Episode: Why Every Leader Needs a Sabbatical
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Michael Hyatt: Comedian Red Skelton said that any kid will run any errand for you if you ask at bedtime. Human beings have an innate aversion to sleep. Toddlers resist naptime. Children fight going to bed. Even adults seem desperate to cram every moment with activity until we finally collapse into bed after one last look at the smartphone.
Maybe that’s because rest brings us to a complete stop. Though vital for our well being, it means calling a halt to all other activity. While we are at rest, we can do nothing, produce nothing, communicate nothing, and if we can’t do anything, then why are we here?
Megan Hyatt Miller: There’s a story in the Hebrew Scriptures that’s held dear by each of the world’s three major religions. It’s a story about a group of people who were slaves for some 400 years. Their job was to make bricks. That’s what they did day after day, seven days a week, for centuries. Then along came a deliverer named Moses who led the people to freedom.
Moses established a rule for these newly liberated people. They had to take one day off each week. On the seventh day they were to stop, cease work, do nothing. Here’s the fascinating thing about the story: some of them couldn’t do it. Their work had become more than a job or a burden; it had become their identity.
Michael: We’re all slaves of a sort, aren’t we? To smartphones, social media shares, weekly numbers, daily stand-up meetings, email notifications, quarterly reports. Sure, they’re annoying, but they’re also somehow addicting. Day after day, month after month, year after year, they become the evidence of our worth. Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to stop working even for a day, yet rest is good and important. We need it every day, and we need it for longer periods too.
Megan: The word sabbatical is derived from the Hebrew word shabbath or sabbath. It’s not just the name of a day; it literally means to stop, cease, call a halt, do nothing. University professors are sometimes granted a sabbatical every seven years as a time for study, travel, and rejuvenation. Bill Gates is well known for taking two weeks each year to seclude himself for a time of reading and thinking. Even profit-centered companies like Intel, REI, and, yes, McDonald’s offer their workers a one- to two-month sabbatical after a certain length of service. The purpose, as Stephen Covey puts it, is to sharpen the saw, to make their workers even more productive after a period of extended rest.
Michael: In the days before chemical fertilizers, wise farmers would allow their fields to remain fallow every seventh year as a way of replenishing the soil. They understood it couldn’t produce year after year without wearing out. Every so often you need a good long break. When was the last time you took extended time away from work to refresh and replenish yourself? How could it affect your life, your work, and your family if you could just stop, maybe for a month, maybe longer? What would happen if you took a sabbatical?
Hi, I’m Michael Hyatt.
Megan: And I’m Megan Hyatt Miller.
Michael: And this is Lead to Win, our weekly podcast to help you win at work, succeed at life, and lead with confidence. In this episode, we’re talking about the incredible value of taking a sabbatical.
Megan: As leaders, we tend to be energized and motivated by our work. That can make us resistant to taking time away, yet the more we work the more we get caught up in the nonstop whirlwind of activity that can leave us exhausted and ineffective. Today we’ll answer your top three objections to taking extended time away from work. We’ll show you this really is within your reach, regardless of your busy schedule. When we’re done, you’ll be fired up about the idea of taking time away to reset and refresh yourself, and you’ll have practical guidance on how to make that a reality.
Michael: Before we dive into today’s subject, could I ask a small favor? If you’re depending on this podcast for ideas and inspiration, would you be willing to leave us a brief review? It’ll take you just a couple of minutes, and you can do it at michaelhyatt.com/reviewit. We’ve made it really simple, and we’d appreciate it.
Megan: Dad, the idea of taking a sabbatical may sound a little strange to some of our listeners, because traditionally it has been more common in higher education, for example. I can imagine a lot of people think it sounds like either a luxury or a waste of time. So do we really need this?
Michael: Well, there are huge benefits in a sabbatical for everyone. This is something I’ve practiced for several years, and I’ve really come to believe it. It’s a conviction. But we probably ought to begin by describing what a sabbatical is. A sabbatical is extended time away from work for replenishment. So when I talk about a sabbatical I’m talking about something that’s more than a mere vacation. It’s probably something that’s longer than a week. It could be as long as you want it, but probably longer than a week.
Megan: I had somebody tell me recently they were about to take a sabbatical to catch up on some work to write a book they needed to write. That’s not really what you’re talking about, though.
