year off work. An idea that I got from the Rest book is that sabbaticals can be as short as a week. This might be stretching the dictionary definition of what a sabbatical actually is, but lately I’ve enjoyed coming up with my own definitions. So my version of a sabbatical is a period of time, be it a week or a year, that you take off work in order to focus on whatever your curiosity/muse/daemon wants to focus on. With definitions out of the way, let’s move on to why I chose to take a sabbatical.

Nurturing my intrinsic motivation

Motivation is the emotional fuel that powers our life. Every action we take, from getting out of bed in the morning, to choosing to go for a run requires some sort of motivation. And it turns out that motivation comes in two flavours - extrinsic and intrinsic.

The classic example to show the distinction is a dad telling his daughter that if she eats her vegetables she can have ice cream. In this case his daughter is intrinsically motivated to eat ice cream whereas she is extrinsically motivated to eat her greens. Intrinsic motivation is when we need no reason to do a certain activity other than the joy it brings us. Extrinsic motivation is when we want to do something for the rewards we’ll get.

I think I’ve always subconsciously known that to enjoy my working hours I’d have to do something that I was intrinsically motivated to do. I’ve found a pretty good, if not perfect, fit by spending large parts of my day to day working life coding. If I’m not careful, coding is something I can get lost in for hours, a sure sign of intrinsic motivation.

So what does this have to do with my sabbatical?

Well, a problem that can happen when our source of intrinsic motivation becomes linked to our livelihood is that it becomes an activity which we are also extrinsically motivated to do. Money becomes a reward I get for coding but this is just one of the more tangible ones, there’s also the recognition and social status that I am rewarded with as I provide value with the skills that I’ve learnt. As more and more of my motivation originates from extrinsic sources, it becomes easy to forget to nurture the intrinsic motivation that got me on the path in the first place. Deadlines and budgets have to be met and if I’m not careful, these can suck the fun out of an activity.

There have been periods over the last few years where I was convinced that I didn’t like coding anymore. When I look back on them now I realise that in the lead up to feeling this way I was mostly focusing on the results of my craft rather than the process. Taking some time off has created the space that I need to reconnect with the joy of creating simply for the sake of it. This might seem like a luxury but I believe that it will make me enjoy my work more and more in the long term, which in turn will make it sustainable.

Hayley and B.o.B. put it much better than I ever could

[Hayley Williams (B.o.B):]
Can we pretend that airplanes
In the night sky are like shooting stars? (Shooting stars)
I could really use a wish right now (Wish right now)
Wish right now (Wish right now)
Wish right now (Wish right now)
Can we pretend that airplanes
In the night sky
Are like shooting stars? (Shooting stars)
I could really use a wish right now (Wish right now)
Wish right now (Wish right now)
Wish right now (Wish right now)

Yeah, yeah, somebody take me back to the daysBefore this was a job, before I got paidBefore it ever mattered what I had in my bankYeah, back when I was tryin' to get a tip at SubwayAnd back when I was rappin' for the hell of itBut nowadays we rappin' to stay relevantI'm guessin' that if we could make some wishes outta' airplanesThen maybe oh maybe I'd go back to the daysBefore the politics that we call the rap gameAnd back when ain't nobody listened to my mixtapeAnd back before I tried to cover up my slangBut this is for Decatur. What's up, Bobby Ray?So can I get a wishTo end the politicsAnd get back to the musicThat started this shit?So here I stand and then again I sayI'm hopin' we can make some wishes outta' airplanes


One of my favourite subjects is developmental psychology. Numerous academics have studied the stages humans travel through as we go from new-borns to mature adults, having to deal with a highly complex world. Of course these stages are just models, and no model will do justice to the complexity of human beings. Yet it is a framework that I’ve gotten a lot of juice out of - it’s helped me understand my life’s trajectory, as well as some of the socio-cultural developments I see around me.

An aspect of our mind that these models explore is our ability to think about our future. In a very simplified way, as we grow up we start caring more and more about the future. A toddler doesn’t understand the concept of time, while a 5 year old has a better grasp on it but still finds it extremely difficult to delay gratification. As we become more able to envisage future situations and our future selves, and as we realise that our present actions have a direct impact on our future circumstances, our ability to for strategic thinking develops.

A few years ago I remember reading about how I should have 5 and 10 year plans. I recognised how that could be useful but it was just not something I had the bandwidth to think about. Being a millennial I was of course going through a quarter life crisis and had much more seemingly urgent problems taking up my energy. Now, having achieved a little bit more stability in my life circumstances, I am seeing how this type of long term thinking is coming more and more easily, how instead of dreading it, I am actually enjoying sitting down and contemplating the direction my professional life is going or even thinking about exciting topics like pensions and investments.

