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A Radical Experiment In Work/Life Balance: The 7-Day Unplug

Some businesses do require “always-on” workflow. When you unplug from a job like this, you have to do so fully–and on your own terms.

A Radical Experiment In Work/Life Balance: The 7-Day Unplug
[Photo: Flickr user Julien Boulin]

Woe to the real-estate broker who seeks work/life balance. “It’s a seven-day-a-week job,” says David DeSantis, a partner at TTR Sotheby’s International Realty. Clients call on all days, at all hours. “There’s no such thing as a weekend,” says DeSantis. “It’s kind of burned into you that if you want to succeed, if you want to be one of the top people in this business, you need to work every day.”

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David DeSantis

Even when you unwind, even when you socialize, you’re still working on some level, says DeSantis. “The message pounded into us from day one–and frankly a message I repeat to my agents–is that every social interaction is an opportunity to connect and make business,” he admits. “Every time you meet someone, it goes through your mind: Who is this person, do they need to buy or sell real estate, who might they know,” he says. “It’s a decision tree you go through every time you meet someone.”

He’s the first to admit: “There are some aspects of that that are not appealing.” But it’s simply “a fact of life,” he says. “You look at the people who are successful, and they’ll all tell you that that’s exactly how they live.”

It was in 2010, though, when DeSantis began to wonder whether something had to change. He took three weeks off to travel to Australia, and yet he never felt he unplugged. Even on the other side of the planet, he was unable to let go, always reaching for his phone. He simply hadn’t trained his staff or his clients to manage without him, and so he was often working or worrying about work. “My enjoyment of this beautiful and wonderful place was completely marred.”

The year after that, some of DeSantis’s coworkers began to worry about him. Most of DeSantis’s colleagues have children, which forced a modicum of work/life balance, but DeSantis and his partner had none, and DeSantis was burning the candle at both ends. For his birthday, they surprised him with a gift: “seven days of silence.” He was given the week off, and the difference this time was that he wasn’t allowed to communicate with work. “We’re not taking your phone calls, we’re not taking your emails, we’ll handle it–just have a little faith,” they told him.

He went to the Adirondacks with a few friends. The first three days, he was miserable, frustrated. He was frankly skeptical that there was such a thing as unplugging in the business he chose. He found himself picking up his phone every few minutes, until finally his friends hid it from him. “It was kind of depressing, to be honest,” he remembers now. “I had just grown accustomed to the idea that that’s just the way it was: feeling fried until I retired was part of what came with this job.”

But on the third day, something changed. He was out on a boat in the middle of a lake, and he felt, for the first time in a long time, calm. He reaches for a suitable metaphor, given his line of work. “I liken it to the feeling of paying off your mortgage,” he says. “This really tangible feeling of an enormous burden being lifted off your shoulders for the first time. I was completely at peace with the fact that I was not in communication with the rest of the world, and the world would be fine without me.”

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He returned to work the next week, incredibly recharged. “It really was a gift,” he remembers.

It took a few years, though, for DeSantis to realize that he wanted this to be a gift that kept on giving. That feeling of peace on the lake–he needed it, more often. Last year, he announced to his team that he would be resuming the radical unplug on a more regular basis.

It was a bold move. Though his team liked the idea–it’s always fun when the boss is away–it was his clients who were going to be the hard sell. One developer client in particular is at the very high end of the condominium market in Washington, D.C. “It’s a very important client, and this guy really wants me personally to be focused on the success of these projects,” says DeSantis.

So when DeSantis called this client to announce his plan, it was with a lump in his throat.

“I’m going to be away for five days,” DeSantis said into the phone. “This is how I hit my reset.” The client pushed back a little: Who heard of a high-end real estate agent taking five days off without any way to reach him?

“Look, you’re just gonna have to have a little faith in me,” said DeSantis.

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The phone call ended with the client “obviously skeptical,” says DeSantis. But then he went away for five days straight and nothing burned to the ground. “I proved it could work.”

Ever since then, DeSantis has created a highly unusual work/rest schedule for himself. For five or six hard-charging weeks, he’s 24/7, like any high-end real estate broker needs to be. And then, every sixth week or so, he unplugs, completely, on the other side of the country. If you do the math, it adds up to something like two months of vacation per year—a bold move for anyone (or, that is, any American).

Yet his partners are happy, his clients are happy, his team is happy, and DeSantis is very happy. He says he’s trusted his team with enormous decision-making authority and that he’s never come home to a bad deal.

His bold experiment in work/life balance has influenced his company’s culture. A young woman in the company’s marketing department recently asked for a sabbatical: two and a half months to travel across the country. “I’ve never seen the country,” she said, “and I’m worried as my career progresses that this is never going to happen, and I’ll be filled with regret that I didn’t do it.”

It’s the sort of decision that, a few years ago, DeSantis thinks his company may have struggled with. In the end, “I think we talked about it for all of five minutes.” That bold young woman embarks on her cross-country road trip soon.

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About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal

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