Mindset & Motivation, Podcast Articles | Nov 21, 2021
How to take a sabbatical with me over your winter holiday break
By Angela Watson
Founder and Writer
What might be possible if you used some of your days off this December to take a true rest from not only DOING school work, but THINKING about school?
This article + podcast episode is an invitation to join me in taking a sabbatical from everything school-related during some portion of your winter holiday break.
A sabbatical doesn’t need to be a perfectly restful, meditative experience (although it certainly can be). Rather, I’m inviting you to be fully present in whatever you have planned during that last week of December without allowing the weight of work responsibilities to pull you away.
Whether you utilize the entire 10 day period between Dec 24-Jan 2 as your break or just a portion of that time, you can experience so many benefits to your body and mind by giving yourself permission to disconnect from school.
I’ll share what I’m doing during my sabbatical, and share lots of different possibilities for how you might want to structure your time (or leave it unstructured).
Listen to the audio below,
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Why (and how) I took a sabbatical for the first time in 2020
I always take a hiatus from podcasting between Thanksgiving and the new year, as well as one over the summer. This gives me time to focus on other projects and also take a break from the grind of constantly coming up with new things to say. I always come back at the start of the new season with tons of ideas and more enthusiasm for jumping back in, so that’s a process I plan to continue.
In fall of 2020, I was in a serious creative funk and state of burnout. I really struggled with both depression and anxiety at the start of COVID and in August 2020, I got back on medication for these issues. That helped tremendously with my mood stability and being able to just generally function as an adult, but it did not help my creative burnout.
I saw Tricia Hersey from The Nap Ministry announce a month-long sabbatical for November and it got me thinking.
So, that December, I decided to take the entire month off from the internet — no writing new blog posts, no podcast episodes, no weekly emails to folks subscribed to my list, no finding resources to share on social media, no posting or interacting on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram.
I decided this in advance and prepped my team accordingly so that their work schedules were adjusted in ways that helped them also have a break without losing income.
That time off in December was so vital to my wellbeing that I knew immediately it was going to become an annual tradition.
Late December is the perfect time to disconnect from work for a sabbatical
December is a low productivity month in many fields, including education, with the beginning of the month being devoted to closing out existing projects rather than beginning anything new and super ambitious, the end of the month being a time off, usually the longest break of the school year, between 10 and 14 days on average, including weekends.
It’s also a month where, at least here in the northern hemisphere, everything feels like it’s winding down. There’s less daylight, more cold weather, and nature itself goes into hibernation mode. Even if the weather is warmer where you live, we all still have this idyllic winter vision in our head around the holidays, of peaceful snowy scenes in which all is calm and still.
It’s the perfect time of year to turn inward, particularly in those days between Christmas and New Year. Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, there is still a sense of everything slowing down during that week, with many offices closed, all schools closed, and folks doing more movie watching and eating and sleeping and reading and spending time with family than they normally have time to do.
The most glorious days for me are the ones where I don’t have to get dressed or go anywhere, and the days sort of roll into one another the way they do when you’re on vacation, except you’re at home, and there’s no fear of missing out because nothing is really happening, and you can finally just BE.
This isn’t everyone’s experience, and these are generalizations of course, but I think this is largely true for educators, right? December 24 through January 1 are times when all of us are off, not checking school email, not preparing lessons, or grading papers.
Even if you normally take work home on evenings and weekends, you’re likely not doing so during that time period. It’s a time when your coworkers, your students, and their families are all likely to be focused on whatever is happening at home and in their personal lives rather than school.
And that’s a unique experience that we really don’t get any other time of year.
A unique opportunity to rest from work mid-school year
Thanksgiving and all the other holidays bring a 3 or 4 day weekend at best.
Spring break is longer, but it happens at all different times through March and April, we’re not all on the same schedule, and offices and businesses don’t shut down for more than a day or two.
Summer break brings a certain pressure to prepare and get ahead for the coming school year, and PD days and other work obligations always creep in.
The winter holiday break is the only break all year that’s more than a long weekend, that every single school observes at the same time, and in which there is almost zero pressure to work.
And it’s a magical time of year anyway, isn’t it? With the lights and the parties and celebrations and coziness of it all?
