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How to stay virtually connected on your own terms

You can successfully preserve your sanity alongside running a business and maintaining bonds with loved ones.

How to stay virtually connected on your own terms
[Photo: Hal Gatewood/Unsplash]

You’re probably reading this article on a computer. Next to you is your phone, buzzing with multiple notifications. Your smartwatch is strapped to your wrist, letting you know it’s time to stand, and you’re squeezing this reading in before a video chat with an international client.

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It’s impossible to deny that we live in a world filled with tools and technology that enable us to be connected all the time. We’ve come to believe that these tools always make us more productive, and we’ve begun to think more input leads to better output. Somehow, our levels of stress are normal.

I’m here to tell you that simply isn’t true.

In 2017, I retired from Cree after 16 years as CEO. The stress from running a public company—and always being connected—had taken its toll on my body, and I was forced to reevaluate my priorities. I started working fewer hours and making time to disconnect through meditation and yoga. As these practices became part of my routine, something interesting started to happen; not only was my level of anxiety reduced, but I solved problems more effiiciently and gained perspective.

I also realized I had a problem: I had become addicted to connectivity. It may seem like a strong word to describe my problem, but my recognition of the addiction was the first step to a solution. Like many who suffer from an addiction, I didn’t recognize what it was doing to my life and my effectiveness as a business leader, father, husband, and friend. I found I was extremely busy, but I wasn’t present.

Now, don’t get me wrong—I’m no Luddite. I believe in the transformational powers of new technology. Before running a global technology company, I taught myself to code on an Apple computer in my basement. I owned a bag phone, a brick phone, and the first flip phone. I utilized messaging first on a Blackberry and later on an iPhone. Needless to say, I embraced the constant flow of information and communication. The problem was I wasn’t in control of the technology—technology was in control of me.

Over time, solving problems and focusing on what matters led to Cree’s success. Even though being connected had given me access to incredible amounts of information, it also deprived me of the ability to concentrate and use that information to improve my problem-solving. I discovered my constant connection with technology caused me to react more and think less.

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This period of self-reflection and unplugging taught me there is a better balance between too much technology and no connectivity at all. So if you’re also struggling to find this balance, here are some ideas on how to better manage your connectivity on your own terms.

Set aside time to unplug

Being connected is a choice, just as being disconnected is a choice. You have more control than you think you do, but you have to decide to take control. The easiest solution is to establish times each day when you are going to unplug. Here are some examples of when to disconnect.

Sleep time: Turn off or silence all electronic devices when you go to bed.  If someone calls or texts in the middle of the night, tell yourself they can wait. People were just fine remaining unplugged before all this technology, so give yourself the night off and allow your brain to relax and reset.

Focus time: Decide what your most important priority is each day. From there, reserve time to work on this task and also unplug. If the project is something you want to do on your computer, simply turn off your email, instant messaging, and phone during this time so you can focus on the task at hand.

Me time: Set aside three times each day for yourself to be present—once in the morning, once at midday, and once again before bedtime. By carving out this time, you are giving yourself a break from new inputs, which will give you a chance to relax and take on a new perspective.

You can start your day with exercise and meditation, or a relaxing walk before opening up your messages. Also a nice habit, listening to music or enjoying the sounds around you. A preemptive warning, this time shouldn’t be for taking in new information, such as listening to the news or a podcast.

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At midday, take a second break for at least 15 minutes to disconnect and let your mind reset.

Take a third break before bed to disengage from the day and allow your mind start to slow down. This could mean watching TV or reading a book, but this is not time to try and solve another problem, plan a trip, or search the internet for the answers to life’s questions. Be extremely wary of times you think you are relaxing, when really you are working.

Think more, react less

Despite what you may have been led to believe, you control when and how you communicate. The key to productive communication is to respond on your own terms. Here are a few tips:

Electronic messaging: When someone sends you a text message or email, you are not obligated to interrupt what you’re doing and respond. It is a choice. If you are trying to solve an urgent problem, pick up the phone or, better yet, go see the other person. Very rarely are important problems solved through communication that can leave one person on “read.”

Phone: You don’t have to answer a call when it comes in. If something is important, they will leave a message, and you can respond on your terms. In fact, your phone can be the biggest barrier to productivity. Research studies suggest that it takes 23 minutes to return your full attention to the task at-hand after a notification has briefly forced you to switch tasks.

Meetings: Meetings are critical to share information with a group and can be an effective setting for problem-solving if well organized. However, most meetings are not well organized and a waste of you and your team’s time.

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Try this tip instead: Cancel all your meetings and see what happens to your team’s productivity. Afterwards, only return meetings to the calendar as needed, focusing on those that solve an important problem.

Stop trying to multitask

There is also a notion that you can be more productive through multitasking, but this only makes things worse. Multitasking creates a situation where your mind is spending time and energy switching between tasks, forcing you to connect and reconnect, and ultimately limiting your ability to think productively.

Two doctors from the Cleveland Clinic published an article that reports, “For nearly all people, in nearly all situations, multitasking is impossible. When we think we’re multitasking, most often we aren’t really doing two things at once—but instead, individual actions in rapid succession.” They go on to point out that repeatedly switching between projects can impair our ability to function.

It may seem counterintuitive, but if you want to be successful in business or life, the key is to disconnect. Remember that at the end of the day, you are judged by your outcomes, not your inputs. To achieve extraordinary outcomes, you need to make time each day to purposely disconnect. You must allow your brain to relax, so you can have time to think and be creative.

Therefore, I give you one last recommendation: Close your web browser, go outside, and take a walk. If you want to solve the biggest problems, you must push yourself to think more and react less. And the best way to do that is to disconnect.

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