Six months have passed since I started my inadvertent sabbatical. There are no fireworks or big announcements or even possibly any major achievements by most sabbatical standards. In fact, this may be the most boring sabbatical story you'll ever read and here's why…
When you work eight hours a day, you think three months off will be enough to achieve your dreams, but you don't account for the need for an actual break. From three to six months, you start in earnest working on your ideas and plans, only to realise that life still gets in the way and procrastination still happens and you're not even sure of what your dreams are any more. Six months in and there's no sign of a book (or even an ebook), new business, travel caper or other big bucket-list tick of some kind. But, man, have you sorted out your shit – the house, the clutter, the finances, the open tabs and bookmarks, catching up with people, latent DIY projects and so on.
It's not all procrastination, though, because when you've only known one career for nearly three decades, it turns out you need quite a bit of time to have a proper rethink about the final third of your life (we've had learning and earning, so what's next?).
It's like my sabbatical inspiration Sam Underwood said to me a few weeks ago: once you've started a sabbatical you kind of want to work out how to continue it (as he has managed to). Up to now, I've been logging what I've been doing to prove to myself that things are moving forward and that I'm not frittering away this precious time. To mark six months, though, I thought I'd look at how things have changed and what, if anything, I have achieved by dropping out for a bit.
From Feb 2009-Sept 2016 I worked as a full-time digital content editor for a London content marketing agency and my own private clients. Eight hours a day on a chair (or stepper!) at a computer doing the work I love – writing, refining, publishing, strategising; rinse and repeat.
For seven fortunate years, I rode the wave of brand publishing's shift on to the Web and into social media and apps. Budgets flowed online, opportunities abounded, the publishing world I had known was changing fundamentally; it was really quite thrilling to be part of it. I threw myself into self-training and signed up for conferences from London to Paris to Texas. I set up Blogger and WordPress blogs, Tumblrs, Second Life, Flickr, Scoop-It, Ning, Storify, Delicious, YouTube, LinkedIn, Vimeo, Digg, Stumbleupon, Reddit, Vine, Meerkat, Instagram. You name it. I loved this new world of connection and freedom and the old hierarchies levelled.
I climbed the new digital career ladder eagerly and easily as digital skills were in high demand, going from journalist to blogger to website editor to content strategist to digital skills trainer in the space of two years. An even bigger change was being able to work remotely, which meant I could move away from hectic media-centric London to a less stressful lifestyle in my home city of Birmingham.
But as digital marketing became mainstream, I found my enthusiasm dwindling. Learning (for me at least) had plateaued and a new normal had been established that was less interesting.
To cap it all, my old RSI injuries – renamed 'tech neck' for the internet generation – weren't getting any better in a sedentary, screen-based job. After being referred to a physio clinic, I got my final warning: nothing more could be done to resolve my ongoing suite of neck, shoulder, arm, elbow, wrist and back pain. The only option left for this unfit sedentary editor was lifestyle (ie, career) change.
When a main client took their content work in-house, this provided the impetus for finally acting on the physio's advice. Even so, I have to keep reminding myself that health is the main reason for taking this break, not to write a book or take off around the world.
As I ponder returning to the freelance writer/editor circuit, these are the three big changes that I want to keep going.
1. Health and fitness
I'm not longer tied to a desktop computer but many of the things I want to do (write, infosec, connect) still involve firing up the laptop. At least now there is some balance: I can go to tai chi in the park or Scottish dancing or play basketball (all new hobbies) to keep the muscles from seizing up in static tension. I now tend to work on the lappie late at night with a wine or tea.
I've also lost a few pounds from being more mobile and just generally feel a whole lot better being more active. There is still a long way to go until I'm fit and strong enough to achieve the South American bodyboarding holiday dream but one of the big realisations has been that I constantly underestimate how long everything will take. The important thing is to be on the path to fitness and to get there eventually and without injury.
2. Learning and creativity
I know the projects I want to do and have spent the past few months getting to grips with different ways to approach a big writing project. I've recently also found a few inspirations that have sent me off down the experimental-writing-text-photography-art spectrum, which feels 'right' to me as a blogger, more so than a straight text book does anyway.
I've also prioritised learning new things, such as exploring photomontage, brushing up on my Indonesian and I'm currently on my second cybersecurity course. Hopefully I can build on these without them taking up so much headspace in future.
3. Financial planning
I spent much of the first three months sorting out the immediate practical issues of a career break, namely the financial side. I've always put 25% of every income payment away – to pay for tax and travel – so I already had some money put aside. But instead of blowing it all on travel this time, I decided to significantly reduce my mortgage debt, get rid of unnecessary monthly debits and reduce my budget to minimum levels. We also set up a joint bills account and savings plan for petcare and holidays, and I reduced my luxuries to the occasional coffee out.
I still have some income from client work so I'm breaking even each month – and that's fine. I see this as buying myself the gift of time rather than the gift of stuff. I'm no longer flush but I feel free.
So this is the new lifestyle – poorer but healthier and with the hope that the new things I'm learning will take me somewhere new in time. I have no idea whether I'll be looking at infosec jobs in a year's time or creating text-based artworks or bodyboarding in Nicaragua, or just pottering around the garden, drinking tea and reading books with the bunnies in tow.
Other people I know have done major league things with their sabbatical – overlanding to Japan, for example, or taking the family on the road in a camper van in order to research a new business, or publishing a book.
In comparison, my sabbatical is pretty boring but I am very much hoping that by laying the sensible groundwork now, it will pay off many times over in the long run. My big achievement, hopefully, will be to ensure that a lifestyle change is just that – change for life.
Barack Obama: "If you're walking down the right path and you're willing to keep walking, eventually you'll make progress."