Unplug to Recharge - a guide for IT Professionals (Part 2)

Part 2 of a 3-part series, which is itself is a longer version of a talk I give at conferences and conventions.

You can find part 1 here.

I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

In the first part of this series, I made a case for why disconnecting some times and for some significant amount of time is important to our health and career. In this segment I pick up on that idea with specific things you can do to make going offline a successful and positive experience.

Don’t Panic!

If you are considering taking time to unplug, you probably have some concerns, such as:

  • how often and for how long should you unplug
  • how do you  deal with a workload that is already threatening to overwhelm you
  • how will your boss, coworkers, friends perceive your decision to unplug
  • how do you maintain your reputation as a miracle worker if you aren’t connected
  • how do you deal with pseudo medical issues like FOMO
  • what about sev1 emergencies
  • what if you are on-call

Just take a deep breath. This isn't as hard as you think.

Planning Is Key

"To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure."

- Albus Dumbledore

As true as these words might be for Nicolas Flamel as he faces his mortality, they are even truer for those shuffling off the mortal coil of internet connectivity. Because, like almost everything else in IT, the decisions you make in the planning phase will determine the ultimate outcome. Creating a solid plan can make all the difference between experiencing boring, disconnected misery and relaxed rejuvenation.

The first thing to plan out is how long you want to unplug, and how often. My advice is that you should disconnect as often, and for as long per session, as you think is wise. Period. It's far more important to develop the habit of disconnecting and experience the benefits than it is to try to stick to some one-size-fits-most specification.

That said, be reasonable. Thirty minutes isn't disconnecting. That’s just what happens when you're outside decent cell service. You went offline for an hour? I call that having dinner with Aunt Frieda, the one who admonishes you with a “My sister didn't raise you to have that stupid thing out at the table." Haven't checked Facebook for two or three hours? Amateur. That's a really good movie, or a really, REALLY good date.

Personally, I think four hours is a good target. But that's just me. Once again, you have to know your life and your limits.

At the other end of the spectrum, unless you are making some kind of statement, dropping off the grid for more than a day or two could leave you so shell shocked that you'll avoid going offline again for so long you may as well have never done it.

One suggestion is to try a no-screens-Sunday-morning every couple of weeks, and see how it goes. Work out the bugs, and the re-evaluate to see if you could benefit from extending the duration.

It's also important to plan ahead to decide what counts as online for you. This is more nuanced that it might seem. Take this seemingly clear-cut example: You plan to avoid anything that connects to the outside world, including TV and radio. There are still choices. Does playing a CD count? If so, can you connect to your favorite music streaming service since it’s really just the collection of music you bought? What about podcasts?

The point here is that you don’t need to have the perfect plan. You just need to start out with some kind of plan and be open-minded and flexible enough to adjust as you go.

You also need to plan your return to the land of the connected. If turning back on again means five hours of hacking through email, twitter feeds, and Facebook messages, then all that hard won rest and recharging will have gone out the window. Instead, set some specific parameters for how you reconnect. Things like:

  • Limit yourself to no more than 30 minutes of sorting through email and deleting garbage
  • Another 30 to respond to critical social media issues
  • Decide which social media you actually HAVE to look at (Do you really need to catch up on Pinterest and Instagram NOW?)
  • If you have an especially vigorous feed, decide how far back (in hours) that you will scroll

As I said earlier, any good plan requires flexibility. These plans are more contingencies than tasks, and you need to adhere to a structure, but also go with the flow when things don't turn out exactly as expected.

Preparation is Key

Remember how I said that Shabbat didn't mean sitting in the dark eating cold sandwiches? Well, the secret is in the preparation. Shabbat runs from Friday night to Saturday night, but a common saying goes something like, "Shabbat begins on Wednesday.” This is because you need time to get the laundry done and food prepared so that you are READY when Friday night arrives.

An artist friend of mine goes offline for one day each week. I asked him what happens if he gets an idea in the middle of that 24-hour period. He said, "I make an effort all week to exhaust myself creatively, to squeeze out every idea that I can. That way I look at my day off as a real blessing. A day to recharge because I need it."

His advice made me re-think how I use my time and how I use work to set up my offline time. I ask myself whether the work I'm doing is the stuff that is going to tear my guts out when I'm offline if it's not done. I also use a variety of tools - from electronic note and to-do systems to physical paper - so that when it's time to drop offline, I have a level of comfort that I'm not forgetting anything, and that I'll be able to dive back in without struggling to find my place.

Good preparation includes communicating your intentions. I'm not saying you should broadcast it far and wide, but let key friends, relatives, and coworkers know that you will be “…out of data and cell range.”

