Press pause, then press restart.
This is an inviting formula for a sabbatical.
I was fortunate enough to take three months off beginning in January 2018. After months of grappling with the next stage of my career and life, I received sage advice that I had worked myself incapable of making good personal decisions and that if I could take some time off, I might be in a better position to make those decisions. The sabbatical had to involve a complete break from everything – work, from my adjunct professorship in bankruptcy law at Willamette University and from all of other professional commitments. A portion of the time had to be spent traveling, preferably somewhere exotic.
The choice of South America seemed obvious to me as I planned the traveling phase of the sabbatical. My decision was not guided by an overwhelming yen to travel to any particular location in South America. No, my impulse was that the southern hemisphere is warm enough in January to enable me to pursue my favorite pastime. I was going to hike as much of South America as possible in one month. The fact that I had never traveled to South America, that I do not speak Spanish or Portuguese and that I knew no one in South America never entered my thinking as warning signs. I was going on an adventure and what could be more challenging than going somewhere completely foreign? Well, I got that part correct.
Unaffected by these considerations, I completed my preparations and was anxious to get started. I was at the airport waiting for my flights to Dallas and then Buenos Aires when terror gripped me with the realization that I had no idea what I was doing. What had I been thinking to plan such a hair-brained trip?
Fortunately, I boarded the plane. I heard my row called, I handed in my ticket and I walked down the gangway and stepped on the plane. Seemingly simple and mundane, getting on the plan was the final decisive step to begin a process about which I had only vaguely pondered. I was leaving my home, my own country and I was going to rediscover myself.
I did not know it at the time, but when I got on that plane, I pressed pause.
Pause in the context of a sabbatical is not waiting for the end of the commercial so that the program could resume. It is work: an affirmative effort to make the transition from the known life of work to something unknown and perhaps unrecognizable. It is a wrenching breach from the work life of deadlines, alarm clocks and commitments. My life was carefully tuned to precisely these calibrations. Life without them was not merely novel; it was revolutionary. I could never have made the transition without two essential things: radio silence from the office and restraint to break that silence.
Commonly, vacation includes work for many lawyers. Clients and courts and obligations are ever-present, thanks to the proliferation of devices that enable lawyers to carry their practices in their pockets. Cell phones and laptops, while very powerful and handy in many instances, can also be antithetical to the purpose of vacation, which is get out of the office, to re-create and to recreate – in short, not to work. It is difficult to develop interests and hobbies outside of work if all one does is work; it is impossible to refresh from work when time out of the office includes work. Many lawyers may consider even a week outside the office inconceivable without checking emails and talking to staff and clients on a daily basis and, although devices may be what enables a solo or small firm lawyer the flexibility to take time away from the office, the access enables one to go far beyond what is absolutely necessary to manage a small firm remote and, instead, eat into vacation time. I have been in that situation and it inevitably leads to feeling that the time away was far more stressful than it should have been (and far too short, not restful, etc.). I have also taken regular vacations in which I am inaccessible by cell phone or email, which is the most liberating and truly restful time out of the office. Knowing firsthand the benefits of being “unplugged,” being completely incommunicado on sabbatical was imperative.
I was able to do this because I am blessed with a remarkable law partner who handled everything in my absence.
Work is not merely how lawyers put food on the table. It is self-identification. Lawyers pride themselves on how hard they work as if being consumed by work is a badge of honor. Good lawyers are effective at prioritizing and at multi-tasking; they can thrive on the pressure of the next deadline and the next exciting problem to solve. The lawyers in this category are doers; they go, go, go – all the time – and that is part of what drives them. But it can also come with a price of having no life or identity outside of practicing law.
It did not take long to realize that, if I allowed it, my normal hectic work life could swamp the purpose of the sabbatical. I had to force myself to completely cut the electronical connection to office and clients, and once I did so, I set in motion the prospect for fully and effectively utilizing my time off. I was able to re-create, recreate, rest, and restore. I used every day of my three-month sabbatical to press “restart.”