Taking some time off has given me the space to do a little more strategic thinking. It has allowed me to step away from my day to day life and to look at it from a higher vantage point. This might seem like a luxury to some and from their perspective I’m sure they’re right. Yet judgments like these, by their very nature, are embedded in a context. Lately, the context I am trying to measure my decisions by is that of creating a life that I am passionate about. In this context becoming a strategic motherfucker is most definitely a necessity and not a luxury.

Breaking out the matrix 🔴 🔵

I recently watched an interesting video about MLMs. It was asking the question of whether multi-level marketing companies could be considered cults. To figure this out the video’s creator employed the BITE model. The model lists the practices and tactics employed by cults under four broad categories - Behaviour control, Information control, Thought control and Emotional control.

One of the ways that behaviour is controlled is by reducing or completely removing any leisure time in a follower’s schedule. In some cults this means that from first thing in the morning to last thing at night, a devotee’s whole day is filled with tasks, chores and social activities that are “furthering the cause”.

The benefits of this for those in the cult’s upper echelons are many. The most obvious one is free labour which enriches the few at the expense of the many. The less obvious benefit is that by limiting people’s leisure time, you are also limiting the time available for critical thinking, for questioning the cult’s doctrine and authority. Keep that in mind, I’ll come back to it shortly.

One perspective on society is that it acts as a giant cult. I’m not trying to advance any conspiracy theories, I don’t believe there are evil reptile people calling all the shots 🦎. Something I am aware of though, is the impact of social conditioning.

Social conditioning is the values, norms and behaviours that society imprints us with. We are social animals and the social milieu that we grow up in has a huge impact on us. It could be said that there are certain grooves and pathways that society expects us to fall into and follow. These pathways are not usually made explicit, we only really feel their pull when we try to go against them. If you’re still unsure about what I’m talking about, try telling your family that you don’t want children or that you are going to quit your job, give away all your possessions and become a monk. You’ll immediately start to experience the mechanisms by which society tries to fix the misalignment. These mechanisms will often revolve around fear -

“You’ll change your mind and come back broke.”

“You’ll have no one to look after you in old age.”

And so on.

If we don’t do much questioning whilst growing up, we will fall into these grooves by default. Society makes it easy to follow the grooves, extremely hard to break out of them. Once more we won’t even know what’s happening - a feature of social conditioning is that we internalise these expectations so much that we start to deceive ourselves. We’ll have goals and desires for our lives and we’ll think that these are authentic and unique to us. Yet, if we sit down to question them a little deeper we might realise that we’re unconsciously following an unwritten set of expectations which serve society first and foremost and the individual later. Unfortunately pride often gets in the way of us admitting that as humans, we are hackable creatures.

I’ve gone in a few directions so let’s try to bring it all together. A technique that cults use to programme beliefs into followers is to restrict their leisure time thereby reducing to a minimum the opportunity for independent critical thinking. This mechanic ensures a cult’s ongoing survival. In a similar way, society imprints us with certain beliefs and behaviours that are beneficial to its survival. Our culture lays a path out in front of us and if we don’t stop to question it, we automatically follow the conveyor belt of school, university, first job, children, more jobs and finally if we are lucky retirement. Fulfilling all these obligations takes up all of our time, we are kept busy for at least the first 50 years of life and when we finally have time to pause and look around, we often realise that we have been living someone else’s agenda all that time.

A sabbatical then is a chance for some introspection on the origin and authenticity of our goals and desires. An opportunity to work out where the ocean current of social conditioning is carrying us to, and if we are happy where we are headed. This might lead to some difficult realisations about the way we have been spending our limited life energy. These insights might not feel good, but they will provide the impetus we need to take back agency and start working on steering our ship in a direction of our own choosing, one that is aligned more closely to our deepest needs and wishes.

And finally some gratitude… 🙌🏽

A funny pattern I’ve noticed recently is that most of the books out there trying to get us to slow down, meditate, sleep more or just take some rest are presented to us as ways that we can get more done. Like the only way that they are going to get us productivity loving, life-hacking enthusiasts to take some time off is by telling us that it will make us more productive. Well I’m definitely sold. I don’t see anything wrong with this but I do think it’s important to remember that productivity should not be our only god. Slowing down can give us the time to appreciate and be grateful for all that our productivity has given us. A bit of space to drop our goals and aspirations, to come back to the present moment to enjoy what we have right now. Without even realising it, or planning for it, this might be the biggest benefit I’ve gotten from taking some time off 🧘🏽‍♂️