Michael: No. I used to think that was okay, but that’s not really what I’m talking about. If you’re talking about doing something completely different… Like in the academic world, you might actually do that. You might go off and research something you’ve been meaning to research and you just need the focused time and write something. That’s different than teaching classes, so that may have a rejuvenating effect, but I’m talking about not doing work, resting from work.
It really goes back to Scripture, as we talked about in the opening, but it’s not just a religious idea. It has been used in other contexts for a long time, and not just higher education. More and more companies are seeing the value, like Patagonia, The Cheesecake Factory, QuikTrip, The Container Store, Timberland.
Actually, we talked about McDonald’s, but they started this in 1977, and they were the first big corporation to do it. Right now, only about 50 percent of companies offer a sabbatical, but the majority of Fortune’s Best Companies to Work For do. The research, by the way, is pretty solid here. Sabbaticals improve well being, and that benefits the employer in the long run.
Megan: Not only that, but it’s an incredible recruitment tool. In an increasingly competitive market for team members, this is a way to really stand out, and as it turns out, it doesn’t cost you any money. We offer a sabbatical here at Michael Hyatt & Company, and the reason we were inspired to do that was because of your experience. We offer a one-month sabbatical for every three years you work for us. I’m actually a little belated on this, but I’m going to be taking one with my husband Joel this summer for the first time. I’m super excited to do that.
Michael: I’m excited for you.
Megan: We actually have eight team members who are doing that this year, so it’s going to be interesting to coordinate that on a larger scale, but I can’t wait to hear what they come back with. So tell us how you got started back in 2011 with this idea of taking a sabbatical. That was back when you were still in the corporate world.
Michael: Yeah, I had just stepped down as the CEO from Thomas Nelson. I was still the chairman, but I didn’t really have any operational responsibilities. A psychologist friend of mine said, “You know, I think you really need some extended time away to think about what’s next, to close emotionally this last chapter and turn the corner and begin to think about your future and what you want to create for this second half of life.”
I said, “Okay. Maybe I’ll just take two weeks off.” He said, “No, I was thinking about three months.” I said, “What? There’s no way I can take three months. Come on.” He said, “Well, how much time do you think you could take?” I said, “Well, I think maybe I could get away for a month.” He said, “Okay, I’ll settle for a month.” Like he was bargaining with me.
Megan: He was bracketing you, to use sales terminology.
Michael: It was extraordinary. Because he’s a psychologist and because he’d been through this before, he offered me some great advice. He said, “You know how when you go on a one-week vacation and toward the end of that first week you’re kind of itching to get back? You’re kind of stir-crazy and you’ve had as much recreation as you can stand.” He said, “Well, the thing about a sabbatical is you get past that.”
Michael: You get past that anxiety of the end of the first week, the beginning of the second week. He said, “Then you begin to settle into a new kind of rhythm that’s incredibly rejuvenating.” So Mom and I went to Colorado. We went to our friend Ken Davis’ home in Buena Vista, Colorado, and we were there for an entire month. First of all, being in the Rocky Mountains at 9,000 feet…
Megan: In the summer.
Michael: In the summer in a cabin… We were hiking every day. We were fishing almost every night. We were just taking time to read and breathe and rest. I didn’t realize how tired I’d been after working. I was taking vacations and all that, but how tired I was and how much my soul needed that, how much my heart needed that. I came back from that sabbatical with a whole vision for what I wanted this next half of my life to be and also kind of closing the door on my Thomas Nelson experience and putting that to bed and feeling good about that. It was monumental.
Megan: It sounds amazing. But I can almost hear the objections from our listeners.
Michael: I can hear them from here.
Megan: In fact, we’ve come up with a list of three. We’ve heard these before. What’s the first one?
Michael: The first objection is, “I don’t really think I need this.” I have a list here of five good reasons everybody should take a sabbatical. Now, I want to just caution people. Before you think you can’t, like you can’t afford it, you couldn’t find the time, your boss wouldn’t let you, or whatever, just stick with us for a minute. Just stay open to possibility.
Megan: Suspend your disbelief.
Michael: Let us walk through these objections, but I want to tell you why you need one. First of all, to recharge physically and emotionally. You’re more tired than you think. You’re more exhausted than you think at a deeper level than you think. The average worker has four unused vacation days per year. I have a theory about that, by the way. I don’t want to get us too far afield, but I think the reason it’s hard to take time off is because it’s unfamiliar territory and it creates anxiety.
When we’re working we know what to do with ourselves. This is why, for years, I dragged my work into my vacations. I didn’t know what to do on a vacation, but I knew how to process email and keep up with the office and work on some projects here and there and still have some fun things in the middle of that. This is why I think people don’t take off all the time they’re allotted.
