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Stefan Sagmeister: the sabbatical principle

Burn-out is an all too common occurrence these days. With the global financial crisis receding but still looming menacingly in the background, people are working harder than ever before, and it’s taking its toll.

It’s possible to work too hard. Though the sting of the global financial crisis has receded somewhat, some of its after-effects are lingering. People are still working harder than they want to, and it’s taking its toll.

Still, the notion of taking time off still seems like something of a luxury. There’s too much work to do for anyone to rest now!

Which makes Stefan Sagmeister’s ideas on the issue of time off all the more peculiar.

Sagmeister, an enormously prolific and popular figure in the design world, gave a speech entitled ‘The Power of Time Off’ at the TEDGlobal conference in July.

The speech focused on his sabbatical principle. At the tender age of 25, Sagmeister observed that he was much less productive when he worked six days, week after consecutive week. He was exhausted and his designs began to suffer.

He came to the conclusion that he would cut five years out of his 15 year retirement period and insert them into his long-term schedule at intervals of seven years. These years would be spent on working sabbatical, with the goal of refreshing and re-invigorating the creative productivity of his company.

So, at the end of every seven years, Sagmeister Inc. closes down completely, and its managing director goes on sabbatical for an entire year. The sabbatical isn’t idle, of course; the purpose of it is a creative renewal, so he works every day. The difference does it is in Bali, or New York, away from the day-to-day pressures of running a successful design agency.

“He came to the conclusion that he would cut five years out of his 15 year retirement period and insert them into his long-term schedule at intervals of seven years.”

Sagmeister notes that 3M gives 15% of work hours to employees so they can develop their own ideas (and it works: products like Post-it notes and Scotch tape were invented by employees given creative time) while Google allows a whopping 20%.

It might be easier for creative professionals to take time out for a sabbatical, though, with discipline, the principle can be applied in other professions too.

A working sabbatical of any length is clearly a luxury in a high-pressure job. But even if you apply the principle to your working week or day by day, great things could come of it.

For instance, fifteen minutes out of every hour spent away from your desk, but not necessarily away from your work, is worth trying.

Clearly, if you want to apply this theory, you need to structure it rigorously. Without a plan, a half-day, or fifteen minutes would lapse into leisure time.

But if carried out with a suitable degree of discipline, Sagmeister’s sabbatical philosophy could be strongly beneficial to your productivity and mental health.

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