get off the grid

Whenever people who work with me go on vacation, I tell them to try to truly unplug from their digital lives. I reassure them that the world won’t end and that time with their families is more important than checking email every hour. I remind them that outside of truly exceptional circumstances, I and other team members can handle any emergencies that arise in their absence.

I mean all of these things when I say them. But, because I’m a fundamentally flawed creature, I’m incapable of following my own advice when I take a week off. Over the last 6 years, every vacation I’ve ever taken has involved either (a) serial trips to and from my hotel room to check my laptop, or (b) compulsive checks of my cell phone to ensure that I’m fully on top of whatever the issue of the day is in the office. But this goes beyond simple technology addiction.

Rather, my need to stay “plugged in” stacks yet another brick atop the wall of delusion that is my life. Because, you see, my Pavlovian need to remain on top of all things work related while on vacation really arises out of my insane belief that the company for which I work and the department that I run will somehow evaporate and disappear if I’m not intimately engaged in everything all the time. Or, stated inversely, my compulsion reflects a grossly outsized opinion of my own importance.

I’ve become increasingly aware of the disconnect between what I tell the people I work with on the one hand, and what I do myself on the other over the past several years. It’s a classic case of “do what I say, not what I do.” And so, I went through the following analysis before leaving the country to join my family in the Caribbean last week.

1. what’s the most important thing in my life?

Ask this question to most people who are married and/or have kids and they’ll respond the same way: my family. It’s certainly what I say whenever I’m asked. And yet, a simple exercise reveals just how out of whack my actions are when compared to my stated opinion.

When I travel for work – which I do a lot – I check in with my family on average 2-3 times a day: morning, midday, and night. So, when separated from the most important thing in my world, I touch base to make sure everything’s ok once every 6-12 hours that I’m awake.

When I travel for pleasure – which I don’t do enough – I historically check my email and voicemails on average 2-3 times per hour. That comes out, on the low end, to 36 work-related interactions every day during my waking hours. How do I explain this anomaly? Either (a) I’m completely full of it and my work is actually exponentially more important to me than my family as demonstrated by the number of times I check on each during the 18 hours I’m awake, or (b) I’ve come to the conclusion that I am the Alpha and the Omega, and in the process lost sight of the fact that my professional life won’t end if I’m largely off the grid for 5 consecutive days.

2. now that I know my words and actions don’t match, what am I going to do about it?

As I returned from a business trip at midnight just over a week ago and prepared to go back to the airport first thing the next morning for vacation, I made the following promises to myself: I will leave my cell phone in my hotel room for the entire week; and I will check my emails only once per day. While that’s still not a full and complete disconnect, I got heart palpitations just thinking about it. In addition to these internal, silent pledges, I turned on my email auto reply and set up the following response to all incoming email:

I will be out of the office on Friday, July 20th, and the entire week of July 23rd. During that time, I will be checking my email only once per day. In addition, while I will have my cell phone with me to deal with any emergencies that may arise, it will usually be in a different place than I am.

If you require immediate assistance, [please call Person A or Person B.]

Otherwise, I will get in touch with you upon my return to the office on Monday, July 30th.

It is Monday, July 30th as I write this. My company hasn’t gone under in the week I was away. My department still exists. And I learned what I already knew but refused to believe: the vast majority of stuff flowing into my inbox and clamoring for my attention every day isn’t actually actionable. It’s just news – info that I should know, but that doesn’t demand a specific response. You can’t really see that unless you spend a full week looking at 24 hours of emails in one shot.

The few emails I got that did require a response I dealt with quickly. The rest I read and routed appropriately. I ended each daily session with my laptop secure in the knowledge that (a) I wouldn’t return to 2000 unread emails, and (b) I was handling what I needed to handle efficiently while also maximizing the time I could spend with my family, free and clear of the long shadow usually cast on my vacations by work.

Freed from my iTether and Lenovo ThinkAnchor, I spent virtually my entire vacation on (gasp!) vacation. I read 6 books in 8 days and started a 7th. I spent a few minutes every day just sitting and counting my breaths flowing in and out, instead of counting the number of emails hitting my inbox. In short, I actually spent a vacation with the most important thing in my life: my family, not Outlook.

And I returned to the office today a (slightly) saner man than I was 10 days ago.

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