Okay, so four unused vacation days per year. That’s 662 million vacation days left on the table annually. We’re forfeiting 66.4 billion in benefits by doing so, and we risk burnout by not taking time to recharge. Research shows you’re 30 percent more likely to get a raise if you take 11 or more vacation days. Let me say that again. Write this down. Research shows that you’re 30 percent more likely to get a raise if you take 11 or more vacation days. Why? Because a rested person is more productive. They’re more focused.
Megan: And more creative.
Michael: More creative. They’re going to get more done. People who don’t use all their vacation days have lower performance and are less likely to get promoted. So that’s the first reason: to recharge physically and emotionally.
The second reason is to slow down and enjoy being. I like what comic actor Rick Moranis said about this. I actually saw an interview with him where he was talking about this. He said, “Well, I took a sabbatical. I walked away from shooting movies because I couldn’t handle the travel. I’m a single parent. I had young kids, and I found that keeping in touch with them from hotel rooms and airports wasn’t working for me. So I stopped.”
The third reason is to feed your spiritual side. I think this is an opportunity. I don’t want to make this all about being religious, but I think there’s an opportunity for us to connect to a sense of purpose, a sense of meaning, to find true north again.
Megan: To just be still.
Michael: To be still, and to realize there’s a bigger purpose to life than just running on a hamster wheel, earning the next paycheck. The next reason is to get clarity on your priorities and goals. This is always one of the greatest benefits I get from going on a sabbatical. When you’re working and going at this frantic pace that most of us go on, it’s easy for us to lose a sense of our values or what it’s all about, our goals. This gives us a chance to reconnect with that and realign, course correct, make some major decisions.
Then, finally, to get on the same page as our spouse. I know not everybody who’s listening to this is married, but for those of you who are, this is an extraordinary opportunity to connect with your spouse or with your family, because we rarely get this kind of extended time to just hang with each other, to have those leisurely conversations that don’t happen when we’re pressured for time. This gives us the space for that to happen.
Megan: That was the inspiration in many ways behind my sabbatical this year. Joel and I together have four kids, the oldest of whom is just now 17.
Michael: That’s hard to believe.
Megan: I know. I don’t feel like I’m old enough for that.
Michael: When did that happen?
Megan: I don’t know. When I wasn’t looking. You start to realize as a parent that your days are numbered with kids at home, so part of our motivation in planning our trip was “How can we be intentional about creating a space to make memories and have meaningful, deep conversations without the intrusion of work or technology or anything else?” So we’re going to be doing a tour of some of the national parks this summer. We’re driving all the way from Tennessee to Montana is the farthest place we’ll go.
We’re going to go through the Badlands and Glacier National Park and Yellowstone and Tetons and some other things. We’re planning to just do a lot of fishing and hiking and sitting around the fireplace talking as a family and swimming. I anticipate that we’ll have a lot of good conversations and probably some hard ones. We’ll probably have some stir-craziness, but I think it’s going to be one of those trips our kids look back on as being one of the most memorable things we’ve ever done.
Michael: As you’ve planned this, what are the kids thinking?
Megan: Oh, they’re super excited. They’re thinking right now about what movies are they going to watch in the car, because they haven’t been to any national parks yet, so they don’t really have a big picture of what it’s going to be like. I think the big kids, though, are thinking about board games they want to bring and “What kind of fishing are we going to do?” and “What movies might we watch all together?”
It’s interesting. There’s this desire, I think, whether they’re the little kids or the big kids, for connection and to be outdoors and to just have that extended time together. It’s not something most families are accustomed to doing. It used to be maybe more common in the past. We’re really excited about it.
Michael: That’s great. So, Meg, how is that different than just a vacation? We’ve known people who have done that kind of thing in a week. Why is this different? Other than just that it’s 30 days.
Megan: I think we knew how much time we had. We knew we were going to take this period of time. We had a month to do it. That allowed us to do some things we wouldn’t do if we were doing a fly-by tour. We do other vacations throughout the year. We take a trip to the beach every year and things like that, but there’s something about no hurry to get back to work, to be fully present in an extended way with each other, to just be outside of our normal circumstances.
It’s not really about entertainment. This is not an entertainment kind of trip. This is really about nature and connection and moving together and things like that. I don’t know. I think there’s, like you said, that restless thing that hits you (it hits me at least) about day five of a seven-day vacation, where I’m like, “Okay, that was great. Let’s pack it up and go home early.” That hopefully will blow off the back at day five, and we’ll all be engaged and deeper into connection with each other as the time goes on.
