The Art of Taking a Good Sabbatical

Keep, calm, take, sabbatical.
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For Robin Kwong, taking a sabbatical from journalism was a chance to refresh himself in the waters of culture, art and thought.

“So, how was your sabbatical?”

The short answer is: “Yeah, pretty good.”

The long answer is the rest of this post.

Three things a sabbatical is good for

I went into my sabbatical thinking: “Finally. Now that I don’t have to go into the office for the next six weeks, I’m going to get so much done.”

But now that it is drawing to an end, I realise that’s not really what sabbaticals are for at all. Work is for producing output; sabbaticals are for digesting input.

What I’ve learnt is that there are three things I could usefully do to ‘digest input’ during a sabbatical:

Widen my internal and external circles

I know it sounds like crazy hippie talk, but I do think there is something to the idea of expanding your consciousness and being more open to allowing genius to descend upon your work.

As David Lynch wrote, ideas are like fish: “Little fish swim on the surface, but the big ones swim down below. If you can expand the container you’re fishing in — your consciousness — you can catch bigger fish.”

How to expand that container, that internal circle? For me, meditation helps. Spending time with people that matter to me helps. Writing about it, as I am doing so now, helps. These are specific techniques that might not work for everyone, but for me, they facilitate a better understanding of who I am and why I do what I do.

At the same time, this needs to be complemented by taking in outside stimuli to expand my external circle. So I used my sabbatical to read, watch, listen and play. I went to conferences for industries adjacent to the field I work in. I acquired new literary and cultural heroes.

(Emily Harrington/E.H. Illustration) Cedar sculpin

Check my trajectory

As Stefan Sagmeister says, sabbaticals are the best strategy “to make sure that what I do remains a calling and doesn’t deteriorate into a job, or into career”.

I spent a fair amount of time reflecting and making sure I was on the right track. I asked myself:

  • Am I still learning new things?
  • What is the work I would do if I had my dream job?
  • What’s stopping me from doing that work now?

I have some course adjustments in mind for 2017 as a result.

Form new habits

Despite all this, I still couldn’t entirely give up on the idea that I ought to be doing something productive during my sabbatical. So I thought about what I could do that would have the biggest impact on my life — and yet was not work. The answer was to (try to) form a new habit.

Habits are powerful. They’re difficult to form consciously, but it can be done. Going on sabbatical was an abrupt change to my daily routine, and gave me a continuous chunk of uninterrupted time — conditions conducive to forming new habits.

But even then, it’s not easy to do. I started exercising daily, but struggled at meditating daily, even though I’m more convinced of the benefits of the latter than the the former. Keeping it going beyond my sabbatical is a challenge I’m looking forward to.

Assorted wisdom I picked up

The thing about meditation is: You become more and more you

David Lynch

Everyone needs a place. It shouldn’t be inside of someone else

Richard Siken, via Sarah Kay

To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man’s land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again.

Image:  ‘The Pictorial History of England‘ (to the death of George III)

And there he was, dreaming about the future. It looked bright and right and ready for him. There was no scary mystery to it and it was right around the corner.

Then Brás wroke up and realized that, when you turn that corner, that future you have written and wished for is not always there waiting for you. In fact, it usually isn’t at all what you expected … Around the corner there is just another big annoying question mark.

It’s called life.

Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá

Life is a lot like Carcassone. Don’t spent your life bellyaching about a meeple you could’ve popped off the board if only you drew the right piece. That’s absurd.

Robin Hunicke

Your reach as a viewer is vastly greater than your reach as a maker … The surprising (and probably disturbing) corollary to this is that we don’t learn much about making art from being moved by it.

David Bayles & Ted Orland

Look, I understand that inside me there is a greedy, gluttonous, lazy, hippie — you know? I understand that free time is probably my enemy. That if I’m given too much free time to contemplate the mysteries of the universe, I’m afraid of that inner hippie emerging. There’s a guy inside me who wants to lay in bed, and smoke weed all day, and watch cartoons, and old movies. I could easily do that. My whole life is a series of stratagems to avoid, and outwit, that guy.

Anthony Bourdain

Yeah, but what’d you actually do during your sabbatical?

Places I visited

  • Worked in the FT’s New York office during the US presidential election
  • Spent four days in Rye on the south coast of England with Scarlet. Went birdwatching at Rye Harbour nature reserve

Books I read

  • If you Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill him, by Sheldon Kopp
  • Mistborn, by Brandon Sanderson
  • Rainbow’s End, by Vernor Vinge
  • Mort(e), by Robert Repino
  • The Principles of Uncertainty, by Maira Kalman
  • Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, by David Bayles and Ted Orland
  • Daytripper, by Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá
  • Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson

TV I watched

  • Rick & Morty, both seasons
  • Mr Robot, both seasons
  • Chef’s Table, season two
  • Hannibal, season one
  • Homeland, half of season one
  • Terror in Resonance, season one

Podcasts I listened

Games I played

Things that involved social interaction


  • Finished the 30-day Foundation program on Darebee. Doing the 90 Days of Action program next
  • Meditated, too sporadically, using the Calm app
  • Planted a pineapple in a pot
  • Sharpened my kitchen knives
  • Cooked: Kedgeree, beef short ribs, oxtail, 鹹蛋蒸肉餅, spaghetti carbonara
  • Visited the new Design Museum
  • Rearranged my bookshelf


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