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The Power of Time Off

With only a few days left in 2009, it seems a fitting time to take a moment and reflect on this past year – but more importantly think ahead to the coming years and what we want out of them.

In a TED talk given earlier this year, Stefan Sagmeister (renowned graphic designer for his album covers, posters, and recent books on life lessons) shares his unique view about the power of time off.

One of those most intriguing parts of his talk is the idea that we spend around the first 25 years of our life focused on learning, the next 40 years are dedicated to work (and lots of it in our industry) and around 15 years towards the end of our lives are reserved for retirement.

Sagmeister not only suggests, but has put into practice the idea to cut off 5 of those retirement years and intersperse them between the working years with creative sabbaticals. Even if you don’t agree with this exact structure of taking time off (instead of a full year like Sagmeister, it could be a couple weeks, or a month or a few months), it can’t be denied that in our demanding lines of work, planning for and making the most of time off has alot of power that comes back to reward us in often unexpected ways.

We are interested to hear from those (in this post’s comments) that have taken sabbaticals and what they learned, gained, and would do differently on their next one.

Posted on 24 December 2009 |

23 thoughts on “The Power of Time Off

  1. If you truly love what you are doing, is there really a need to take off a year from doing it? Sag came to my school to lecture, it was pretty much the same thing. I wondered the same thing then.

  2. I welcome the idea of taking here and there a “time off” (but I think there´s not really a “time off”, because you have always something on your mind/ to do). For me it reminds me of the actual discussion here in Germany/Switzerland about the unconditional basic income. With it in your back, you could focus beside work also on those aspects of life like ecological-, social-, family-, knowledge-, art-matters and so on… The interesting about the discussion is, that it´s discussed across all kinds of “old” ideological borders. There will even be two “tests” next year in Stuttgart and Brandenburg (it´s in german) : http://www.manager-magazin.de/geld/artikel/0,2828,667336,00.html

  3. Sagmeister ROCKS! ROCKS and inspiring! And funny! The real and true artists LOVE you and understand what you are doing! Thanks for sharing the ways to be more creative, Stefan!!!!!!

  4. Hey “See More”, your comments suck and you are a donkey.

    After a completely exhausting and discouraging year of back to back to back pitching in 2005 I quit the business entirely for a year, then stayed away another five months to build myself a house. When I quit my job I was so sick of design and motion graphics I couldn’t even sit down in front of a computer. Design blogs made me nauseous.
    I’m not even totally sure what I did with most of that year, but it was awesome. I rode my bike a lot, got to know my new wife, and did a lot of free stuff for friends. During that time I also did a personal project that still counts as one of the few projects I’ve ever done that I’m totally satisfied with.
    When I decided to get back to work it was a little tough re-entering the industry. As a freelancer all I had was my portfolio to snag clients with, and all my work was at-best a year and a half old. For a while it was tough to get any responses to emails and work was hard to come by. Eventually though, projects trickled in and things worked out.
    Currently don’t foresee the need to take another big chunk of time off, but I do take a week or two off about a dozen times a year after I finish a big project. I think this is a more realistic way of staying fresh and inspired then than the mega-sabbatical, especially if you don’t have a big stash of cash to coast on.
    Aythe1 said you shouldn’t have to take a break if you love what you are doing and thats probably true. But unless you have a patron and you are making art for yourself you are probably going to eventually come up against the burnout that comes from churning out work for other people’sl interests day in and day out.

    • “a week or two off about a dozen times a year” 24 weeks?
      I’m curious to know how much time off people REALLY have. Last year i had all in all three weeks off. I do try to cram all my work in the weekdays, and enjoy my weekends. That also means I actually have reserves for when I desperately need extra time.

      • After working almost non-stop for 3 years in school and 3 years after school I decided I needed to rethink the amount of time I spent at work also. The past two years I’ve spent atleast 2 months out of the year on vacation or on personal time. I’ve found my life to be much more enjoyable and productive since. Stress from work builds up slower and adjusting my lifestyle for 2 months less income wasn’t that difficult. Having done this and having seen the positive results, I’m actually planning on reducing my monthly expenses even more so that its easier to afford this career style.

