How I Finally Went Cold Turkey From Working On Vacation

Twenty years ago, it took effort to stay connected with the office on vacation, but technology has decimated that barrier. Here are the three most effective tactics you can use to recreate that divide and get a true break.

How do you take vacation and then actually disconnect from work when you are away? These are two of the most consistent and, seemingly intractable, work and life challenges people in the U.S. struggle with, including me.

But, I’m proud to say that I just completed my first vacation in years where I almost totally disconnected from email (99%) and didn’t engage at all on any of my blogs, Facebook, or Twitter for two weeks.

Not only did I survive this true break from work, but I feel more energized and focused than I have after most of my previous days off.

How did I do it? I used three simple vacation tactics—day blocking, email bankruptcy, and social media fasting. I explain each tactic below. But first, you might be interested in finding out what finally motivated me, after countless failed attempts, to figure out how to truly separate from work for a few days.

Breaking the dopamine-fueled, technology "compulsion loop" with vacation

"We need to disconnect," is almost a meaningless cliché. What does "disconnect" mean exactly? And if it’s so important, why do so few of us do it?

I will confess that for a long time, I defended people who wanted to stay linked to work over vacation. The key was "if they wanted to," and many people told me they did. They’d say that answering emails, "relaxed them," because they knew what was going on at office and they didn’t want to face a mountain of emails when they returned. "Fair enough," I reasoned, "that’s their unique work+life fit. Who am I to judge?"

For the most part, I also stayed connected to work while on vacation, although I struggled with how much connection to maintain. I told myself that as an entrepreneur I needed to stay on top of things. I couldn’t afford to completely take a break.

But four years ago, I began to doubt the wisdom of this approach. My thinking started to evolve after I reviewed the book Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, by Maggie Jackson. It was the first time I’d read about to the emerging research that showed the detrimental effect that technology had on our ability to think deeply and pay attention.

Armed with this new knowledge, I tried to take periodic breaks from email and social media on my days off. Sometimes I’d make it, but more often than not I’d find myself answering, "just one more email," or, responding to, "just one more tweet."

Finally, two recent experiences steeled my resolve to learn to take a real break, and use my upcoming vacation as a test.

First, I spent a good part of this year finishing up my new book. I saw firsthand how I couldn’t maintain the level of concentration I needed if I didn’t put stricter parameters around email and limit the number of times I blogged and interacted on social media.

Second, I read the article "Is the Web Making Us Mad?" in Newsweek, followed shortly thereafter by the article, "Exploiting the Neuroscience of Internet Addiction," by venture capitalist Bill Davidow in The Atlantic.

In the article, Davidow confirmed something I’d always suspected, "The leaders of Internet companies face an interesting, if also morally questionable, imperative: either they hijack neuroscience to gain market share and make large profits or they let competitors do that and run away with the market…In the Internet Age, more and more companies live by the mantra, ‘create an obsession, then exploit it.’" He calls this the "compulsion loop."

In other words, tech companies don’t want you to disconnect. In fact, they try to change your brain chemistry, on purpose, so that you never break free no matter how detrimental to your overall well-being. I began to wonder if this was the reason why most of us don’t shut down on vacation even though we know we should.

No longer wanting to be controlled by a reactive search for that next "hit" from an email, or a "like" on Facebook, I decided to disrupt the dopamine-fueled, "compulsion loop" myself. I wanted to give my brain a rest and restore its ability to think deeply. I wanted to be fully present and engaged, especially on vacation, in the activities and with the people I cared about.

So how did I do it?

Day Blocking, email bankruptcy ,and social media fasting

When I started working in the late 1980’s, it took a lot of effort to stay connected with the office on vacation. No one was expected to check in. You covered for each other because you wanted to, but also because you had to. Those prevailing vacation norms created a boundary between you and work.

As technology advanced and destroyed the boundary between our lives on and off the job, we haven’t had the chance to establish new modern vacation rules-of-the-road that we all share.

In addition to clarifying expectations of connectivity over vacation with your boss and your team and updating them on how to cover potential issues that might come up, here are the three tactics I tested to recreate that line and finally get a true break:

Day blocking: I’ve done this for years, and it works. Look at the next 12 months and decide when to take vacation. Then block off the two days before you’d start vacation and the first day back. You will work on those days but you will have purposefully avoided planning any big meetings, trips or projects deadlines.

The goal is to avoid leaving for vacation a sleep-deprived, frazzled mess and to have a re-entry day that doesn’t erase any benefit of vacation fifteen minutes after you return. Inevitably there will be projects or issues that you need to address before you leave for or return from vacation. But because you’ve blocked off those days, you won’t also be trying to squeeze in a business trip.

Email bankruptcy: I have to thank, Lauren Young from Reuters for introducing me to the concept of email bankruptcy, or deleting all the email messages that came in while gone and starting fresh. After Young interviewed me for Reuters, I got a response to an email I sent to her that said, "I'm out of the office, and likely to declare email bankruptcy when I return on Monday. Feel free to follow up then." I thought, "This is brilliant. I’m going to try it over my vacation."

