CEO.COM
April 19, 2013
What Happens When You Really Disconnect

I woke up one morning about four weeks ago and realized in a flash that I’d hit a wall. Most days I can’t wait to get to work. On this day, I struggled to get myself out of the house.

The first three months of the year had been intensely demanding, between hiring a series of new employees for a rapidly growing business, working with colleagues to develop several new products, traveling frequently, and taking on multiple writing assignments.

One of the primary principles of the work we teach at the Energy Project is that the greater the performance demand, the greater the need for recovery. I needed a vacation, but what I needed most of all was a period of total digital disconnection. My brain felt overloaded and I needed time to clear it out.

My wife and I made reservations to go to our favorite hotel for nine days. But I knew that getting away from my office wouldn’t be enough if I remained tethered to my online life and my work. I decided not to bring my laptop, my iPad, or my cellphone. I left an away message that made it clear I wouldn’t be checking email.

I was determined to eliminate temptation to the maximum extent possible. I had learned from past experiences how easy it is for me to succumb, given the opportunity.

As Daniel Goleman writes in Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, a fascinating new book he’ll publish this fall: “Overloading attention shrinks mental control. Life immersed in digital distractions creates a near constant cognitive overload. And that overload wears out self-control.”

From the moment I boarded the plane for our trip, I noticed a shift. Ordinarily, I would have skittered between reading the newspaper, magazines, answering email, and surfing the web (if it was available). I’d brought along a pile of books, mostly novels, and none of them related to work. I began reading the first one, and I very quickly became absorbed. For once, nothing else was competing for my attention.

The first time I felt a distracting impulse, it was to Google something I’d read. The initial pull was compelling, but I let it pass. Over the next several days, it happened perhaps a half-dozen more times, and on each occasion I simply observed the feeling without responding to it. By mid-week, that impluse evaporated, and I realized how much richer and more satisfying any experience is when it’s not interrupted — even if the interrupter is me.

It turned out there were no newspapers at our hotel. My first response was a bit of panic — I’ve readThe New York Times daily since I was a teenager — but soon, I realized I was giving up the fix of more information that I didn’t really need.

Instead, I became increasingly aware that the relentless diet of information I ordinarily consume leaves me feeling the same way I do after eating a couple of slices of pizza or a hot dog and French fries — poorly nourished and still hungry.

What grew each day was my capacity for absorbed focus. For months now, I’ve wanted to read Far From the Tree, Andrew Solomon’s book about the challenges of parenting children with disabilities such as dwarfism, Down’s syndrome, and deafness. The problem is that it’s nearly 1,000 pages long, and who has the time or the wherewithal for that? But with my mind freed of distractions, I found it easy to dive in, and read most of the book over a couple of days. The book was fascinating.

I had a similar experience on the tennis court. I’ve been taking lessons and working on my game all of my adult life, but on vacation last week, I was able to slow down and analyze my strokes with a wholly different level of patience and unhurried interest. It was the sort of learning you simply can’t do when you’re thinking about 10 other subjects.

By the end of nine days, I felt empowered and enriched. With my brain quieter, I was able to take back control of my attention. In the process, I rediscovered some deeper part of myself.

If there had been an emergency while I was away, I could have been reached. The humbling truth is that not a single thing demanded my attention. Most everything can wait.

I did finally feel ready to return to my everyday world — even enthusiastic to read my email and check my favorite websites. But I also felt less anxious urgency about dealing with what ordinarily feels so pressing.

The break deepened my recognition that chunks of time away from digital life are critical both to renewal and to work itself. In that spirit, I’ve committed to two rituals going forward. Twice a week — including this morning — I’m spending the first several hours of the day at home, working on projects that require focused attention, with my email and internet turned off. At the end of each work day, I’m going to spend at least a half-hour reading — and savoring — a book. The key to being more fully absorbed is to regularly and fully disconnect.

 

Reprinted from HBR.org

tony-2
author:
Tony Schwartz
bio:
Tony Schwartz is the founder and CEO of The Energy Project and bestselling author of The Way We're Working Isn't Working, published in 2010. A frequent keynote speaker, Tony has also trained and coached CEOs and senior leaders at organizations including Apple, Google, Sony, the LAPD, and the Cleveland Clinic.

Other Articles by Tony Schwartz:

Your Boss’s Work-Life Balance Matters As Much As Your Own

The Power Of Meeting Your Employees’ Needs

Why You Hate Work

How To Help Your Employees Love Work

The Freedom Of Boundaries

Service To A Common Good

How Not To Be A Jerk Over Email

The War Between Our States

Pay Higher Wages, Earn More Profit

More Reflection, Less Action

  • Srila Ramanujam

    And who in the whole wide World knew that apart from me, my revered Guru was also quite happy that I’d made some time for a spiritual holiday, if at all that to get some peace and quiet, only helps to refocus better I’d totally agree!

  • Sarah

    Reading this article allowed me to make a mental connection that I had not made before: I’ve often wondered why it is so important to spend time away from the internet specifically… it seems unlike anything else in its ability to overload my brain, even when I am not responding to email. But now I see that it is actually any small bits of unrelated information taken in rapid succession that cause this brain overload. So in my next vacation I will try to take a break from magazines also, as you did. I now plan to try to focus on tasks that take more time, at a time, thinking about a single type of thing. (At least not switching topics literally once every 30 seconds.) I already avoided the internet on such trips, and I think this will be even more effective. Thank you!