This is exactly how you need to phrase it. You don’t need to explain that you are taking a day to unplug. That's how the trouble starts. Tell people that you will be out of range. Period.

If needed, repeat that phrase slowly and carefully until it sounds natural coming out of your mouth.

When you come back online, the opposite applies. Don't tell anyone that you are back online. Trust me, they'll figure it out for themselves.

In the next installment, I'll keep digging into the specifics of how to make going offline work for you. Meanwhile, if you have thoughts, suggestions, or questions, let me know in the comments below!

Anonymous
  • Replacing people is a lot more expensive than treating them correctly.  The former involves bad feelings on all sides, bad reputations being built, huge learning curves and mistakes.  The latter builds teams and is significantly less expensive.

    The problems may lie in folks with good product/service ideas, but not good Human Resources skills or business training from an H.R. point of view.

    I've been here just about 14 years; I wouldn't stay if I were treated poorly.

    I learned that if I put down roots where there are few alternate employment options, and if I get that golden ring through the nose, or am saving for a golden parachute, my options are limited in smaller markets.  In those cases I'd have to uproot myself and my family to find a different employer who treats me well and pays me what I need.  You've got to have that option to pull anchor and set sail.  Otherwise you could become trapped.

    I'm sort of in that boat--there are few employers that need my specialized Network Administration skill, and fewer still that are sized correctly to meet my pay requirements.  I could earn more if I moved to a bigger metropolitan market, but my roots are deep enough to see how that would be a negative.  My house has been paid off for years, I own all the property that you can see from my windows (OK, I have LOTS of trees), and my neighbors are mostly a quarter mile away or more.  That makes for big pines, lots of wildlife in the yard, plenty of quiet, clean air, low taxes (and low services!), and the kind of life I enjoy.  Moving to L.A. or Chicago or N.Y. just to double my salary (or more) might result in incurring huge housing costs and a mortgage, no clean air, higher crime, longer commute times, longer times to get to the woods and lakes of northern Minnesota for unplugging . . .

    So I got lucky--my employer cares. Maybe more importantly, they understand that employee turnover is more expensive than having a good environment that people are lined up to join, instead of lining up to leave.

  • Sadly a lot of what you said here implies that your company actually cares about you as a person, instead of a cog that is easily replaced if it gets a little squeaky. More and more companies seem to be moving more towards the cogs not people treatment of their staff. I have seen a few things done here that just left my jaw dragging on the floor, not in a good way either. It is amazing really that a company could actually treat people like that, and still manage to get people to work for them. Then again when you have bills to pay, your able to put up with quite a bit sadly when your options are pretty limited in a rural area like this.

  • That will cause you to burn out eventually, probably a lot sooner then you would expect. Problem with burnout is that it's something that sneaks up on you over time so you don't really notice it a lot of times. At least that is what happened with me. It just gradually got to me when suddenly one day I took a big step back and said *@#$*!@#*%!@#..... At that point I made some decisions to start working on a better life/work balance. It is a daily battle. Like you I hate leaving something undone, or just hanging out there. But for my sanity there are times where I just have to slap myself in the face and tell myself to go home and let it go for the day. (Note that sometimes this is literally what happens, complete with the slapping and me verbally out loud yelling at myself to gtfo and go home).

  • My problem is that I feel I need to be on top of everything at all times. I often work thru lunch or late just to make sure all of the tasks I set out to complete are completed. I don't like leaving things half done, it gives me anxiety. But I do occasionally hit the gym during my hour lunch when I don't put pressure on myself to work work work work. emoticons_happy.png

  • "That said, be reasonable. Thirty minutes isn't disconnecting. That’s just what happens when you're outside decent cell service. You went offline for an hour? I call that having dinner with Aunt Frieda, the one who admonishes you with a “My sister didn't raise you to have that stupid thing out at the table." Haven't checked Facebook for two or three hours? Amateur. That's a really good movie, or a really, REALLY good date."

    Here's a point I am going to have to disagree with you on.  I think these are EXCELLENT places to start, if you're the "I've got to be connected 24X7xForever-n-Always" type.  Especially if you can mange to do them a couple of times a day.  I've discovered just how freeing it is to take a 30 minute walk/read a book without jumping every time my phone buzzes, and I think I get just as much out of that as being unplugged for a weekend of camping.  Its about resetting myself, slowing down a bit, getting a breather in.  ...and sometimes I think it is even harder to, because it is such a small amount of time....oh I won't miss it at all, if I just work through my walk break.  Read some Facebook on my Lunch time.  Answer Text during dinner....  yeah, those are the times I'm doing the most disservice to myself.  Savor the small moments of disconnection and work up to the bigger ones.