I quit my job yesterday. That sentence still feels as fresh as the snow I see outside my office window. Like the cold and numbness that snow and winter bring with it, that sentence also brings a sense of panic and urgency to my mind. You don't hear "I quit my job yesterday!" usually uttered as an emphatic statement, a FTW if you will. It usually comes with a bit of gravity, a bit of a pause, a bit of a furrowed brow, because the reality is that saying "I just quit my job yesterday" is most likely the reality of saying "I now lack any sort of structure in my life today" or "I really don't know what the hell to do with myself, let alone my time, these days."
If you're caught up in the routine of your life as much as I was, it's pretty hard to imagine filling 16 hours a day (gotta leave time for sleep) with useful activities. You may dream and fantasize about sticking it to your boss and traveling around the world, but it's hard as hell to take those dreams down from the cloud and make sure you get from point A to point B. Hell, it's even hard to know where point A begins and what reaching point B means to you.
What the hell is a sabbatical anyway?
...And that lack of structure is why not many people take sabbaticals. I call what I'm doing a bona fide sabbatical. If you look up the definition of "sabbatical" on Google, you'll find that the first definition is "a period of paid leave granted to a college teacher for study or travel, traditionally every seventh year." Now, I'm no college professor, and I don't think you need to wait every seven years to take one; however, for some reason, the concept of taking a sabbatical is most firmly established in academia. If you do some more research, you'll find out that the word sabbatical originates from biblical times and involved not working the fields once every seven years, probably to let them lay fallow...smart, but I digress.
If you look at the second, or third, or fourth, or something-ith definition, you'll find: "any extended period of leave from one's customary work, especially for rest, to acquire new skills or training, etc." Hey, that's me! I'm the "etc." they are talking about! But more seriously, I left my last job to both study and travel. I've never really been out of this country (Canada just doesn't count in my book), and I knew that I needed to up my web dev game to land a job that I actually wanted to stay in at a company with which I could jibe. Since I had a little money saved up and the threat of having to move back in with my parents didn't deter me (I was already in their house in order to feel out my last job), I thought I'd give it a whirl and call what I'm doing a sabbatical. I really hope I can accomplish the goals I've set out before me and have a lot of fun traveling around. I also really hope that I can maybe inspire others to take sabbaticals every so often, even if they aren't college professors :)
Well...what the hell do you do on a sabbatical anyways?
I set out to do two things on my sabbatical: get better at web development and travel around. Initially, my planned traveling was limited to the good ole US of A! I was going to head south, since Ohio gets chilly in January onward, and ride along the Gulf Coast heading through New Orleans, Austin, parts of Arizona, and onto my destination of Denver, Colorado where I would start leveling up my web dev skills and looking for a job. Notice how I said "initially" to start the sentence you just read. Well, the visions of the southern United States soon turned into day dreams of Europe and Central America once I found out two close friends were going to be working abroad in those locations.
This brings me to the first bit of wisdom I've gained on this journey: Your sabbatical plans will change but never fear when they do. When you work all day, maybe do something at night, and repeat that all over again day-in day-out, it's hard to fathom what will happen when you stop repeating your current routine. You will and you must have at least a little bit of concreteness to your plans so you can talk to others about them and most importantly reason with yourself about them, but rest assured, events will come up that will quickly make you ponder changing around your whole itinerary. For me, this event was finding out I had two close friends who were going abroad during my "sabbaticalling" time. And for me, this actually made my sabbatical plans way better. Dreaming about and telling people I was going to Europe and Central America made my time off seem more legit to me.
I also had a decently detailed plan of how I was going to accomplish leveling up my web development skills. It involved creating a few applications end-to-end using languages and frameworks I knew little about as well as contributing to open source projects. As of day four of my sabbatical, my detailed plans have already started to crumble, and I don't say that with a disparaging tone but rather with an optimistic naivety. For instance, I have recently become unsatisfied with the blandness of music I was hearing on the Spotify music service. Every recommended band sounded too much like the previous one, and I felt like I wasn't discovering music as I once had years ago. I then remembered I had an external hard drive filled to the gills with music I have still yet to listen to in it's entirety so I began a quest to hook that up to my MacBook Pro. The music player I had been using instantly started crashing, and that led me on an hour quest for a better alternative. Low and behold today I found two open source projects that I'm going to try and use to be able to not only listen to my extensive music collection, but stream it to any device and allow friends to listen in as well. If I had panicked when I felt my original plans crumbling before my own eyes on the second day of my journey, I would have never found these two wonderful music programs. Who knows, maybe I'll even contribute to their source code, which would make this discovery fit in line with my sabbatical goals all along.