Because I’m an entrepreneur, I revised my email bankruptcy message to include the name and contact information of my business manager in case of emergency.

For the most part, on my days off, I stuck to my commitment not to respond to emails that arrived. I did reply to a couple of time sensitive issues that I needed to address, but that was it. Stating my intention not to respond to the emails I received on vacation relieved the pressure to stay on top of my messages.

I wondered if my declaration of email bankruptcy would annoy people. In fact, the response has been just the opposite. Reactions ranged from intrigued to inspired, which shows me that perhaps the practice of email bankruptcy could become one of the new vacation norms we all embrace.

Social media fasting: I love social media, but it’s very easy to get sucked into it once you start. Suddenly, you realize two hours have gone by, and now you have to gear up and refocus again.

For me, I’ve found it helpful to simply remove myself from the stream of tweets, likes and comments for a week or two periodically. There’s no set schedule. I "fast" whenever I sense that tech-fueled dopamine fix begin to take over and become too strong.

In late July, right before my scheduled vacation, I knew my "compulsion loop" needed short-circuiting. Starting a social media fast on vacation made my days off more relaxed, and though over the two weeks my Klout score fell by a point, it was a price worth paying.

Shortly after I returned from vacation, I listened to the Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC. Guest host Julie Burstein, interviewed James Steyer, the author of Talking Back to Facebook. He’s on a mission to educate parents on how important it is to show our children how to manage, filter and limit media and technology. I agreed with everything he said for all of the reasons above, but thought, "First we adults need to teach ourselves." Truly disconnecting on vacation is a great place to start.

Do you agree it’s important to truly disconnect from work and technology on vacation? If not, why? If yes, what strategies do you use as you prepare to disconnect, and for making a smooth transition back into work? Tell us about it in the comments below.

Cali Williams Yost is the CEO and Founder of the Flex+Strategy Group / Work+Life Fit, Inc., flexible work and life strategy advisors to clients including BDO USA, Pearson, Inc., EMC, the U.S. Navy, and Novo Nordisk for almost two decades. Her second book, "Tweak It: Make What Matters to You Happen Every Day", will be published by Center Street/Hachette in January 2013. Connect with Cali on her Work+Life Fit blog and on Twitter @caliyost.

[Image: Flickr user Brian Uhreen]

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  • Mom Corps

    Fantastic tips, Cali. I love these innovative ideas, and can't wait to try them out myself. I especially appreciate the concept (and term) "email bankruptcy." Though it is likely tough for professionals to relinquish that level of control to not even look at their inbox before hitting delete all, it is a great lesson in the fact that nothing will spin so far out of control that it can't be taken care of.--Allison O'Kelly, founder/CEO Mom Corps

  • Jane Mabbitt

    Earlier this year I took 6 weeks off from work.  I hadn't had a vacation since my honeymoon - four years earlier and having moved into a new job had 18 months of consistently long weeks. I was completely burnt out.  Was the best thing I ever did - not only for me but for my team who had seen me put in too many long hours and I was setting a bad example.  
    It is possible to do - with upfront planning -preparation of my team and colleagues to manage things while I was away. It can be done.  I completely blocked the first 2 weeks  no contact.  Then the following weeks had pre-planned into our schedule days where I would be checking in and available.  Thing in my team wanted me to have the time off so they sent updates in advance to bring me up to date but didn't really want to bother me.  When people know - you will not be there but another person will be in your stead - they send the emails to the other person.  I had an assistant who monitored my emails and farmed them out.  People didn't want me to come back to a backlog so found themselves very sparingly cc;ing me - which cut down on my inbox significantly.   It can be done and I came back renewed refreshed and looking forward to be back at work and was more present while I was at work.   I've seen it work in others and highly recommend the need to cut the cord to email while on vacation.  (granted we lived on facebook to keep in touch with friends and family on the vacation but no work!)  

  • John Woolley

    The 2 week vacation needs to make a comeback.  NY State banking regs require it for fraud prevention, but I suspect many of us need a block that long instead of 5 long weekends and a few days around Christmas.  Many employees don't get much more than 2 weeks total vacation, so I know that's a hard concept, but combined with your day blocking and social fasting it could be an extremely powerful tool. Write on, Cali!

  • Cali Williams Yost

     ah, I remember the two week mandatory vacation from our banking days very well!  The first week you unwound and the second week you truly rested and  re-energized. While I am very proud of my one week "cold turkey" vacation, my future stretch goal will be to recreate that two week break.  It really was wonderful for not only the person but for the bank. Write on, I will! 

  • George

    I think a key question here may well be:
    Do you live to work or do you work to live?

    I believe that a good combination of
    both is the right way. I used to live to work and that meant that I did not
    really ever wind down enough so that I could claim that I had recuperated
    enough to take me along to the next vacation period. Not winding down is not a
    problem to begin with and I did not notice any detrimental effects.

