How To Take Time Off From Technology

Image: Take Time Off From TechnologyFor many people here in the U.S., Memorial Day Weekend marks the unofficial start to summer. And even in an always-on world, summer often gives us a bit of a breather — a chance to slow down, an opportunity to take a bit of time off from work. Two of my colleagues are wasting no time. As I write this, both have already unplugged and set off on extended vacations to remote regions where cell signal is scant and email is inaccessible. Both have made me wistful for a long-ago time when I once took a break with little-to-no access to technology. Or for that matter, a time when it seemed normal to power down on Friday and not think tech ’til Monday morning.

You see, I’m one of those people who eyeballs his emails if he happens to wake up in the middle of the night (before heading off to parts unknown, one of my two vacationing colleagues scolded me – and rightfully so – when I let it slip that I had taken one of these insomniac moments to reply to a late night note from a client). Who always needs to know where the hotel business center is, even if I’m not at the hotel on business. Who fakes bathroom breaks just to catch up on unanswered texts or scan my tweetstream. Who might occasionally read the dinner menu by the iPhone’s eerie glow. Don’t judge me — you know you do it too.

In fact, for some of you, these behaviors may seem perfectly normal signs of a proper “work-life blend” — the seamless work-anywhere-work-anytime state described by my friend C.C. Chapman in a recent post that takes on the old fashioned notion of work-life balance. And pokes holes in the notion of easy compartmentalization that assigns business cards and balance sheets to the work bucket, but bride and babies to a totally separate life. C.C. is correct, of course, that we are living in a time when easy-on-easy-off can only be described as quaint. But if you’re inclined to interpret this as blanket permission remain plugged-in even when you have a chance to unplug, you’re missing the point.

You see: He’s even more correct when he writes, “We have the technology to allow us to work from anywhere and at any time, but this doesn’t mean you should be a slave to electronics. Rather, remember that you are in control of when you choose to use the tools… No one else is going to set your priorities…It does not require us to spend more hours in the office than is necessary. No one says that we must check our email every five minutes or that we can’t choose to get a little work done over breakfast.”

Which brings me back to my colleagues and their decisions to take some time and turn off technology. I think we’d all agree that technology provides plenty of benefits but as one Harvard Business Review blogger wrote, tech’s best feature just might be the off switch. In a world where we’re constantly connected; always available; always anticipating the next text or tweet; and prone to viewing just about every life experience through the smartphone lens, it’s important that we give ourselves permission to be “present, focused, and in the moment.”

Not possible, you say! People rely on me. My business simply won’t allow it. Or forget possible, it’s not even desirable. Staying connected overnight, over the weekend, or on vacation prevents me from stressing out about what’s not getting done while I’m away from my desk. In fact, I love my work so much that I don’t need a break — work is its own reward. I enjoy my life fully every day so who needs a holiday?

Sound familiar?

And this time around, I’m not judging. I’ve said (or at least thought) those things too. But when two colleagues have announced that they’ll be out, about and inaccessible at the same time, I’ve come to recognize those mindsets for what they are. Total B.S.

So if you’re at all inclined to break the cycle — but not at all inclined to blow up your business in the process — here are just three simple tips for making your time away from technology work not only for you but for everyone who counts on you.

  • Communicate Clearly, Early and Often. In the three weeks leading up to his three week vacation, one of my colleagues mentioned his intention to unplug in no fewer than four conversations, going so far as to remind me of the exact start and end dates of his trip, and suggest that I put his vacation on my calendar to be sure I didn’t forget (I actually did this, after his second suggestion). He complemented all of this with a concise email laying out the details, setting my expectations (essentially, that I should not expect to get hold of him while he is unplugged), and letting me know how I’d be taken care of in his absence. Overkill? Maybe — until you think about the last time a co-worker, colleague or client went missing with little more than an out-of-office autoresponder you didn’t see until they were already gone fishin’ and you were up a creek without a paddle.
  • Have a Back Up Plan (That Doesn’t Include You.) One colleague left me with the name of not one but three individuals who will make themselves available in the event anything urgent arises while he is away. Each has a clearly defined role (e.g., call this one to place an order, that one for complex client-related questions, the other if you can’t get the product to work). For my other colleague, I am the back-up plan — covering for him and completing a joint project while he’s away. Neither suggested that they’d have their trusty smartphone at their side in the event I need to reach them, neither offered to dial in for seemingly critical conference calls, neither hinted that they would check email periodically and respond to urgent messages in a timely manner. And here’s the kicker — both of these colleagues are solo entrepreneurs. If they can trust others to not blow up their businesses, what’s your excuse? What’s mine?
  • Commit to Yourself. When your logic allows you to power down just because it will make your family or fellow travelers happy, you might be making a commitment to others but you’re probably not making a commitment to yourself. And when you “cheat” by peeking at emails under the table or perusing your high school friends’ Facebook pages while your spouse is in the shower or snoring beside you, you’re only cheating yourself. You’re jeopardizing a rare (for many of us) opportunity to recharge, to live in the now, to experience the world around you without distraction, to embrace mindfulness. And you’re sacrificing the rush you get when — powering back up at the end of a well-deserved and much needed break — you discover the promise of technology with fresh eyes. As Webby Awards founder and “Connected” filmmaker Tiffany Shlain (hardly a luddite) wrote on the HBR blog, when she and her husband return from even a one-day tech sabbatical, “we can’t wait to get back online. We’re hungry for connection. We appreciate technology all over again. We marvel anew at our ability to put every thought and emotion into action by clicking, calling, and linking.”

This summer, I won’t be sending so many of those middle-of-the-night email responses. I might not check Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn every five minutes. I may even turn my phone off on the weekend now and then. I’ll certainly make time for a technology-free vacation — even if it’s only a long weekend away from the fray. I’ll be sure to let everyone I work with know my plans well in advance, assure them they’ll be in good hands when I’m gone, and refuse to let myself off the hook (or on the web) once I’ve made the commitment to go off the grid. And my work will be better for it.

How about you? Leave a comment, add a tip, share this post with your friends who need it most. Unless you’re on vacation. In which case you shouldn’t be reading this at all.

3 Comments

  1. C.C. Chapman 05/30/2013 Reply

    Greg, I’m psyched to see my article inspired this post and the points you make are dead on!!!!!

  2. Dave Gunderson 05/30/2013 Reply

    And how timely this post is for me as I am just getting back from a two week break from technology. In my own case – I take several trips a year to my remote home in Eastern Oregon. There – I have no Internet and limited cell coverage. My thoughts?

    I’m taken to a simpler place. Uncluttered from the distractions of a connected world. I re-discover the world I had before the internet existed. I have time to re-focus on quiet time with my partner of 36 years (however, she keeps her Kindle handy).

    The break from technology isn’t total. Work still calls on the cell phone on matters – but that is to be expected.

    Bottom line for me is that I had time to relax and unload the usual clutter I normally have in my life. It was quiet and simple. Something that I thought was lost – but wasn’t.

    From the road back (in Lodi, CA) via Wi-Fi goodness – and heading back to the clutter.

    Dave

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