Taking a Creative Sabbatical as a Software Engineer

Published | 6 min read

The last couple of years have been tough for many people. A mix of lockdowns and general anxiety has left many feeling burnt out and exhausted.

For software developers, the move to working 100% remotely wasn’t as much of an upheaval as it has been for others. Given the majority of our work can be done in isolation (at least after the initial planning) many were actually happy with the new set-up.

However, having the option to work remote and being forced to are two different things.

Work From Home Pre-Pandemic 🏡

Even before the pandemic, I had managed to negotiate with my employer 12 work-from-home days a month. With the agreement that I would use a maximum of 3 a week.

With my commute to London lasting at least 2 hours, I was often already tired by the time I got to the office. Not the best mindset to be in for mentally taxing work such as software development. So, the 2-3 days a week was going to be a welcome break.

In reality, it was difficult to get even 2 days a week working from home. With everyone else only allowed 1 day a week and the office not set up for remote conferencing, meetings had to be held in person.

On the few occasions, I did have meetings at home, it was common for the other attendees to forget to dial me in or spend the first 10 minutes of the meeting trying to make it work.

On the days that I worked from home with no meetings, it was bliss. 8 hours of focused work, several days a week allowed me to deliver a project that would have taken a whole team a year, by myself in 4 months.

Work From Home During The Pandemic 🏡🦠

With everyone thrust into working from home, remote meetings were no longer a problem. In fact, they became too easy.

My meeting-free days of productivity were replaced with back-to-back meetings the majority of the week.

By mid-2022, there were weeks where as much as 80% of my workday consisted of Zoom calls. The remaining time consisted of 15 to 30 min blocks scattered between meetings.

For creative tasks such as programming and software design, you generally need 3 hours of unbroken time to get into “the zone” needed for the work. This left just shallow work such as catching up on email and Slack messages to fill these gaps.

To make matters worse, as no one needed to commute home it was common for meetings to drag on past normal working hours, eating into the time I would normally spend with my family.

Back to the Office 🏢

With the introduction of vaccines and the government easing of restrictions, my employer eventually moved to 2 mandatory days in the office per week.

For small teams in the office, this allowed for Zoom-free days and the collaboration that you can only get from working in person.

However, for larger teams, especially those with global team members, it just meant that the Zoom meetings had a different backdrop.

The only thing more exhausting than 6 hours of back-to-back Zoom meetings from home, is 6 hours of back-to-back Zoom meetings in a noisy open-plan office with a lack of meeting rooms.

A combination of Zoom fatigue and long commutes left me feeling uninspired, tired and in need of a change.

So in July 2022, I left my 6 figure software development job to go on a creative sabbatical.

What is a creative sabbatical? 🎨

I thought I had coined this term myself, but apparently not.

Sabbaticals are normally reserved for academia, where once every 7 years professors can take a year out to focus on research and writing instead of teaching while still being employed by the university.

The “creative sabbatical” appears to be originally coined by Stefan Sagmeister, who closes his design studio every 7 years to explore creative ideas. The idea is to take 5 years from his retirement and intersperse them throughout his working life. There is a TED talk about it if you want to learn more.

How do you take a creative sabbatical?

Unless your company is nice enough to pay you to take a year off, and you definitely plan to return after your sabbatical, you are going to have to pay for it out of your own pocket.

Luckily, software engineering is a highly paid career, and it is not uncommon, especially in major cities, to have salaries in the 6 figures.

The problem is, people let their lifestyle inflate as their salary increases. You work hard, so of course, you deserve the latest gadgets, a big house, a holiday abroad, that Tesla you always wanted and eating out at the nicest restaurants.

Most people don’t enjoy their jobs, so they use expensive luxuries as a reward for sticking to a job they hate.

This just exasperates the issue, leaving people no choice but to stay at a job they hate, to afford the luxuries they buy themselves, to endure the job that they hate.

The key to being able to take a creative sabbatical is to save a large portion of your income (preferably >50%) and live below your means.

With lower expenses and a large savings buffer, you can afford to pay yourself to take time off.

I spend a lot less money now that I am not working in London. In fact, I am actually saving myself over £500 a month when you include the following:

  • £400 a month on train fare
  • £10 on lunch each day I was in London
  • £20 – 30 a week on takeaways, as I was too tired to cook after a 12-hour day of working and commuting.

It is worth giving Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin a read to work out how much your job is costing you.

