Planning a Sabbatical

By Robin Page West

Busyness, a ubiquitous condition, telegraphs legitimacy, purpose, gravitas. Kick it up a notch, to almost-but-not-quite overwhelmed, and you might elicit awe and deference. Is this intense state of self-importance tempered with martyrdom de rigueur for the successful professional?

In his article “Out of the Darkness” for Litigation magazine (Winter 2008, volume 34, number 2), Ohio lawyer James A. Readey describes his experience of the extreme hamster wheel:
I had . . . been flying around the country for discovery depositions, and drafting discovery motions and briefs. All the while, I spent countless hours on conference calls with witnesses; dictating and editing long, detailed reports to the client’s general counsel; and in strategy sessions with the more senior partner in the firm who would try the case with me. I made seemingly endless notes and lists about tasks yet to perform before trial began and used every waking moment to get some of them done. And, of course, I was also doing all the typical stuff: motions in limine, legal memoranda against the other side’s motions in limine, demonstrative exhibits, jury instructions, questions for jury selection, opening statements, witness examination outlines, and on and on, seemingly ad infinitum.

Eventually, Readey suffered a meltdown during a trial and wound up at the hospital. Realizing that he needed to slow down his life and reconnect with his family, he walked away from his 23-year career as a litigation “warrior” and became a professional mediator, a vocation that he found truly meaningful.

The brutal pace and nonstop task list is not unique to Readey, to litigators, or to work, for that matter. The website www.slowmovement.com observes, “We are engaged in constant fast-forward motion whereby we are often overscheduled, stressed and rushing towards the next task. This rushing is not restricted to our work environment. We rush our food, our family time and even our recreation.”

Recently a friend observed that in addition to managing her responsibilities at work, she spent inordinate amounts of time and money just taking care of what she called her “stuff”—cars, house, home furnishings, pets, clothes, hairdo—all of which she had intentionally accumulated as part of building her life. Now, ironically, this stuff keeps her a slave to a daunting and draining to-do list. We reminisced about how, at one time, amassing stuff seemed so important, and puzzled over how we can untangle ourselves, now that our values and priorities have evolved, from stuff we thought we owned that now seems to own us.

Can we break the cycle of working ever harder to acquire more? Where does one draw the line and stop adding to the to-do list? Is it possible to change our trajectory at work before a meltdown comes and we have no say in the matter? It would be nice to ponder these things. But how, when you’re on the train of life speeding through a meadow so fast the flowers are just a blur?

Had it not been for my youngest, I probably would not even have thought of taking a sabbatical to sort some of this out. But after eighth grade, she started fantasizing about going to school in a foreign country, and being a child, she was oblivious to why this was impossible. And so, a year later, she had permission from her school to do just that for an entire academic year. This was a valuable opportunity, and she was ready for new horizons, but at 16, too young to go alone. It was the perfect excuse for me to get out of Dodge.

In order to prepare, I did a Dickensian exercise and tried to envision where my life would be in a year, five years, ten years, and 20 years, if I continued on my current path. Did I want to be practicing law? At the same level of intensity? In the same place? Were there other things I saw myself doing in the future that I needed to get started on? Was there anything I needed to change now in order to prevent something unwanted in the future? Then I looked backward in time to determine what my existing commitments were, financial and otherwise, and to plan how to fulfill or get rid of them while located out of the country.

Looking forward, I saw myself living in a small town with a perfect climate, having virtually everything I needed within walking distance. I saw myself staying healthy by ramping up my exercise routine, walking everywhere, and cooking and eating better. I saw myself using new pathways in my brain by reading on diverse topics and speaking a foreign language. I saw plenty of friendships and connections not necessarily rooted in business and professional relationships. I saw vast expanses of unscheduled time, occasional spontaneity, and a full eight hours of sleep every night. I also saw myself working on discrete projects that were manageable and not all-consuming.

I liked what I envisioned, deemed it a plan that I could stick with, and decided to try it on for size during my sabbatical. I chose writing the second edition of a book I had already published as the project I was committed to finishing. Everything else on the list I would try to do, but because none of those pursuits could ever be finished anyway, there was no pressure.

To find other ideas for what to do on sabbatical, one needs to look no further than the blogosphere. For example, Nina Sankovitch committed to read and review a book a day for a year and still attend to her family life. At her blog, www.readallday.org, she writes, “If such intense reading has wrenched me from my moorings and set me out to sea, it has also given me the compass, the sails, and the rigging to get where I’m going, no matter where that might be.” Sankovitch was not even on sabbatical when she reorganized her life to accommodate her reading. It boggles the mind to think what someone who is can accomplish, and of the insights to be gained. There’s inspiration in travel blogs, photo blogs, blogs about charitable pursuits, or blogs about highly specialized subjects. Slowmovement.com is also chock full of tips on how to slow the pace of life “whilst at the same time meeting our most important responsibilities.”

Some folks, including friends and family, knew about my sabbatical, but not others. For example, potential new clients learned only that I was not taking new cases “at this time.” If they asked when I would be, I gave them the date of my planned return to the office. On the other hand, “regular” clients knew I was away and received instructions on how to reach me. These regular clients, though, were not business people in need of ongoing legal advice or engaged in the daily frenzy of litigation. In such cases (had there been any) I would have offered up someone else to handle the matter in my absence, while making myself available to weigh in every now and then, if needed.

