Embracing Idleness (Or, Notes from Sabbatical, Week 7)

I have officially reached the point in my three-month sabbatical when I’ve googled “Automattic sabbatical” to find blog posts written by my colleagues about their own time off from work. Writing about one’s sabbatical—either before, during, or after—isn’t necessarily a job requirement, but it’s encouraged. I already sensed what the gist of these posts would be: ambitious to-do lists and self-improvements projects to tackle, epic travel bucket lists, plans to optimize those three months. (The post I wrote after my first sabbatical in 2017 is formatted as a checklist, which is evidence of this default setting for efficiency and productivity.) But in reading others’ sabbatical posts, I was more curious to find morsels of wisdom about doing nothing—moments of clarity where people realized they preferred to slow down and just be. I think my two weeks of daily pool time in Hawaii has helped me get to this state.

More than three years in, unfortunately one of us has finally caught COVID: Nick tested positive a few days after we flew back and has been staying and resting at a nearby Airbnb. I’m grateful that we even have the means and ability to isolate. Emilia and I continue to test negative. So the house has been more quiet, and with Emilia at school from about 9 to 5, I’ve let the mundanity of each day—making a latte, taking a shower, folding laundry, watering the plants—to freely fill my mental and physical space in a way I wasn’t allowing at the start of my sabbatical. Normally, these tasks would be completed in the in-between—that frantic space in which I tend to operate and do all the things, the finite place to which non-work life is sadly confined. But right now, these ordinary tasks feel different when I do them with more leisure.

This is not to say that I work too much when I am working, or that my work is stressful. (Nick may disagree on the former, but over the past decade I’ve gotten much better about balancing work and life—I’m not putting in the insane hours I used to do when I first started at Automattic.) I genuinely enjoy the work I do, love the people I work with, and feel lucky to be where I am professionally. I thought about all of this as I read a 2019 post by a former Automattician, Chris Hardie, who wrote frankly about his own sabbatical. He realized during his time off that most of the stress he carried was not work-related.

Still, I guess I had bought into that cultural narrative enough to think that when I went on sabbatical, some certain amount of stress would just lift and go away for that time. …

It’s the other stuff: the bad things happening in the world, the hopes and anxieties that go with parenting, insecurity and self-doubt, the complexity of marriage, relationships and community, wrestling with my own mortality.

Another colleague, Ken Gagne, is fully location-independent and nomadic; he wrote about preparing for his sabbatical in a more recent post from the spring and said something that reminded me not to put so much pressure on myself to produce:

First, there’s a lot of pressure to make something of a sabbatical: write a book, build a shed, learn an art. 

In another sabbatical post, A.I. Sajib goes on to write:

I’m deliberately not giving myself measurable goals for this time.

While I’ve always been in awe of my colleagues in general—it’d be no exaggeration to say that we hire the very best people across engineering, business, design, and web development in the world—it’s also exhausting to keep up. Everyone is razor-smart. Driven. Empathetic. Visionary. That combination creates a pool of people who are passionate not just about their job, but their crafts and hobbies to the point where they’re constantly exerting their best efforts, even when they’re not working. This is not a bad thing. At the same time, burnout is real. So I welcomed others’ very personal thoughts on their own sabbaticals, especially around how they found (or didn’t find) balance.

Anyway, it’s nice not to be on all the time. It’s nice to be idle.

Published by Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Senior editor at Longreads / Automattic

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