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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