Stand with Ukraine. Donate via the National Bank.

Rehearsing a sabbatical

This fall, I went hiking in the Nepali Himalayas for the first time since the pandemic. A village called Namche Bazar is my favorite place to unwind from work, and usually I need at least a month off to get properly recharged. This time, even though I took a whole 6 weeks, I decided I needed more, but not because I got exceptionally tired of my current job.

For 6 years, I’ve been working for a very dynamic startup called Bluecode. For me, it began as a Ruby freelance gig, but luckily turned into a full-time [1] Elixir job soon after. For that, I’m grateful to the then-CTO, a friend of mine that I met years before at a Ruby conference speaker dinner in Amsterdam. One day, he had to hear about my enthusiasm for Elixir and the Phoenix framework. Suddenly, about a month later, he got back to the topic by simply saying: “Hey, a cool thing, that Elixir language” - and out of the blue, suggested rewriting the complete codebase from Java (and, eventually, Ruby) to Elixir. Should I say I was over the moon?

I love it at Bluecode for the knowledgeable team, for the challenges of fintech, and for the opportunity to use Elixir. My friends have heard me referring to it as a dream job. Still, in the past year the pressure to focus on my personal projects and self-education has been building, and I decided to request a sabbatical, effectively leaving the company for at least a year.

My previous experience of taking longer breaks between contractor gigs ended up, well, in wasting my life day after day, succumbing to classic procrastination.

This time I decided to act differently. The longer vacation in the Himalayas made it easy to trick myself into believing that I’m already unemployed - and rehearse the life I was planning for myself. The goal was to see whether I could keep up being productive near-daily, and whether the initial enthusiasm of having all the time for myself wouldn’t wear off.

Fast-forward 6 weeks, I came out of my experiment with a discovery. That particular state of mind usually described as vitality, enthusiasm, curiosity, the feeling of anticipation, or feeling energetic is the only crucial ingredient for a joyful and productive life. At least in my case. Anything else becomes simply a challenge and just gets dealt with. I finally knew what I should really focus on.

Maintaining that energetic state is not a trivial task, though, and here are some of my findings that took shape over the course of my life.

  • Physical activity is key. Nowadays, I plan my next nomadic move in conjunction with what exercise or sports activity I can do at the next location. Renting a place near a huge park where I can jog or run sprints, for example, works great. A gym nearby is a must, too.
  • Then there’s diet. Consuming a lot of carbs may contribute to mood swings and anxiety. I’ve been eating low-carb for almost 6 years, and have definitely noticed a significant increase in emotional stability and energy levels.
  • Creative work itself gives me lots of energy, too. I was especially thrilled at the discovery of this fact. I need to create (meaningful) things to feel truly alive.
  • Pacing my work appears very important, however. Being absorbed in coding or writing for hours on end doesn’t help long-term productivity. My energy levels keep up much longer during the day if I’m giving myself a 5-minute break every 30 minutes or so. I’d simply stand up, take a stroll, do a few squats, a stretch, or a hand stand. I try to let the mind rest, too.
  • Stress is a solution to nothing. As Oliver Burkeman points out in his book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, since there will never be enough time to accomplish every goal, there’s no sense to stress about that. Stress takes away that important aspect of enjoying whatever you’re doing at any given moment, and replacing it with the fear of missing out. However, reasoning about this isn’t enough. It takes practice, which is a topic for another explorative post or two.
  • The social side. People can be a source of joy and inspiration as well as a trigger for the most destructive negative emotions, which are simply incompatible with the creative flow. I try to be very selective of who surrounds me, both offline and virtually.
  • My last point should, in fact, be in the top-3 or so, but, as it will raise quite a few eyebrows, I won’t dwell on it too much. Frequent orgasms kill vitality, exacerbate mood swings, undermine memory and concentration among other negative effects. Consider this my n=1 experiment that’s been running for 23 years now, and so are its results. See what you make of this.

My year-off starts on February 1st, 2023, and I’m looking forward to making the most of it, the main goal being not to get somewhere, but to live it in full. I do expect some exciting side effects of it, though, and I will document them on this blog.

[1] To be precise, I was working 4 days a week, 6 hours a day - my personal sweet spot for sustainable long-term work.