Michael: I think you hit on something really important. One of the things I’ve seen… Some people approach vacations just like they approach work. This is particularly true for high achievers. It’s like, “How much can we cram into this week? How much can we check off?” I remember taking you girls to Disney World. I don’t know how old you were, maybe 12 or something like that.
It was one of those things where at the end of the week I was saying, “Man! I cannot wait to get back to work just so I can rest.” I was exhausted because we just tried to cram too much in. This is not that. Again, we get back to the meaning of sabbath. It’s to rest, and it’s, like you said, to allow that space to be fully present.
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Okay, shall we go on to the second objection?
Megan: Let’s do it.
Michael: All right. This one often comes up, and it’s this: “I can’t be away for that long.”
Megan: I think people wonder if they can take this much time away. There are kind of two parts of it. If you’re in more of a corporate setting, will you be allowed to take that much vacation? Then if you own your own business, how could you possibly step out of your business for a month or for two weeks or six weeks or whatever your goal is?
That’s a major hurdle to overcome, because you have to innovate to get there, whether it’s a conversation with your boss in a pretty impressive sales pitch to convince him or her to allow you to do this or it’s setting your business up in such a way it can be automated or self-managing or you’re empowering people on your team to run it while you’re gone. Those are real things to contend with, but what you know from your experience is that it’s really worth it. It’s worth pushing through that.
Michael: It’s totally worth it, but it requires suspending disbelief, like we said before, and just staying in the space and entertaining the possibility.
Megan: I think the question is “What would have to be true in order to do this?” not “Why can’t I do it?”
Michael: It could very well be a limiting belief, and that’s what I want to explore. Just be open to the possibility as you’re listening to this that this is a limiting belief that’s keeping you from this, that there’s not anything objective out there. There’s not a law in your country that says you can’t take a sabbatical (probably). Most of the constraint is going to be in your own thinking.
Some people say, “I’m too busy,” but is that really true? Feeling that you’re over busy is the very reason you need this. This may have more to do with internal limitations than real obstacles, like we like feeling needed. We get a lot of satisfaction and our sense of significance from work. Maybe we’re fearful that if we’re gone for that long they’ll finally figure out they don’t need us.
Megan: Well, I had my own experience with this last year. I took a month off for some family medical leave that was necessary. It wasn’t a sabbatical, but I had this whole kind of meltdown, if I were describing myself, around, “They’re going to realize somebody else can do my job, and there’s no point for me to be there anymore. I’ll come back, and the hole will be filled up, like when you throw a rock in the water.”
Michael: The hole fills up.
Megan: It was that self-defeating mindset. Of course, the truth is that rarely ever happens. In fact, you’re going to be more valuable when you come back because you’re going to be rested and have more to contribute.
Michael: That’s another thing I would say to entrepreneurs particularly. Solopreneurs often think this, entrepreneurs think this, that they’re so essential for their business that if they were to be absent the entire business would fall apart. This is yet another reason you need a sabbatical. It’ll force you to build a business that is sustainable without you. In fact, if you have a company that can’t function without you, that’s a failure of leadership. So this will grow your leadership.
Megan: And your team.
Michael: And your team. Here’s what has been my consistent experience since I’ve been doing these sabbaticals since 2011. I come back, and the team is in better shape than when I left. More has been accomplished. I get out of their hair. They can make major progress while I’m gone, and they have to step up. They have to cover for me, and that’s a good thing. People get to grow as well in that process.
Megan: Our team loves it when we leave, and they tell us right to our faces. They say, “We get so much done when you guys are gone. Can you make sure to take those vacations at the same time, your sabbaticals at the same time?”
Michael: Okay, other people might think, “Well, the boss won’t allow it,” but you might be surprised. Don’t say no for the boss. If the boss wants to say no, let the boss say no.
Megan: Probably nobody has ever asked.
Michael: Right. The resistance may be all in your head. Maybe he won’t give you 30 days, but he might give you two weeks. He might give you three weeks.
Megan: Especially if you can make a compelling case for why it’s in his or her best interests for you to be gone. That is the critical piece.
