One might think the hectic pace of our lives would stimulate awareness about the passing of time. And no doubt that’s true. Common phrases such as “the hamster wheel” and “the rat race”, or the “washing machine permanently set on the spin cycle” as one friend delightfully described it, speak to our shared anxieties and struggles.
But for me, a profound appreciation of time came only when I slowed things down. This year I took a six-month sabbatical from my “high-flying corporate career”, in what I have come to think of as a life lived in slow motion.
I don’t mean to give a false impression that I sat immobilised on a couch for six months. My new life was rich and varied. With my husband and daughter (who had just finished school), I lived in Lucca, in the heart of Tuscany. We went to school every day for two months to learn Italian. We made a new and eclectic group of friends. We travelled to beautiful places for long “weekends”, within Italy and (thanks to cheap flights) to places further down our bucket list such as Iceland and Russia.
To give some context, I am much enamoured with Bertrand Russell’s essay In Praise of Idleness, and his insights about those whose lives demonstrate greater balance between work, family and community, and those who live feverishly. He argues that hourly workers have the balance right (eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep and eight hours for play) and the “rich” (those who are on salary) have it wrong.
Balance has always been an issue for me, and the catalyst for taking a sabbatical was partly because I knew mine was out of kilter.
But how does one “do” a sabbatical? As we got closer to leaving, I grew more intent on finding “guides” to help shape my approach.
I found five hidden among Sydney’s executive ranks of bankers, lawyers and accountants. I grilled them on the choices they had made (stay at home and potter; travel around outback Australia; travel around Europe; live in an Italian city; and surf, play tennis and write), and the pros and cons of taking a break.
I needed to hear that the reward was going to be greater than the risk because there was a chorus of voices (including my inner voice) questioning the smarts of my plan. Each of those voices started with, “I wish I could take a sabbatical, but …” They didn’t need to complete the sentence because I was acutely aware of the cool breath of fear on my neck, whispering that it was crazy to press pause when things were going so well at work.
I worried that the game would move on and I would be left behind. In a life lived at pace, six months seemed like an awfully long time.
Fortified by my guides’ encouragement, and with the enthusiastic blessing of Deloitte’s Asia Pacific chief executive (Cindy Hook) and executive (Rob Hillard), I stepped away.
And we built a new life. I had heard my guides’ advice about the importance of structuring time, so when Italian classes finished, I started writing my PhD. Each morning, I took time to read and write in my favourite cafe. Every afternoon I explored new haunts with my husband and whichever guest was to hand. Each night I laughed with friends over an “obligatory” aperitivo. And because music, theatre and poetry are part of the fabric of Italian life, rather than something for the “elite”, we saw school concerts in local palaces, opera and ballet in Lucca’s opera house and classical concerts in ancient churches.
It was a life filled to the brim. Of course, I was not above wasting hours bingeing on Netflix, but I was deeply aware of the stupidity of such indulgences and they stopped quickly. My new life was lived within a boundary of a six-month cut-off date. It had seasons that I was fully conscious of, whereas usually the only relevance of winter, spring or summer would be the change of clothes I wore to work each day. In this life I saw the leaves turn, noticed the first flowers of spring and felt the rhythms of an Italian life.
Life did not pass me by in the relentless busyness of work and I found myself trying to hold each unique experience close. I was “mindful” in the extreme, but it was authentic. The artificial daily “15 minutes of mindfulness” scheduled into my iPhone calendar had no place in my new life.
And that, for me, was the first of many insights. Present approaches to wellbeing at work seem to be more like Band-Aids stuck onto a broken body. Those same researchers who identified value in temporary relief from chronic stress also found “respite replenishes resource reservoirs”. So a sabbatical is not just a pause in the momentum, it is a strategy that generates energy. When the researchers compared 129 sabbatical takers and non-sabbatical takers, they found that the latter were wearing out faster.
A second insight: the rapid fire of meetings, all signalled by the ubiquitous ping of my iPhone, was eroding my ability to listen, process information and solve problems. If I wanted to innovate, I needed to carve out time to read broadly and think deeply.
And a third: I started to see a bigger life pattern that the rush of daily life had been hiding from me. I love my work – its mission and even the intensity of it – but it will pass. After that, the quality of my life will be determined by whether I have made deep investments of time in the people and things I love doing, as well as work. My sabbatical gave me the space to appreciate work in a different way and to re-enter the fray with gusto.
It strikes me that a sabbatical is unlike a holiday, or even an expat placement. It provides a chance to experience life lived differently, to see the bigger picture and to recharge. But only if there is a change of context and structure. For one of my guides, and two people I met later, their sabbatical was one of pain and regret for a lost opportunity. Their endless amounts of time to potter on nothingness, outside the social world of work, was depressing and lonely. Fortunately, that was not our experience and we have become zealots, recommending the idea to everyone.
Five months on, and the test has been to hold onto these insights now that I am re-immersed in the frenetic flow. I’m still a work in progress, but I have made some healthy changes, such as infusing my calendar with small portions of “time out”.
Having said this, I still struggle with prioritising this mode in the same way I do “time on”. I’m much more aware of how tired people are and I worry about the corrosive impact of hyper-working on individual and societal health. And I am more certain than ever that using busyness as a signal of productivity and success is hollow and sad.
Juliet Bourke is partner in human capital at Deloitte Consulting.