One factor that made my sabbatical possible was my communication system with the office. The general office number continued to be routed to the staff there, whom I instructed to provide my callers with my direct dial number. I call-forwarded the direct dial number to a VoIP (Internet) line I purchased through Skype that rang on my computer in the sabbatical house at no additional cost to the caller. I programmed my office voice mail message to give callers my direct dial number, and I call-forwarded my home phone to the Skype line as well. That way, my parents, my daughter’s father, and anyone else trying to reach her or me by phone could simply dial our home number as usual, and get through.

Most of my mail is electronic, so I was able readily to access it and respond while away from the office. My secretary e-mailed scans of all incoming snail-mail envelopes. I e-mailed back instructions on which letters to throw away, which could wait until my return, and which to open, scan, and send to me.

The painstaking, mind-numbing part of my sabbatical preparation was the one-year look-back I performed to identify what bills I paid when, so that I would not forget to do it on sabbatical when my routine would be different and I would be more likely to forget. Although I could have arranged to access my financial management software during the sabbatical, it was complicated, and I was a bit apprehensive about potential power outages or Internet service interruptions, so I decided to go the manual route and simply create a calendar for the ten months showing each date that a bill payment was due—utilities, credit cards, water and sewer, health insurance, long-term care insurance, mortgage, property tax, tuition, payroll, estimated taxes, office rent, etc. I would check the calendar regularly to make sure nothing fell through the cracks. This one-year look-back proved valuable because it reminded me of some outlier, once-a-year bills that I would otherwise have forgotten, such as the city false alarm registration fee, the workers’ compensation insurance year-end reconciliation, my office landlord’s yearly bill for common area expense adjustments, my mortgage lender’s annual escrow adjustment, various annual dues and subscriptions, and my safe deposit box rental. I would have picked these up when my secretary scanned the physical bill envelopes and e-mailed them to me, but, being a belt-and-suspenders person, I liked knowing the bills were coming ahead of time.

I use online bill pay for all my vendors who accept it. It’s a big time saver, obviates the need to send and receive snail mail (which can be a challenge when out of the country), and creates a convenient digital record. I also use my bank’s auto pay and the vendors’ auto debit features to pay vendors whose bills are the same every month, such as insurance. I drew the line, however, with the option that authorizes a vendor such as the electric company or a credit card issuer to deduct from my bank account whatever it thinks I owe. Although this is a way to make sure bills don’t go unpaid even if you are unconscious in the hospital, I’m not comfortable with that much automation because it gives the biller carte blanche.

My practice setting in a small firm, where our compensation structure ensures that my income (or lack thereof) is not an issue for anyone else, was a major factor in my ability to go on sabbatical, as was the fact that, having worked on a contingent fee basis for most of my career, I know how to “hibernate.” On more than one occasion, I’ve survived ten months or more with no infusions of cash. I do this by keeping expenses and overhead as low as possible, both at home and in business, and maintaining a sufficient cushion to carry me in the event that there is no income—or even if there is a loss—in any given year. So when the opportunity to go on sabbatical presented itself, I was fairly certain I could sustain myself financially even if no cases settled. Doing the one-year look-back and projecting the sabbatical year’s expenses confirmed it.

Those who don’t maintain a big cushion and have never hibernated may need to dip into savings or investments or rely on income from a spouse or loved one, as well as cut back on expenses. Cutting back may be easier than expected. My savings while on sabbatical were huge. For example, the cost of food and restaurants at the location of my sabbatical was approximately half of my usual, and tuition for my daughter was about 75 percent less. I had no car or cable TV there, and hence realized even more savings. I put the clock thermostat for my home furnace, air conditioning, and water heater on the vacation settings to slash those costs, and because the climate was very mild at the sabbatical house, my utility expenditures there were negligible. Because I wasn’t going to the office, to court, or seeing clients, I admit I “let myself go” a little bit and saved a bundle on clothes, dry cleaning, haircuts, and highlighting. I was also forced to cease almost all online shopping (and no doubt saved many thousands of dollars) because most sellers don’t deliver to the country I was in.

In addition to saving me money, these changes stripped away some unnecessary layers of my daily existence. On sabbatical, my days were not ruled by lots of little things I had to do, yet they were always full.

Reentry was an adjustment, but not a difficult one, in part because I was looking forward to reconnecting with my co-workers, friends, and family and to starting some projects I had put off during the sabbatical. What proved most difficult was being subjected once again to the drone of print, television, and radio ads for big cars, fast food, diabetes supplies, antidepressants, genital wart vaccines, joint pain drugs, cholesterol drugs, heartburn drugs, erectile dysfunction drugs, and on and on. For ten blissful months, I did not have to battle the encroachment of the anxiety, fear, and avarice these industries foment. But upon my return, there they were again, like the inexorable drip of water torture.

What did I accomplish on sabbatical? Aside from watching my daughter navigate new challenges, gain independence, and develop her judgment, which gave me confidence in her ability to take care of herself as a young adult, I gained clarity for myself. I can’t explain how or why, but after having lived a simpler life for ten months, I’m no longer perplexed about how to get untangled from my “stuff,” and even though I don’t have all the answers, I know I’m on the right track.

   
  • Robin Page West is a principal with Cohan, West & Karpook, P.C. in Baltimore, Maryland, and is the author of Advising the Qui Tam Whistleblower, 2nd Edition (American Bar Association, 2008). She may be reached at rpw@cohanwest.com.
Copyright 2010

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