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I'm going on a 5-week sabbatical where I'm mostly taking care of my kids, cooking, cleaning etc. I just saw Stefan Sagmeister's TED talk and I'm wondering if there is anything I can do to make the best use of my time.

I already know I want to do some programming and reading, but neither is very well defined. From past experience I know that just letting things flow results in a day that's over before I realize it with nothing really accomplished.

So the question is, how do I define outcomes and realize them given a reasonable amount of spare time and no external pressures to achieve the outcomes?

Update after week 2: so far all time went to the kids and recharging my batteries :-) I now feel able to implement the advice given in the answers. My takeaways:

  • Make a list of things I want to do
  • Assign a max time to each
  • Make sure I have chunks of time that I can do them in
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You may want to look into Stefan Sagmeister's view on the subject and his approach to sabbaticals. – Juan Alonso Jul 27 '13 at 15:57
Hi @Juan that's a summary of the ted talk I linked above :-) I agree it was very inspiring! – w00t Jul 30 '13 at 20:34
While I realise this is very old, it would be interesting to know how your work progressed during the remaining 3 weeks and whether any of the answers here actually helped. – AsheeshR Jan 7 '14 at 13:44
@AsheeshR well, from the takeaways listed above, 1) was a success to stay somewhat focused, 2) was not so useful since I ended up taking whatever the time needed was and 3) was hard to do with the kids so all in all I didn't get a lot done but at least I worked on things I wanted to work on in the first place. – w00t Jan 9 '14 at 15:48
up vote 3 down vote accepted

In your work environment, the things that are constantly present are schedules and deadlines. Most activities that you do, have some form of time limit attached to them. This limitation of time acts as a strong external motivator and for many tasks, we become dependent on them to achieve objectives.

While on your sabbatical, you will have neither a deadline nor a schedule. Either of these, if present, will be self-imposed (and hence flexible). So, basically, your external motivators are gone.

Whats left? You.

The most important thing to do is to look inwards. The only thing that will make you get up, sit on your desk and do something productive will be intrinsic motivators. So, any tasks that you perform will have to leverage this renewable resource.


Intrinsic motivation comes into play when we perform tasks that we enjoy, tasks that we do not consider work, but play. Remember how immersive a game feels? Remember the state of flow that you were in? That mental state is what you really need in your sabbatical.

No really, how?

  • Think about yourself and you aims in life. Think about activities that get you in a state of flow. If you have a smartphone, download and use a ESM application for a normal work week. This will remove any internal biases that you have and will give you a real idea of what tasks get you in a state of flow.

  • Once identified, (you may or may not like the list) try to figure out projects or tasks that you can do related to these activities. Make a list of these.

  • Now, prioritize them according to what you feel is most important or will help you most in furthering your aims.

  • Finally, create rough deadlines for each of these activities and if you so wish, create a schedule, as well. I recommend that you dont, but thats up to you. You will realise that when you do the tasks that you enjoy, you wont need a strict schedule or strict deadlines. Work will move along on its own.

You will spend the next five weeks playing through work this way! Enjoy your sabbatical.

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Note 5 weeks not 5 months – Michael Durrant Jul 17 '13 at 0:22

Measure you progress is the main thing I would recommend.


  • Set out a plan with as much detail as practical so that you'll be able to do stuff and check it off.
    Breaking things down into small chunks will help you achieve this.

  • Set maximum time lines for the tasks you are going to attempt, e.g. work on problem x for 2 days and if you don't have an acceptable solution by then, move on to the next thing. You'll make sure you don't get mired in just a few problems.

  • Set up similar meetings to the ones you have at work, e.g. weekly status meeting, retrospectives, show-and-tell. Ideally with other people but even if it's just 'you', adding this sort of structure can help keep you on the right track and help encourage you to do good habits.

  • If kids are around during the day, explain the setup and try to have a fixed structure to the day that lets them know when you are busy.

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  1. Get out your bucket list.

  2. Find activities you can do in your 5 weeks.

  3. Set time limits for each of your activities (e.g. 1 week for activity 1).

  4. Go about achieving them, and cross them off your bucket list once you're done. .

  5. At the end of your sebbatical, look at what you've crossed off from your bucket list and say, "Wow, I've actually done stuff!"

If you don't have a bucket list, perhaps spend a day making one, and spend the rest of your time with my steps.

All the best!

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