If you take a sabbatical, you must have an initial plan, but you must also allow that plan to pivot and change shape or you will never actualize your sabbatical to the fullest extent possible.
Well.....how would I keep organized if I were to actually take a sabbatical?
Structure is at the heart of accomplishing any good plan. A wise retired executive once told me, "If you fail to plan, you plan to fail." Apparently, Benjamin Franklin came up with that gem of advice and not the guy I heard it from, but the words of this old man have stuck with me since their first utterance. I don't think of myself as a terribly organized man, and so organizing my time during my sabbatical was a constant sense of anxiety for me. About two years ago, I kind of took a sabbatical to get my first web development job. I was almost forced into that decision though, but regardless, looking back I spent a lot of days without accomplishing much. I would study web development a little bit, read a book, or take an online tutorial, but I wasn't disciplined. I think I could have accomplished getting a job in much less time than I took, but my lack of planning and discipline caused me to linger in limbo for a time.
This time around, I decided to set some ground rules:
- Learn to pivot - I didn't even know I had ground rules until I wrote that statement above :P As, I've mentioned previously, you'll encounter obstacles to your plans daily, and you need to be okay with changing your plans frequently or you might not accomplish much of anything during your sabbatical.
- Put it on the calendar - I set out with a two week schedule full of activities related to my goals, enough to fill a typical eight hour workday. My phone beeps at me every couple hours telling me what I should be doing, and even though I'm not really following that calendar, it helps to remind me and provide some structure to my days. It also helps to plan traveling trips. Mark the dates and plan backwards from there.
- Plan in two week cycles - Aside from your planned travels, plan daily goals in two week chunks. The reason I say this is that one week isn't enough to get into the hang of doing anything, and after two weeks, it's hard to incorporate change into your plans. Two weeks is also a typical agile development sprint cycle that I work with for web development. Put plans or goals that don't fit into those two weeks into a backlog that you take a whole day at the end of the two weeks to review and plan out you next two week iteration.
- Limit your concurrent goals to five at a time - This is a pretty arbitrary number, but it's crucial to not over burden yourself with goals and tasks and not finish any of them.
- Produce tangible results - Pick goals that have tangible outcomes. Some of mine are writing blog posts, creating web applications, getting tasty washer-board abs. Every one of them you can read, use, or maybe even touch...if you're not too naughty ;) But each goal should have an output someone can see in some way.
- Check-in with yourself - In agile web development, you typically have a daily check-in where you talk about what you did yesterday, what you are going to do today, and mention any roadblocks you are having all with your fellow developers. Since I have been doing this everyday, I just kept doing it. If you notice not many of your to-dos are getting done each day, kick yourself in the ass or find a friend/account-abil-a-buddy that will keep you to task.
- Keep a to-do list - Currently, I'm using Workflowy to keep daily lists of tasks I want to accomplish as well as my backlog of goals. So far, it's been fine, and I haven't even explored all of the app's functionality quite yet. Make sure to update it each day and keep your daily to-dos to four or five reasonable items. "Make web application" is a bad example since it can't be done in a day. "Name web application" or "create initial repository for app X" are better to-do items.
Seven spontaneously generated ground rules is good enough, I think. Not bad. Seven is a lucky and holy number. If you keep to those rules, I think you will do fine and see progress...wait, I forgot one...
8. Time yourself - At my last job, I had my first taste of real billable hours. Needless to say from my exit of that job, I didn't exactly like keeping to a set number of logged hours when a normal office worker gets to come and go regardless of how many actual hours they've worked, but I did respect the timer. I use a web app called Yast that is free. Each goal/task has a timer, and it lets me know at a glance how many hours I've spent on each goal. Sure, I forget to start it and forget to stop it sometimes, but it is useful. If I look and see three hours logged, I know I have to put more time in that day. Five or so hours logged is good enough for me since I'm not in front of my computer for some of my tasks and goals.
Oh crazy eights! Fine, good enough ground rules for me.
Well...where can I see the tangible outputs of your sabbatical goals, oh wise one?
You can keep reading this blog to see what I'm up to as I go on my journey. I'm also planning to maybe have some applications you can test out and use yourself. One of them was going to be a web app that helps people with planning for a sabbatical. It was to be called "sabbatical.io" and to be hosted on the fancy and hip .io top level domain, but some douche just parked that domain right out from under me. Up yours Patrick Yovanov, and thanks WHOIS for giving me the proper person to curse!
In favor of pivoting, I am going to keep that name temporarily and have created this bare repository where you can follow my progress and maybe even contribute some code! Okay, I'm off to do some more sabbaticalling, people...