In Amish culture, there is a custom called ‘Rumspringa’. The etymology of the word is Germanic and means, literally, “run around”. The basic concept is this: an Amish adolescent, anywhere between the ages of fourteen and twenty-one (depending on the particular sect they belong to), is allowed to deviate from custom, even leave the community to go live among the “English” (non-Amish) people, and experience all that they’ve grown up considering taboo (e.g. modern technology, alcohol, sex, drugs, and so on). After the requisite period is over, the adolescent has a choice to remain outside his Amish community or return and be baptized.
There has always been a lot of controversy about this rite of passage and, apparently, only a small minority of adolescents take the opportunity to move away or stay away. Firstly, it’s because, having grown up with a specific lifestyle, set of habits, and a strong sense of identity, it is very difficult for most of these adolescents to take on such a massive change. And, secondly, for those who do decide to go out into the brave new world (as it must appear to them), the huge adjustments they have to make to their lifestyles, habits, and identities is, often and eventually, traumatic and they need to return the comforting folds of their respective communities.
Now, for some of us, a sabbatical is just such a dramatic change, especially if we’re doing it after a long career or way of life. And, the necessary lifestyle and habit changes can be just as difficult to adopt and adapt to. When I started my sabbatical, I still woke up at the same time as I did when going to work at a full-time job. I still sat myself down in front of my laptop at 8AM every morning to start with my study-work or my writing-work, per my plan for that particular day. But, it wasn’t easy because, without the typical coworker or client banter or emails providing the odd relief or distraction, I soon found myself emailing or messaging friends, spending time on social media, news websites, and so on. I realized that I need to cultivate an entire new set of habits just so I could get through a day and feel like I’d accomplished something.
Looking back, I now understand that there was something of the “existential vacuum” as Viktor Frankl described in his logotherapy. The theory is that, basically, whenever we have a vacuum, things rush in to fill it. How, often, when we finally have the time to do what we want, we don’t seem to want to do anything. This is what might happen, say, when a person starts retirement, or when one is faced with an empty weekend, or when we spend night after night glued to our TV screens for passive entertainment. Frankl called it the “Sunday neurosis” and it manifests in many different ways for all of us. For me, it soon became clear that, if I was to avoid frittering away my time and keep a strong sense of meaning and purpose, I would need to create new habits and disciplines to stay on track. This is why this stage is necessary to think through and implement carefully.
Maybe your sabbatical will not pose a nuisance factor such as the one above because, say, you intend to be touring Southeast Asia without any set daily schedule. In fact, that may be the whole goal of your journey: to break away entirely from a previous lifestyle and set of habits. Even then, beyond the simple aspects of what you will be doing with yourself on a day-to-day basis during this time, there’s the issue of how people will perceive you. Trust me, even in the deep jungles of Borneo, you’re bound to run into someone who will ask you: “So, where are you from?” and “What do you do for a living?” and “What are you doing here?”
Again, a leaf from my book. When I started my sabbatical, I had prepared a few pitches for different audience types to explain, in case they asked, what I was up to. Yet, I found that, given my new self-identity was evolving, it was often hard to stick to my own scripts. So, honing and enhancing these scripts became necessary. And, you do that, again, by becoming more conscious and purposeful about the day-to-day life changes you’re putting in place for yourself as you start your sabbatical. Note that these changes include everything from the specific time that you choose to wake up to the people you choose to spend time with (both online and offline) to the way that you choose to deal with new conflicts and tensions that will inevitably arise. Tension, by the way, is not a bad thing. I’ll quote Frankl again:
Mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become. Such a tension is inherent in the human being and, therefore, is indispensable to mental wellbeing. We should not, then, be hesitant about challenging man with a potential meaning for him to fulfill. It is only thus that we evoke his will to meaning from its state of latency. I consider it a dangerous misconception of mental hygiene to assume that what man needs in the first place is equilibrium or, as it is called in biology, “homeostasis”, i.e. a tensionless state. What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.
Eventually, I needed to sit down with my list of longer-term sabbatical goals, create a set of specific short-to-mid-term milestones for each, and then write out the steps I’d need to take to achieve those milestones — things like studying up on certain topics, making new connections (online and offline), writing/blogging about certain topics (to reinforce both my learning and growth), taking certain courses, traveling to specific places for reasons beyond entertainment and relaxation, and so on. As I’ve mentioned earlier, my sabbatical was always intended as more than a career break. It was to find a new direction and purpose in life. So, yes, it was work, but self-directed and freely-chosen work.
Your goals, milestones and new habits/activities will vary, of course. But, do make sure that you spend a lot of time thinking through them, visualizing how you’re going to be spending your time day-to-day and how you will deal with distractions and so on. You may not check off everything on this list, but go ahead and make it as comprehensive as possible to give yourself as many options as available. Do more research if you’re short on options.
And, how will you be able to make it all stick once you get started? One of the best ways that I know of being able to consciously and mindfully make these kind of changes is through journalling. I’ve written about ‘The Power of Habit’ earlier and the important concept of incorporating keystone habits into your life such that they help other new habits flourish. Journalling is one such a keystone habit. Though I’ve been journalling for decades now, I know many people who took up writing a daily journal during a major life change and it helped them to be more aware of the changes in both their internal and external worlds, sort through their many thoughts, organize their rapidly-forming ideas, and identify the next steps they needed to take to stay on track.
These days, beyond the old-school notebook-and-pen approach, you can journal on your phone with journalling apps. Or, if you’re so inclined, through personal blogs/websites. Whichever works for you, make sure that you commit to doing it regularly enough. Some days, my journalling involved opening the app and just writing down 2 sentences. That’s fine. If you choose this as your keystone habit, just don’t skip more than a day or two because that’s how you fall off the wagon with new habit formation.
Of course, you can opt for another appropriate keystone habit for yourself — one that helps anchor the other new habits you need to cultivate. A friend of mine starts her day with meditation because it helps her gather her inner resources and meet the day ahead. Another person ensures that he meets with a friend for a meal or drink once a week so that they can discuss his sabbatical goals progress — accountability is a useful driver to help stay on track. Yet another person made a list of all the free/inexpensive courses he could find related to his interest and has been, methodically, taking each one — another form of self-accountability. Whatever you pick, just make sure you understand how keystone habits work and incorporate at least 1-2 in your new life.
Next time, we’ll go into Stage 1: Altitude — The first few weeks/months of the sabbatical where the required ongoing adjustments to lifestyle, habits and identity drive/determine pace, satisfaction and future vector and acceleration.