When designer Stefan Sagmeister revealed that every seven years he closes his studio in New York – accepting no work from new or existing clients – to take a full year off to travel, it changed the conversation around sabbaticals. Ten years later and their value is becoming increasingly apparent. A sabbatical isn’t a holiday. It feeds back into your work. It’s an opportunity to recharge and find inspiration.
Sagmeister took his first sabbatical after looking at the work that his studio was producing and realising it had all started to look the same. He had grown too comfortable, what used to be his passion had become just another job and he was bored. And so he went to Bali. In The Power of Time Off, his viral Ted Talk, he shares how he spent his year-long period out of the office, travelling, thinking about the future, working on small projects inspired by what was going on around him. He tried new things, he started meditating, he worked on his first film. By the end of the year, he came back to New York full of inspiration and new ideas.
Sabbaticals can take myriad forms. People often use them as a chance to travel. New places give you distance, a different perspective and experiences that you could never have at home. Others volunteer or take a course or spend time in nature or hole up in a cabin to finally start that novel they’ve been thinking about for ten years. It’s a rare opportunity to take an extended period of time for yourself, to develop your interests and think about your priorities.
Sagmeister isn’t the only advocate. Michelin star chef Ferran Adrià regularly closes El Bulli, one of the best restaurants in the world, for months at a time to re-think its direction. Writer Elizabeth Gilbert turned her sabbatical into an internationally bestselling memoir. Google offers its employees extended paid breaks so that they can spend time volunteering. More people than ever are taking sabbaticals and more organisations are offering them.
In creative fields, in particular, they can be career-defining. Thinking is such an important part of creativity, but it can be difficult to find the time for it in the middle of a busy life. Our best ideas come in the quiet moments when we have room to breathe. In academia, the benefits of taking long breaks are widely accepted. When an academic is writing a book or starting a new research project, going on sabbatical is commonplace. They might visit another institution to discuss their ideas, travel abroad to carry out research or take time away from their day-to-day responsibilities to immerse themselves in their work fully. It’s a model that other industries could learn from. Creativity needs time and space.
A recent poll shows that in our working lives we don’t often get either. Only a third of British employees are happy with their work-life balance. Working hours are getting longer, burnout is becoming more prevalent and the retirement age for people who are in their 30s is now predicted to be 73. For freelancers, juggling different projects can mean even less spare time and our increasingly connected lives mean switching into work mode whenever we are needed. It all takes a toll. To continue to be interested, motivated and invested in our work over such long careers, we need to re-think our attitudes to taking time off. Studies have shown that people who have taken sabbaticals have higher levels of satisfaction and lower levels of stress than those who have not. And those effects are felt long after they return to work.
There can be fear around the idea of spending an extended period of time away from work. It can feel unproductive; there’s too much to do, you don’t want to fall behind your peers. But sabbaticals shouldn’t be defined as an absence of work or seen just as a way to prevent yourself from burning out. They are a different type of work. A chance to develop new skills, experiment, explore, be inspired. Spending time in new places can change your perspective. Surrounded by different influences, people and cultures, you learn something new every day. The goal of a sabbatical is to come back to your desk with renewed energy and focus. Your experiences will inspire your work, take you in directions you wouldn’t otherwise have gone.
Sagmeister found that all of the work he produced in the seven years after he returned from that first sabbatical came from the ideas he had in Bali. His year abroad both financially benefitted his business and left him feeling more fulfilled by what he was doing. That is the power of the sabbatical. Design became a calling again, not just a job.