Michael: Exactly. Pull out the science. The science will prove you’re on the right side of this. This is how I’d sell my boss back when I used to have a boss. (Well, actually, now my boss is you, I guess.) This is how I sell anybody on anything. I always try to put myself in their shoes. I say, “Why is this in their best interest that I take this action?” Think about that. Why is it in the company’s best interest that you take a sabbatical? Then just start listing the reasons. Go in and make your case.
Megan: For example, you might be a one-month sabbatical away from a million-dollar idea.
Michael: If you come back more refreshed, more focused, more productive, if you’re less likely to leave the company because of that, if it enables you to keep your family together so you don’t have to go through a divorce later or your kids going off the tracks… All that takes away from productivity at work. You just have to sell it. Again, I would say don’t make the decision for the boss. Give the boss a chance.
Megan: What’s the third objection?
Michael: The third objection is “I can’t afford it.”
Megan: One objection to taking a sabbatical is it seems unnecessary, but everyone needs extended time away, and then a second objection is that we can’t possibly be away for so long, but that’s probably a limiting belief. Now we come to what I think could be the biggest objection of all, which is “I can’t afford it.” Right?
Michael: Right. I understand the pressure. Entrepreneurs don’t get PTO (paid time off), but I think this is another limiting belief, and this is a case where oftentimes strategy gets ahead of vision. In other words, you have to get clear on what you want before you allow the lack of resources to start limiting your vision. In my experience, the resources don’t show up until there’s a commitment to the vision.
I want to get really practical on this. This is something that needs to go on your calendar. It may be two years out, but put it on the calendar, be serious about it, and then work toward it. Like most things in life, there’s this power of incremental change over time. It may take you a while to save for it to make it possible, but where there’s a will there’s a way.
Megan: Also, you may not think you can afford the time, but you may also think you can’t afford the money for some big elaborate trip, but in that first example you had in your own life on a sabbatical, I think that trip was a gift to you, wasn’t it?
Michael: It was totally a gift to us. We were able to go to a friend’s vacation home. We had to pay for our food, which, oh, we would have had to pay for that anyway. Right? We had to pay for airline tickets to get there, which I think we actually used miles we’d accumulated. So it cost us no more than living here in Nashville.
Megan: I think that’s the big idea. Certainly you could plan some super elaborate European sabbatical or something like that maybe at some point in your life.
Michael: Which I’ve done too. It was fun.
Megan: Yeah, you’ll have the opportunity to do that, which is great, but there are also very modest ways to do this. It could be camping. It could be using a friend’s house. It could even be a staycation, although I think you have to be careful about that one, just to make sure you don’t try to plug back into work. There are a lot of ways to accomplish this that won’t become apparent until you set the vision for it.
Michael: Again, I would just say start small-ish. I’ve talked before about my friend I challenged to do this. She started with two weeks last summer. This summer she’s doing three weeks, and her goal is to get to four weeks. She’s taking baby steps, and she’s so proud of herself, and I’m so proud of her. It has changed everything for her.
Megan: That’s awesome. Okay, today we’ve learned that everybody wins when employees take a sabbatical or, for that matter, bosses take sabbaticals. We’ve also learned that you can do it. This is within your reach. As we come in for a landing, I just want to remind you that nothing moves until you do, so step out, take the risk, and put that sabbatical on your calendar. Dad, do you have any final thoughts for us today?
Michael: Yeah, I’d like to end with a quote from David Whyte from his book Consolations. He says, “Rested, we are ready for the world but not held hostage by it; rested we care again for the right things and the right people in the right way. In rest we reestablish the goals that make us more generous, more courageous, more of an invitation, someone we want to remember, and someone others would want to remember too.” Isn’t that great?
Megan: I love that so much. As we close, I want to thank our sponsor LeaderBox. It provides automated personal development in a box. Check it out at leaderbox.com.
Michael: If you’ve enjoyed today’s episode, you can get the show notes and a full transcript online at leadto.win.
Megan: Thanks again for joining us on Lead to Win. If you like the show, please tell your friends and colleagues about it. Also please leave a review, which will take just a couple of minutes. Simply visit michaelhyatt.com/reviewit.
Michael: This program is copyrighted by Michael Hyatt & Company. All rights reserved. Our producer is Nick Jaworski. Our writers are Joel Miller and Lawrence Wilson.
Megan: Our recording engineer is Mike Burns.
Michael: Our production assistants are Aleshia Curry and Natalie Fockel.
Megan: Our intern is Winston.
Michael: We invite you to join us next week when we’ll review the latest travel gear, tips, and apps that’ll take all the stress out of your next out-of-town trip. Until then, lead to win.