Getting my house in order: a few reflections on my 2017 sabbatical


Roscoe arrives at my house every week at 6pm on a Wednesday after spending the first half of the week at his mum’s house. His is a life of self-narrated rituals that form perfect groundhog days:

“Shoes off, coat off”.

“Get the red chair”.

“Have Shreddies”.

“Watch the red trains on the iPad”.

Then he finds all the trains that I’ve put away in the toybox and carefully positions them back on the space where the top of the sofa meets the wall. The magnets create a train of a dozen or so engines whilst the sofa provides the track and he improvises on a tunnel to go over the top with whatever he finds laying around.

When the trains are all in order, I know he feels like he’s home again.

Towards the end of 2016, whilst travelling on a long promo tour of Australia and New Zealand that felt like it completely broke me, I took a big decision to have an eight month sabbatical from all work (except the work of parenting, obviously). I spent all the plane journeys writing a long piece about why I planned to not have any plans, and in January 2017 I set about creating space: my agenda being to truly have no agenda.

This isn’t a blog post to document what happened – because no one needs to read about the long road to Aston Villa’s Champions League success on Football Manager, the endless winter days spent attempting to leave the house, or my failure to grow aubergines – but it is an attempt to share some of the things I learned along the way.

For a while at the beginning, I replaced work with other kinds of work.

Like a reformed smoker who still needs something to hold in their hands, I created to-do lists of all the things I needed to get my house onto Airbnb, what was needed in the garden, what social events needed planning and – my favourite – a list of things I should be doing because I’m (feeling guilty about) not working. Yep, “work withdrawal”. It lasted a good couple of months.

The work withdrawal wrecked my confidence.

I would go from having some pretty exhilarating business ideas to within minutes telling myself I have no skills to make anything happen. I guess work becomes a constant feedback loop where the little voice in your head says “this is good”, “that worked”, “that was worthwhile”. And other people agree, too: ”thanks”, “that was great”, “your stuff really helped”. I was genuinely surprised by how insecure I felt in myself when I detached myself from my work. And it’s useful learning because now I know I need to work on me, not just me-at-work.

With the changing of the seasons came a change in my mood.

I felt brighter and more relaxed. At peace, somehow. It was as if the winter was never meant to bring me any abundance or answers, but the summer had it all mapped out. One evening, I found myself deciding to go to bed without having asked myself what I should feel guilty for not having finished that day. I was just going to bed because I was tired, totally relaxed. Imagine that. I think this was the first time that’s happened since school didn’t involve homework. It was a small thing, but one of the most profound moments of gratitude I’ve experienced in a long time.

As I found the sabbatical time drawing to an end, I started to worry about finding narratives.

I guess this is a guilt thing too: “well if you’ve taken all this time off while we’ve all still been working, then you’d better have something to show for it”.

I had nothing. I’d planned nothing. It was supposed to be nothing.

I guess part of that voice in my head is worrying what others think and part of it is that thing where when you decide to become your own boss, you don’t realise that your new boss can be a bastard sometimes.

And towards the end of the sabbatical I realised I was OK with not having a perfect narrative for everything.

Life’s messy. I experienced so many small breakthroughs during my time away. I dealt with a lot of personal stuff, came up with some great ideas for the future and reminded myself what makes me tick. But the most important part was to let go of my desire to start a new thing right now. To be content with not needing to define myself as the founder or creator of some new thing. Just to show up and do good work, be a great dad and see how the next year pans out.

I realised the main thing right now is just to have my house in order.

Roscoe’s approaching his first fork in the road on his own journey too. He’s coming up to being 4 years old, finally developing the language to express what he likes and doesn’t, thanks in part to his amazing parents, obviously, and in part to an incredible team of professionals that he is blessed to interact with on a regular basis. Everything we’ve been told as parents is that the continuation of that level of support is far from guaranteed through his school years, and it’ll mean a battle to get him the funding he needs, as the effect of savage cuts to Local Government funding take hold. His transition through to school next September feels like a process that’s already started and needs to be followed through with care and precision.

So my plan for the next few months is just to do lots of small things, but no big, shiny new thing. No startling new ocean to explore, or nuggets of gold to mine. I do have some ideas for future businesses that I think are pretty solid, and a few passion projects bubbling underneath the surface too. But for now I plan to add value where I can: helping the Think Productive team with upgrades to our core products, scoping out and starting work on some future book projects (watch this space!), delivering some keynote talks for clients and continuing to make the podcast.

For now, like Roscoe’s little trains, it’s all about keeping it all in order. One step at a time.

It’s been a fun first few weeks back. And it’s nice to be home.

7 thoughts

  1. As brave as always, thanks for sharing, G. That point about work withdrawal wrecking your confidence – oh that got me too, but I didn’t realise it until after the break! After my 9 months of (content) maternity leave, it was in the going to back to work that I realised the time off had completely eroded my confidence. I felt like a complete impostor. “What is the point of me here?” I actually remember saying to you and Pippa.
    It wasn’t until that little feedback loop came back that I slowly started to build up my confidence again and remembered that “Elena at work” was a valuable part of me I didn’t want to lose…
    Anywho, enough about me, WELCOME BACK G!! 😉

  2. The best narratives have messy middles that don’t look like narratives at all. I have a feeling you’re in one of them. Trust the process and enjoy the ride – “show up and do good work, be a great dad and see how the next year pans out” sounds like a good adventure to me 🙂

  3. Thank you for your transparency, Graham. It feels like a real honour to get a peek into your inner world here. Very moved as I lay on my bed having had a not very productive day — and realising, thanks to your words, that it’s okay to just let myself off the hook about that.
    Elloa x

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