    I was always available for the company
    no matter what time of day or night. Coming into the office during vacations
    was normal practice. Being called at home during vacations was also normal
    practice. With time I got quite used to this and did not think anything of it.
    I thought that this was normal and that everybody else also considered it to be

    Well, I have changed my mind on this one
    because I began to notice that I was developing some of the symptoms which are
    typical for the “Burn-Out-Syndrome” and believe me that is no fun. I had a
    colleague who went down with Burn-Out and he did not even know his own name

    For everyone there will come a time –
    and I don’t believe that there are exceptions to this – when simple mistakes
    will happen more and more often. These will be followed by more severe
    mistakes. In the beginning people don’t associate this with any kind of mental

    It’s a little like going without sleep
    for too long. It just takes longer to show any effects. What you are showing
    people with your article is a possible way out. I took the same way with my
    last vacation and I had the best three weeks since many years.

    I did more or less exactly what you have
    written. I stayed away from technological time bandits and I even went so far
    as to block all company telephone numbers. Did they try to call me? Yes they
    did. Did I care? No. Why did I take these steps? I did it because my health is
    more important to me than my job. If you get sick then you are is a burden for
    the company and no one on this planet is in the position to do a miracle for
    you to get you back on track. I have seen so many people lose their jobs through
    illness of one kind or another. Many of those were the same as me with respect
    to being available at all times. Did they get a thank you for it? Nope, they
    got a kick out of the door and the next one was hired.

    I am certainly not trying to imply that
    people who take their work seriously – as I do too – should not do what they
    consider best for themselves but a quick word to all bosses out there:

    Think twice if you really do need that
    person during their well-earned vacation. Interrupting their vacation is for
    you the easy way out and good bosses don’t do that.

  • Cali Williams Yost

       Thank you for sharing how your experience and thinking evolved. Burn out sneaks up on you and I too have met many people who drove themselves relentlessly only to end of sick and having a "break" forced upon them.  Hopefully with more stories like yours to inspire, others won't wait until that happens.  

  • Sherrill

    Spot on, timely and much needed clarity for those of us who are connected with so many projects and people.  Kudos to you Cali for sharing with others these simple, easy methods of how to really take the time to focus on what is most important for us - whether that is family, friends or a business related project.  Think of the clarity, calmness and overall well being that will result. 
     Taking the day concept one step further, it would be great to experience social media and e-mail breaks also at meals and meetings.  All too often I see people taking phone calls at the dining table, checking their e-mail or texting.  When did this become acceptable rather than rude behavior signifying the person you are with is less important than a new e-mail?  It's so sad to see the other person (or persons) just sit there ... waiting for the user to re-engage with them.

    Thanks for the wake-up and truly focus call!  

  • Cali Williams Yost

     Someone who tweeted this post said something along the lines of, 'Really, these are lessons we should think of applying daily not just on vacation." It's about finding ways to consciously choose where and when we put our attention. Thank you for calling this out.  


  • Durgesh Kumar

    nice one...

    for a disconnected vacation, i put my cellphones out of coverage, don't download e-mails or check them, simply disconnect myself from internet...
    Spend my vacation totally, with family, or Alone

  • cv harquail

    These tips are so concrete, and when you think about it they're also not that hard to do. I wonder if it might also help if we focused also on what we wanted for our vacation time-- close attention to each other, time to explore something or somewhere new, time to map -- so that we were clear what we were gaining when we give up being 'connected'.

  • Cali Williams Yost

     Great point! Focus on what we gain from disconnecting from work and focusing on the other parts of our life on vacation versus simply on what we are "not" doing when we disconnect. Thank you.  


  • Patty

    "Starting a social media fast on vacation made my days off more relaxed, and though over the two weeks my Klout score fell by a point, it was a price worth paying." To me that part sounds quite disconnected. As if your credibility depends on Klout score. Why even worry about something like that?

  • Cali Williams Yost

    @Patty:twitter  The drop in Klout didn't really bother me as I'm still trying to figure it out, but I thought it was interesting that one of Klout's recent changes was to account for breaks from social media and not penalize people. So if that was an excuse for not disconnecting for some people, that has been solved.  Best, Cali 

  • Aileen

    Thanks for writing this. I'm all for your suggestions and will apply them.  I like how all your suggestions basically mimic the behaviours we used to do back when we weren't so "connected".  Like a lot of things in life, it's about boundaries.  Isn't it funny how being so connected can actually have the effect of disconnecting from our true selves.   

  • Cali Williams Yost

     "being so connected can actually have the effect of disconnecting from our true selves" it is indeed ironic.  Thank you! 


  • Chris Dunn

    I fully agree with Social Media Fasting.  I'm not quite daring enough to do email bankruptcy just yet, but my experience with Social Media fasting while on vacation was fantastic.  In fact, it was only last week that I was on vacation and kept away from email as well as social media.   I felt rejuvenated when I returned and my colleagues mentioned that I looked well rested.  I will absolutely do this again in the future.  

  • Cali Williams Yost

    That's great  !  I think even putting one boundary setting tactic in place over vacation can make a big difference.