How to craft your own sabbatical from teaching over the holiday break
Why not use your holiday break this year to take your own sabbatical? Why not use that very unique time period of December 24 – January 1 to totally disconnect from everything related to school, not just doing school work, but even thinking about school work?
That’s a 9-day period, and with the way the dates fall this year, it gives you at least one full day if not 2 before school resumes, depending on whether you return on Monday, January 3, or Tuesday, January 4.
If you take those 9 days totally for yourself, you’ll still have a day or two to catch up on schoolwork if you want.
If you’re a person who doesn’t want to walk into school after break and feel blindsided by a bunch of stuff in your email inbox, or unprepped lesson materials, or whatever it is that hangs over your head during break, you’ll still have a day or so to get yourself mentally prepared to return. You’ll still have that option, if it’s something you like to have, to work ahead or catch up or anything that helps you ease back into the return to work in 2022.
So will you try a sabbatical with me this December?
Mine is going to be the full 31 days, with some daily checks of email and such as needed during the first half just to make sure my team and customers have input and support from me. No new content from though, and I won’t be posting anything on social media other than scheduled posts in the 40 Hour Facebook groups and scheduled weekly emails for the 40 Hour groups (those are paid courses that run the entire year, so they’ll continue to be maintained and we’ll have customer service available for anyone who needs it, I’ll just be scheduling the posts in advance).
So I’m mostly offline the first half of the month, and then completely off from Dec 24-Jan 1. That’s the part of the sabbatical I hope you will join me for.
How to use your time with intentionality during the sabbatical
I’m inviting you to take these full 9-10 days to attend anything you want or need that is NOT related to schoolwork.
That’s the only definition of sabbatical you need to use: not thinking or doing anything related to school. So, you may still need to do caregiving, errand running, and other everyday necessities. BUT, you’ll be fully present in those tasks and not feel like you’re neglecting your students or behind in your grading. It’s an opportunity to be fully present in whatever is going on in your personal life.
The sabbatical might be more or less than 9 days for you. Maybe you have some projects for work that you will feel happier and less stressed if you can complete over your break. Go for it. Maybe your sabbatical is just a week then. Or maybe you have more time off, and you want to do a full two-week sabbatical. It’s YOUR sabbatical. Do what is going to make you feel best.
You can also consider setting aside at least part of your sabbatical that is totally for yourself, or totally just for you and your partner, or you and your child or children, or you and your pet or pets, or you and your extended family, or a good friend or friend group, or some combination of this.
Maybe there’s a day or two in which you will do whatever you feel like that day: sleep as long as you like, eat what you want, binge your favorite shows, etc. Maybe you communicate that to whomever you live with, and they agree to pick up your slack in household duties for that day or two so you can truly rest.
Maybe you have three days of your sabbatical set aside for family, and plan fun activities together or plan nothing at all, and have the luxury of just going with the flow each day depending on the moods you all are in.
There is no right or wrong way to take a sabbatical. Make it work for you and the people who are important to you. Whatever works for your schedule and needs and lifestyle is what you should do.
The only guiding principle is no work. If you start thinking about school, jot down your worry or your fun project idea or reminder or whatever that thought was, and look at it on January 3rd. You won’t forget if it’s written down, but you don’t need to think about it over your sabbatical. Take the time to give yourself a true break from school.
What to do if resting or unstructured time feels uncomfortable
Some folks really struggle with unstructured time with no routines. It feels chaotic and uncomfortable to them, and having a few days with no agenda or purpose is the opposite of relaxing.
For those folks, consider reading my book “Fewer Things Better: The Courage to Focus on What Matters Most.”
You can read it during your sabbatical, or in the month of November to help you prepare. The book really dives into the mindset behind simplifying and talks a lot about HOW to rest, HOW to practice self-care, HOW to uncover hobbies when you’ve never had the free time to think about your own needs and preferences.
There’s also a free mini-course I have that goes with the book, called The Fewer Things Better Project. It has printables and exercises you can complete to help you uncover what fewer things better can look like in your life.