What do you do on a creative sabbatical? 📝

The point of a sabbatical is not to lie on a beach sipping margaritas all day (although that is a tempting option).

I have been programming since I was 8 years old. It is something I am passionate about and enjoy doing. Luckily, for me, it is also a skill that is highly financially rewarding 💰.

However, earning a lot of money isn’t enough for a fulfilling life.

There is a quote from the book Nothing You Don’t Already Know by Alexander den Heijer I really like:

The point is not just to be good at something, it’s to be good for something.

Being a great programmer can be immensely satisfying, but when the end goal is to make money or to make your employer money, it isn’t ultimately fulfilling.

What you do needs to serve others to give your life a purpose. When you put the focus on helping other people instead of making money, you actually end up making more money.

Dale Carnegie in How to Win Friends and Influence People says:

The world is full of people who are grabbing and self-seeking. So the rare individual who unselfishly tries to serve others has an enormous advantage. He has little competition.

Therefore, my plans for my creative sabbatical are simple. Teach others what I have learnt over the last 27 years I have been programming, so they can transform their lives and become more financially independent.

I will be doing this through:

  • 📝 Blogging - I plan to write at least one blog post a week on my website, as well keeping up with my book notes.
  • 🎬 YouTube - I only started my channel this year and currently have a measly 3 videos and 44 subscribers (mostly friends and colleagues). YouTube requires consistency, so I will be publishing 2 videos every week (Monday and Friday) from October 2022 onwards. I have been spending most of September recording a backlog of videos so that I can post consistently without getting burnt out.
  • 📨 Newsletter - With my new newsletter, Sunday Syntax, I will be giving advice to new software developers as well as covering how this creative sabbatical is going.
  • 📚 Courses & Books - Once I have got my rhythm going and gained a bit of a following, I will be releasing my own paid courses and books. This is something I intend to focus on more in the new year.

You can also follow me on Twitter and Instagram if you want to see more of me :).

ALSO ON ALEXHYETT.COM

Stack vs Heap Memory - What are the differences?

Stack vs Heap Memory - What are the differences?

  • 30 November 2022
In modern programming languages such as C# or Java, we tend to take memory management for granted. Gone are the days when we need to call malloc to request enough memory for our variables. Luckily a lot of that is done for us by the runtimes so we do...
Code Katas: Can They Make You A Better Developer?

Code Katas: Can They Make You A Better Developer?

  • 21 November 2022
They say “practice makes perfect”, although I much prefer “practice makes improvement”. Either way, how do you practice being a programmer? If you are already working as a software developer then you will be getting some practice from working on larg...
Git Flow vs GitHub Flow

Git Flow vs GitHub Flow

  • 10 November 2022
Losing code that you have spent hours writing can be painful, which is why we use version control (or source control) to store our code and manage changes. Version control is even more important if you are working in a team, without it code, changes ...
I Posted on YouTube Consistently for 1 Month. This is What Happened!

I Posted on YouTube Consistently for 1 Month. This is What Happened!

  • 02 November 2022
As part of my creative sabbatical, I have been posting a new software development video on my YouTube channel every Monday and Friday. It takes a long time to grow on YouTube, and I knew this going in but I have been pleasantly surprised with my grow...
Bitwise Operators and WHY we use them

Bitwise Operators and WHY we use them

  • 26 October 2022
Bitwise operators are one of those concepts that a lot of programmers don’t understand. These are not used a great deal anymore so you can get away with not knowing them but they can still come in handy for a number of different scenarios. If you end...
8 Data Structures you NEED to Know

8 Data Structures you NEED to Know

  • 26 October 2022
You can get pretty far in programming without understanding Data Structures, but eventually, you are going to need to know them, understand how they work and when to use them. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SCkbQSPH--A What is a data structure? A da...
Binary Numbers Explained for Programmers

Binary Numbers Explained for Programmers

  • 21 October 2022
Everyone knows that computers run on ones and zeros. This is because CPUs are made up of billions of transistors, which are basically just on-off switches. Any code you write needs to be processed by a computer and therefore has to be converted to b...
Beginners Guide to Programming

Beginners Guide to Programming

  • 12 October 2022
A lot of my articles are aimed at intermediate to advanced developers, but as part of my creative sabbatical, I am working on creating content for those just starting out. So in this post I will be covering some of the many questions that beginner pr...