I just got back from going off the grid. No, I'm not a black ops agent like Jason Bourne, nor am I fulfilling a Matrix-inspired fantasy. I'm not trying to evade the NSA either. I actually was recently on holiday, like most of you. But these days, my vacations are increasingly about completely disconnecting. I need a break from the constant grind of an always-buzzing smart phone, an endless email inbox and a fragmented attention span.
Sound familiar? That's because I just described the daily reality for a lot of knowledge workers -- as well as almost everyone living in the Internet age. We live in a swirl of limitless distraction, but that is not a new story. The real insight I got from my holiday from hyperlinks is two-fold: that we need digital down time more than ever, and that reaching that nirvana state takes skill, practice and planning. Simply put, we should force ourselves to disconnect regularly, but realize that it takes time to get good at it.
For 10 glorious days, I decamped to a cottage and left behind TV, text messages and Twitter. I swapped car horns and cable news for loons and lakes. It was peaceful and incredibly pleasant ... but not right away. It was hard to take it easy. I struggled to turn off the digital drug dealer that is my iPhone (and keep it off). I had to consciously slow my heartbeat to synchronize with my simpler surroundings. It took almost a week for me to stop looking for WiFi in the woods, and what I learned is that having a restorative holiday requires both art and science. Actually, you might even consider it a skill.
What do you need to do? It involves three phases as I see it.
First, you have to recover. I dialed down my media intake gradually, first limiting and then swapping out activities like web and channel surfing for longer-form reading (ideally, print magazines and books, sans hyperlinks!) and even writing. Just as the body needs a cool down after a vigorous workout, your mind has to power down as well.
Next is the reset phase. My sense is that people want a Pattern Interrupt when they go on vacation; the whole point is to break away from the day to day. So since my life and work involves a lot of emailing (a recent study estimates that the average knowledge worker spends 28 per cent of their work week on email alone), screen time and juggling other distractions, I tried to break that habit (if even for "just" the holiday).
Finally, use this newfound focus and discretionary time to reflect. Why is it that most people don't get serious work done at "work", and have to leave the office to do that kind of intellectual heavy lifting? Our lives have too many interruptions. We can't attend to "the important but not urgent" when "the urgent but not necessarily important" is always appearing in the form of a new email, txt message or tweet. I used this opportunity to think BIG PICTURE. You might ask yourself the tough questions -- the ones that you've been meaning too but haven't yet. You know which ones I'm talking about.
I believe the future of leisure -- if not luxury -- is escape from ubiquitous connectivity. People are going to pay big money to get out of mobile phone range in the near future. I predict that "no signal" will be as common a sign of our generation's holidays as "no vacancy" was to our parents' vacations.
Canadian author Michael Harris' new book, The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We've Lost in a World of Constant Connection, makes an eloquent plea for people to take "Analog Augusts". He argues that doing so will "break the spell" the web has on us. I couldn't agree more.
So as the summer comes to an end and you contemplate future holidays, consider going off the grid next time. I guarantee that if you do, the break will be both restorative and, in the long run, more productive.
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