Use your sabbatical as an experiment to uncover what helps you thrive
When learning that I take a sabbatical each December, many folks ask, “What do you do? Anything exciting planned? Any projects?” And my answer is typically, “Nope. There is no plan.”
During your sabbatical, you don’t have to DO anything, and you don’t need to have an agenda or list of things you’d like to accomplish or experience. So much of this is about learning your own needs and preferences, and experimenting.
You can try making a list of things you’d like to do over your sabbatical: watch a certain movie, hike a certain trail, bake a certain dessert, etc.
Then, see how it feels to have a list. Does it make you feel like you’re completing a holiday bucket list and it’s super rewarding, knowing that you’re creating time for all these awesome experiences and checking them off? Or does it feel like pressure to you, like you’re not making the most of your time unless you’re getting things done?
Neither of these perspectives is right or wrong. It’s just about what works for you. Try some different approaches and see what feels good.
The great thing is that productivity is a lifelong experiment, and at least for me, sabbaticals will be too. Every December, I hope to understand more about my own needs for thriving and go deeper into the sabbatical practices as I uncover what works for me.
So, think of this December as your first intentional holiday sabbatical, try out an approach or two, and learn from it. Next December, your life circumstances may be different and you can try something out.
You might even find you develop practices you can repeat on shorter breaks and long weekends, and even on regular weekends and weeknights.
A caveat: Your sabbatical may not feel magical or transformative while you’re in it
You do not have to feel exhilarated or happy or even have a good day every day during your sabbatical. Some days might be super unpleasant, dealing with household stuff and family obligations that wear you out.
Don’t set the bar too high for this experience. It’s not about living in bliss for 10 days. It’s about disconnecting from work. And I think when you do return to work in January, you’ll find that new creative and problem solving pathways have opened up to you.
Also, prepare for the possibility that you may not be excited to go back to work afterward. You may even dread it a little but. This is okay and normal. I cried last year on January 1st, realizing my time off was coming to an end.
It took a week or two to get back into my flow, but by the middle of the month, I was brimming with energy and creativity and had more enthusiasm for school-related stuff than I’d had since before the pandemic.
Trust the process. The sabbatical may not be super fun or exciting. You may not return to work feeling 100% restored and energetic. You should anticipate this. It’s not a miracle cure.
But trust that your body and mind are benefiting so much from not solving work-related problems or making work-related decisions for nearly 10 entire days.
Trust that you’re opening up new possibilities for yourself and your energy levels and thought processes which you might not see immediately will become apparent as you ease back into work.
Trust that you’re gaining new and valuable insights about yourself your needs and preferences that will enable you to give yourself more of what you need all throughout the school year.
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(I just posted this on your Facebook page, but I wanted to post it here as well, just so you know how much I appreciate all that I am learning from you, Angela):
I need to take a moment and say THANK YOU for all that you are teaching me this year, Angela. I am reading “Fewer Things Better” with a group of teachers and it is absolutely changing my teaching approaches and perspective. I can feel your words taking root in my thoughts, and now I am trying to apply what I am learning to how I approach grading, planning, and my general work/life balance (which has been terribly out of balance for all of my 25 years of teaching). I have been in “endurance mode” most of my career, thinking that next week, next month, next year, this summer I will finally get out from under the many burdens that are encroaching into all areas of my non-work life, but I am determined to get off the hamster wheel and finally do things differently. Thank you so much for being an important part of my growth as a teacher and human being! I really can’t thank you enough. We are reading Chapter 6 for this Thursday’s meeting, and after reading each chapter I want to stand on a mountain top in a Super Woman pose with my cape flowing in a breeze! I purchased your books “Awakened” and “Unshakable” this weekend and plan to dive into those when we are finished with Fewer Things, Better. Which one do you think I should read next to keep this momentum going? I can’t wait!
This post has inspired me to look forward to the Christmas holiday break. I have got so busy that I have been finding it hard even to imagine not feeling pressured. Thank you for reminding me.
Also thank you for your Podcast, which I really enjoy and have found to be of practical use. I especially like the episodes about keeping work to a forty hour week. Like many teachers, I get a great amount of satisfaction from my job, but I also struggle with the demanding nature of it.
I hope you have a fantastic break.