Sabbaticals, Spacious Days and Other Experiments in Abundance

It all started with a sabbatical.

Two years ago the General Service Foundation offered me a rare gift – the chance to step away from my work for three months. I returned from my sabbatical with new eyes, a different sense of possibility, and renewed energy.

I did not anticipate how jarring that return would be. I came back to work with a mindset of spaciousness and abundance. And all around me I ran into activists and funders who operated from a mindset of scarcity. I heard from funders that change just wasn’t happening fast enough – we need big wins now! I heard from activists that the way our funding is coming – constrained, short term, project based – was hamstringing them, and holding back some of the biggest innovation in our field. The hamster wheel of fundraising was sapping our strongest leaders.

I felt a responsibility to do more than just listen, but what? I started talking with Eveline Shen, Eugene Eric Kim, and Lani Shaw. We shared a commitment to do something, and decided that the best way to take on this challenge was to try something small. We landed on a six month experiment, where we would model what we hoped to see in the world, and imagine new ways of resourcing social justice work.

Fast forward – to Future Forward. You can read more about the entire experiment here.

A key component of the Future Forward work has been to build our muscles on innovation, and to cultivate mindsets that foster creativity, collaboration, and experimentation. The principle is that we learn how to do this through practice – a core group of us “work out” weekly in pairs.

One of our overarching goals was to shift our individual and collective mindsets from one of scarcity to one of abundance. But how do you do that in practice? Early on, my workout partner, Rini Banerjee, and I both shared the challenges of managing multiple, complex projects. We felt like we had so many balls in the air, it was hard to be creative or spacious. We were on back to back phone calls all day, with no time to think. We felt frustrated. We found ourselves slipping into the scarcity mindset on a daily basis (there’s not enough time!) despite our best efforts.

We played around with some ways to notice and intentionally reset to more positive mind sets. And we decided to try a small experiment. We would set aside one day per week as a “spacious day,” with no phone calls. We both turned to our calendars, and shared out loud which day we were blocking off the following week. It felt thrilling and liberating. That spacious day was like a beacon. We committed to trying this for two weeks, and agreed to check in afterwards.

If I wanted to build the mindset that there is enough time, I knew I needed to have a day where that was my experience. I noticed a difference almost immediately. Having one spacious day to set the terms of what I did without feeling besieged by phone calls or swamped in the weeds permeated my thinking for the entire week. I started out protecting one day and trying to slow down. It helped me to see that another process in which I was involved could go off the rails for moving too quickly without enough people on board. When you have the mindset that there is not enough time, the only pace you know is a sprint. Practicing slowing down helped me to have a deeper sense of pace and timing, and it helped me to see that I needed to advocate for slowing down in another process. It helped me modulate my pace, and understand on a deeper level what slow pace work looks like.

That was two months ago, and I still happily highlight my spacious day nearly every week. It has been a day to breathe, to think big picture, to write, to dream, to grab coffee with someone who is unexpectedly free, to go to a social justice film festival, to savor the work. I have also found out that there are others who practice “call free” days, though some don’t share this publicly.

The small experiment that is my spacious day and the bigger experiment that is Future Forward have already taught me many lessons. I now understand that I can start to address large challenges by taking baby steps. Intentionally bringing a mindset of abundance has made a difference in my own work, and it has helped to shift others in the field. I also learned that I assume constraints that may not exist. It seemed impossible and, frankly, slightly crazy to imagine that I could have one day per week with no calls. And yet it was possible to do just that. It has encouraged me to test other boundaries, and to explore what is possible in philanthropy in much bigger ways than I had ever imagined. I am now more curious when I think I see a constraint. Am I assuming limitations that might not exist? What other boundaries might I challenge?

11 comments for “Sabbaticals, Spacious Days and Other Experiments in Abundance

  1. Avatar
    Eugene Eric Kim
    April 27, 2015 at 3:51 pm

    Holly, this is such an important reminder on the critical importance of slowing down to create space for yourself and how less productive mindsets often hold us back. But my absolute favorite part of your story was the fact that you and Rini came up with an experiment to try to create a greater sense of abundance, and simply tried it while leaning on each other for support. This is exactly the spirit that we’re trying to foster as we go into the Innovation Challenge next month, and it’s wonderful modeling. Thank you so much for sharing this story!

  2. Renee
    April 27, 2015 at 4:03 pm

    Way to go Holly! What an awesome journey towards abundance. And I love that you mention “savoring” the work. In theory, we are all doing these jobs because we care and because we love the work we do. Yet we get so caught up in the busy-ness of our time that we forget to enjoy it all. We express gratitude at special milestones, but not on a regular basis and not to ourselves. I love your spacious day! I want you to bring this space into our day-to-day… I can’t wait for you to join staff or program calls saying “I’m having a really spacious week” : ) I actually think it takes courage to say this, because sometimes admitting to others that you’re not besieged is like an invitation for people to dump things on your plate. Or even if they don’t, I sometimes feel less important if I’m not as busy. What silly constructs we can put onto ourselves!! Great reminders here – thanks!

    • Avatar
      April 30, 2015 at 3:39 pm

      I think it’s so important what you’ve pointed out about the perception of business. I’m sure we’ve all read it, but I love how the busy trap highlights that psychology. If we don’t confront that full on, little will change in the long term. I’ve been feeling that recently with travel. After far too much work travel this past year, I’ve decided I want to minimize it for many reasons. Just in preparation I can already feel myself slipping down some invisible importance ladder. Sigh. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/30/the-busy-trap/

  3. Avatar
    April 30, 2015 at 3:35 pm

    I practiced my spacious day yesterday Holly. It was remarkable. It’s hard not to feel greedy and want every day to be a spacious day 😉 And fantastic lessons. Those two, bolded lessons are perhaps the biggest of my career. And I need to remind myself of them over, and over, and over, and over again. Looking forward to challenging some boundaries together in a few short weeks!

  4. Avatar
    Griff Foxley
    May 11, 2015 at 1:25 pm

    This it outstanding. Thanks for embarking on this journey and for sharing it, Holly! I love that you end on the note: What other boundaries might I challenge? What a courageous, powerful and abundant energy in that!

    • Renee Fazzari
      Renee Fazzari
      May 12, 2015 at 7:11 pm

      Thanks for commenting on this, Griff! What an awesome bonus to get a board member’s support via social media! GSF is so lucky to have an innovative, curious, creative board member like you!

    • Avatar
      Eugene Eric Kim
      May 13, 2015 at 9:51 am

      Welcome, Griff! In addition to sharing some thoughtful questions, you are also the first person outside of our small group of participants to comment! Thank you for that, and hope to hear more of your thoughts!

  5. Avatar
    June 4, 2015 at 3:05 pm

    This is so wise, Holly! We’ve been experimenting with spaciousness here at Rockwood for the past 5 years by creating 32 hour work weeks. Our hope was that if people had plenty of time for rest, recreation and family, they would be more joyous and productive at work. We found that making that small adjustment increased our “productivity” significantly, and we are (for the most part) a happy and connected staff. I wish more leaders and organizations would experiment with ways to create spaciousness — it’s so helpful. Thanks for writing this!

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