      • … bad wording on my part. I took off about twelve weeks this year. April and May entirely, and other weeks dispersed through the rest of the year.

  5. wow, time-off seems like a very touchy area ;)

    After years of grinding work, i was convinced by my wife to take a couple of months off for an extended vacation. I’m your typical workaholic and rarely give myself more than a week for vacation without working work back into my schedule. i’m constantly connected and finding ways to sneak in time for clients. I was prepared for the two month getaway to be really difficult since i find it so hard to separate from my work.

    what i discovered was that after the standard 2 weeks go by, you enter the 3rd week actually realizing you are not really irreplaceable in your own little world of work. as you enter the 4th week and beyond, you begin to shed yourself of all the baggage that accumulates after many years of hard work and those original ideas, that original spark that led you to the work in the first place starts to emerge. i had fears that projects would fall apart, clients would run away, the work would dry up, but the reality of it was that even though things were not perfect in the 8 weeks i was away, nothing was catastrophic, and i had uncovered passionate ideas about what i do and where it could go that i had formulated 15 years prior. i found the feeling creatively rejuvenating and the experience in many ways life-changing.

    aside from the physical and mental rest i got by escaping for those months, the creative re-charge was astonishing to me. the industry i work in (digital design for the web) has a great track record of working amazingly creative people to the point of burn-out and it’s a surprisingly uncommon notion to be conscious of (let alone protective of) one’s creative health. Those creative juices are used up and designers work off “fumes” for years until they decide to drop out for a while (years at a time) or they get lost in the shuffle and disenchanted. some of these creative folks are amazingly talented and help to shape the industry yet we let them fall to the way side, never considering their creative well-being. after two months, i felt a level of creativity i hadn’t felt since i originally entered the industry years ago.

    i highly recommend taking at least three weeks off at least once in your working career – more if you can afford it. two weeks just insnt enough time to cleans your mind of work and actually get to the point of mental rest and creative re-charging. unplug, disconnect, don’t even take your sketchbook. just let your mind wander and discover new and old ideas.

  6. That’s pretty inspiring stuff. Whether its realistic for everyone or not, its something to keep in mind. You are missing the point if you are imagining taking that time off and doing nothing. If one is truly creative, that time off is inevitably spent creating…for oneself…because you love what you do.

  7. this is a lot of wanking by someone who the phrase ‘easy for you to say’ was created for. I agree with ‘see more’

    artists (aka people) before my generation have set this precedent where you have to work 80 hours every week to be good or make it. labour laws out the window. relationships get put on hold. youth dissapears. how about we are able to work 40-50 hours a week and enjoy our weekends and a few weeks off a year instead of having to sacrifice everything to meet ridiculous deadlines, make ridiculous budgets work, compete against a bunch of senior people barely pulling their weight and are totally out of date, but have ‘made it’ because of their ‘sacrifices’. Now they are the Creative Director’s or whatever wank title they want to give themselves, able to take months of at a time while the younger guys keep the company fresh and work their lives away.

    if I hear ‘you give your first marriage up to the industry’ one more time my head is going to pop off my shoulders.

  8. I really should’ve married a rich girl so I could take “time-off”. I wonder if somewhere in Europe would work out better? Do they take more time-off in Italy, England, France, Germany, Spain, etc…..???? This is F-ing crazy.

  9. 1) if I take time off will I also develop that weird accent? does Stefan Sagmeister have any tips on how to take time off with out developing an accent? is he making fun of Bruno? is he also gay?
    2) Is sagmeister his real name? what does it mean? if its a nickname can I use one too?
    3) Dogs are very much like animals sometimes, does it mean that if they tried to kill him on his vacation we should try too? and will he make tshirts with our prints on them if we try to kill him ?

    Such a talented artist yet he leaves so many questions out there in the open.
    I feel like going to TED to hear him speaking or just imitating Bruno.

