Discover more from On Sabbatical
I am not my job
Taking an extended break from full-time work made it obvious to me that I had let work take up an unhealthy amount of space in my life. I am now back at work, part-time. Best decision ever.
It had been 11 months since I’d set foot in an office.
The last time had been on my last week of work just before I left to go on a twelve-month sabbatical. And now here I was, standing outside a tall off-white building in one of the busiest areas of London, ready to chat about a cool project that I might want to take on.
I was curious about the job I was there to discuss. Not only did it feel like something I could do well, the experience it would give me was perfectly aligned with where I wanted to take my work.
One thing was certain, though. Even if it was the most interesting job in the world, I wouldn’t take it if it were full-time. I wanted to work four days a week, no more.
I’d been working full-time for more than a decade
As I waited at reception, I reflected on how different I was compared to before my sabbatical.
I used to work full-time which, contractually at least, is 37.5 hours a week.
I don’t think I’d ever worked a 37.5-hour week in the last five years of my career. The bare minimum was 45 hours. More often than not, I would work 55. There were periods where I’d work 80 hours a week because the job required it. That’s more than double the hours I was technically contracted to work! There was a clause in my contract that made it all okay, though. Legally, at least.
There are 168 hours in a week, 112 waking hours when you discount eight hours a day for sleep. On a normal working week, I was spending roughly half of my waking hours working, which meant that I could spend the other half exercising, seeing friends and family, and doing general life admin.
That doesn’t sound too bad, but the problem with that way of thinking is that it’s not time you need to factor in this equation, it’s energy.
While it’s true that I was ‘only’ spending 50% of my waking hours at work on a normal working week, I was actually spending closer to 80% of the energy that was available to me in a week on work. Sure, I could technically spend my evenings and weekends on whatever I felt like doing, but I’d often feel like resting following a heavy working day, or because I knew the following week was going to be particularly intense.
In those 80-hour a week months I pushed the concept of ‘full-time work’ to the extreme, spending all of my energy on work. I was even borrowing some of that energy from my future self, knowing fully well that I’d end up having to take leave to recover.
At some point, it hit me.
By signing a ‘full-time work’ contract, you are committing to spending 37.5 hours per week at work at the times of the day when you are naturally the most awake and effective. You aren’t really committing your full time to work otherwise you’d be spending all your waking hours working, but you are committing your best hours and your full energy to work.
There are no full-time jobs, but there are many full-energy jobs out there. Some might say it’s semantics, but calling it a full-energy job would make it clear what you are expected to do once you sign the contract.
I took an extended break from work
Taking a step away from work for an extended period gave me the space I needed to spend time and energy on other things than work.
In the beginning I was so used to not having much energy to spend on my own stuff that I didn’t even know what to do with this big bucket of energy that I now had access to. I wasn’t feeling strongly driven to do things now that I wasn’t working anymore, which made it even more obvious to me how much of a ‘worker’ I had become. An excellent worker, sure, but a worker nonetheless.
I felt terrible. Imagine if that had been my way of being in the world my entire life… maybe that’s what my epitaph would have read.. “Excellent worker. Delivered an incredible amount of value to shareholders.”
I shivered at that silly thought and felt grateful for having given myself a chance to take a break away from the whirlwind of work to shape the next phase of my life more intentionally.
As my sabbatical unfolded, I learned how to follow my curiosity and ended up rediscovering long-lost facets of myself and unveiling new ones. Like an archeologist who’s progressively and carefully uncovering an old mosaic that had ended up being buried in the ground over time.
By the time my sabbatical came to a close, I had discovered many new facets of myself that I wanted to keep giving more of my attention to. I felt like they were an important part of my character and I was adamant that I wanted them to live on, even if I ended up taking on a job again.
As it turned out, I was interested in taking on a job at my old company. A meaningful and fast-paced project that would give me useful experience to build the future I was imagining for myself, and that would bring a bit of stability after twelve months of being entirely self-directed.
But I didn’t want to define myself as a worker again.
I was slightly worried that joining that fast-paced project would trigger my old workaholic habits and quickly decided that I would put clear boundaries around the project to protect the other parts of me that had nothing to do with it. I wanted to be a person that happened to have a cool job, not be the cool job.
So I decided to accept the project as long as my employer was happy with me working four days a week instead of five. I also decided to pace myself on working days such that I would still have energy left to give to other parts of myself once the working day was complete.
Returning to work part-time was the best decision I ever made
I’m now two months in. Reporting back. I’m working four days a week, and not a week goes by where I don’t thank myself for having made that decision.
Being paid less than my colleagues who work more hours than I do gives me permission to stick to working 80% of their hours. It would be ridiculous for me to work full-time hours while only being paid for 80% of those.
Because I spend fewer hours at work, I can’t afford to do any work that is not genuinely useful. I spot ineffective meetings and useless tasks from a mile away and don’t engage with them.
I have less time and energy to spend on my own stuff compared to when I was on sabbatical. As a result, ‘my’ hours feel even more precious than they used to feel when I had an infinite amount of them on sabbatical, and I feel regular waves of gratitude for having given myself the clarity and motivation to use that time well.
I have projects of my own that I want to play with when I’m not at my job, and I spend the extra time I’ve gifted myself every week on them. This means that it’s easy for me to not let a bad day at work define me.
I am not my job. I am a full individual with a rich identity and a variety of interests, who happens to have chosen to spend part of their energy on this job.
Best decision ever.
Thanks for reading On Sabbatical! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.