  10. Ok, First off Stefan Saigmeister isn’t a “tool” he is a highly curious man that uses his intellect to change the way people perceive there surroundings, for that we should all be greatful. It is a sense of “meditation” to have a year off and realize who you are as a person, and what you are working for in life. Not everyone can afford this luxury. But if it weren’t for Steve Jobs back in the 90′s leaving apple and coming back with osx and pixar, would we all not be in a darker place?(amongst many others)

    Carl Sagan:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k2zMa3unSN8&feature=related

    Blogs, motionographer, the internet is a highly consumable place. Let’s look to science and technology to rid us this redundant workflow, and focus on what is human: Art, Music, Culture, Communcation, Love, Sex, and some great fucking food. Live, Learn, and Teach.

    -Ryan

  11. First thing I’d like to say is that Sagmeister is being generous enough to share his opinions with us. Regardless of our own personal opinions of his work he has proved to be successful and has found an amount of happiness in his life. Just from reading a few of the posts on this forum from time to time, I think we all can stand to gain a little from listening to him. Lesson number 1 being his lack of negativity. Negativity gets you no where, hard work and experimentation do; the balance between which he is talking.

    Not that I’m anyone as accomplished as Mr. Sagmeister, I have an opinion that I wanted to add to this discussion. I’ve learned, personally, that sometimes my brain needs time to digest and rewire. It’s not something I can consciously do, I just have to let it happen.

    When working 5-7 days (and sometimes nights) a week, on multiple jobs, there is almost no time to let things simmer before being inundated by the next project. I’ve heard complaints from other professionals often about not having enough time to research and digest reference, the same goes for the results of a project. Taking adequate time to critique my work is just as necessary for progress as the initial research is.

    I’m always surprised, when I take a break from anything that I spend a considerable amount of time doing, that I find I’ve digested a lot of the things I’ve learned from doing it. I find myself doing things naturally that I had to consciously make decisions about previously. This is not to say that you don’t learn until you take a break. Just that your ideas become more adequately integrated into your thought process.

    I think that Mr. Sagmeister is presenting his solution to the problem of time. Of course, we can all say this is ideal, not very realistic, and go back to the way we are already doing things. I say we all need to stand our ground for things we feel we need. If something is important then we should find a way to it. Also, If you really love what you do, you listen to the other people doing it because nothing gets in the way of learning more about it. Regardless of whether or not you agree with them at the present, I recommend that you keep their ideas as reference for your own futures.

    -Joshua

  12. Truly fascinating. Stefan Sagmeister is really genius with his design so any advice he imparts is noteworthy for sure. Seems to me his presentation is really a reflection of the sum of what he is. His work often blurs the lines of life, work, and art. His famous AIGA poster really speaks to that (in my opinion), and his current work seems to continue to blur these lines as he is integrating the idea of his “personal time” being tied into his work and art. I do believe it is a luxury to take sabbatical, but I believe it would yield positive results overall as it is a great time to experiment and explore with no restrictions or motivations other than the ones you make for yourself. Seeing how his time off motivated his time working is really the most interesting part of his presentation. Good stuff.

  13. Creativity needs a break now and then. Not to mention, you draw form your life experience to add to your work. If you are stuck at a desk in front of a monitor all the time you will not grow. Get out, travel, see new cultures and find other ways to be creative that don’t involve a computer. You would be surprised how something you saw in another country or something that you took notice to ends up in your work in some way. Architecture, color palette, or even a font you forgot about. Take what time you can. Most of us can’t afford to take along time, but even short time now and then helps. Designers skirt the edge of burnout all the time. You have to find balance in life and work.

  14. This is still the “TOP” story? Wow, looks like motionographer had some time off! :(

  15. I don’t have anything against someone who can ‘take a year off’. Except, they are either totally insane or just reeeally good with their money. I know I’d find myself missing out on sleep worrying about where the next dollar was coming from, probably within the first three weeks.

  16. The quicker you are able to create personal wealth, the sooner you will be able to do WHATEVER YOU WANT.

    By taking a year off, instead of working with a balanced perspective or attending graduate school, the more you are delaying your ability to create personal wealth.

    He can take a year off every so often because he has already put in the time and hard work. His wealth has created a nice soft cushion to experiment with these ideas. Doing this on your own without the benefit of a FAT savings account is a one way ticket to being a BUM.

    If you have a balanced perspective about life and work, then all of this is unnecessary.

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