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

Level 17

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!

15 Comments
Level 9

Does unplugging while driving count as "unplugging"? I mean I hardly ever text/play Pokemon Go while driving anymore.

I would say no, and I am not judging. I know I need to find more offline time. My goal is to start small and work my way up.

Riding the motorcycle provides mental time away.  The focus it requires can be very Zen like.  I evaluate every corner I make.  How smooth was the corner?  Was it good lane position?  How was my line?  Was that a clean gear shift.

Riding in the city has a higher pilot load than the country side, but it is all good.

The same goes for riding the mountain bake to work.  Oh look a squirrel!

Ride Safe

RT

The medical industry has developed descriptions for pain associated with cell phones:  "Text Neck" and "Cellphone Elbow."  They're not hard to imagine, and they're exacerbated by watching small screen devices while in bed.

Digital disabilities — text neck, cellphone elbow — are painful and growing - The Washington Post

Neck Pain and Functioning in Daily Activities Associated with Smartphone Usage

https://health.clevelandclinic.org/2015/03/text-neck-is-smartphone-use-causing-your-neck-pain/

Text neck: how smartphones are damaging our spines | Life and style | The Guardian

From that last link:

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  • how often and for how long should you unplug
    • Unplug as often as it takes to regain your health and comfort. 
    • Keep in mind that your job does NOT require you to experience spine or eye or mental damage, so unplug.  Or find an alternative method of staying in touch that does not cause you physical discomfort.
  • how do you  deal with a workload that is already threatening to overwhelm you
    • Don't give in to trite phrases that cover up workplace deficiencies (e.g.:  "Work smarter, not harder.") .  Instead, get the right amount of support staff.  If that's not happening, move to an employer or department that won't hurt your health with stress.
    • Talk with H.R. and your boss to let them know you're sinking.  They can help you find ways to deal with stress before you drown.
    • Find alternatives that keep you interesting in many things after hours.  There's no need to be 100% I.T. day and night--unless that's what pleases you.  You come first, and no amount of money or promotions will give you back the time you should have spent with your spouse or your children or your parents or your friends or your hobbies that help you recover your mental health.  After-hours, those things are your job.  Leave work at work.
    • Get the right tools in place; they'll help you be aware of what's wrong, and help you make preventative or proactive decisions and choices instead of reactive ones.  That makes your future brighter with fewer issues.
    • Break down silo walls and share information with other teams.  Once you understand what they're doing, and when they understand what you're doing, better planning and notification and coordination will result.
  • how will your boss, coworkers, friends perceive your decision to unplug
    • Don't unplug without coordinating with your boss and coworkers and friends first.  Be considerate--think how you'd feel if everyone but you left the field and you had to face the opposing team all on your own. 
    • Get a team to help you out.  If you don't HAVE a work team, get one so you can unplug.
  • how do you maintain your reputation as a miracle worker if you aren’t connected
    • Develop a reputation for being a human, for having limitations.  That will result in others expecting human results from you, not inhuman ones. 
    • In the long run, spending your spare time cozied up to your Technical Manual like Star Trek's Scotty isn't going to help your health.  Be like Riker and head to Risa once in a while. 

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  • how do you deal with pseudo medical issues like FOMO
    • Define what is important / necessary, then give it first priority.  Leave non-work issues for after work. 
    • Similarly, leave work issues for work hours--and get support from your manager and H.R. to do just that.

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  • what about sev1 emergencies
    • When the boat's sinking, you should not say "It's not my problem--I'm not on-call."  That's a career-limiting, resume-generating posture.  Do what needs doing to remediate emergencies, then develop a plan to reduce emergencies and prevent them.  There's a reason ITIL was developed, even if newer or older philosophies duplicate it.  Learn it.  Use it.

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  • what if you are on-call
    • Handle what needs handling when it needs to be handled.  But not at the long-term expense of your health and your life.
    • Arrange with your boss and H.R. for compensation time to let you have some personal time when work time has intruded on your personal life.  Everyone needs time to be with their family, pay bills, do laundry, cook meals, buy groceries, get the transportation issues resolved, etc. 

Since 2006 the wife and I have taken ten cruises.  Each week-long cruise was preceded by one to three days in the city of departure.  Oh and we always use the same cruise line, Royal Caribbean. 

The last was surreal.  Three days in Stockholm Sweden followed by a Baltic Cruise.  Finland, two full days in St Petersburg, Russia, Estonia, and Latvia were on the Itinerary.

Growing up I never thought I would go to Russia.

Take a trip and unplug!

RT

Level 17

"Don't give in to trite phrases that cover up workplace deficiencies (e.g.:  "Work smarter, not harder.") ."

Welp, you just guessed one of my upcoming articles!

You're a good teacher, Leon.  Your wisdom just automatically leads one from point A to B and then to C.

Or maybe I just got lucky; even a broken clock is right twice a day.

;^)

Level 20

IDK if it's really considered unplugging but for me it's all about movies... I've seen so many movies between all of the pay channels and on demand, the movie theater, and some "other" methods (hello OSMC w/plug ins) It's often hard for me to find a movie I haven't seen at some point.  Getting away from the computer all together at home is the name of the game.  After being around computers all day almost every day at work for decades now... well two... I learned quite a few years ago that after all day on the computer... going home and doing it more is a big LOSER!

Level 12

For me it's not so much about unplugging from technology as much as it is about removing myself from reality for a while. When I get home and get finished with all my daily stuff, I usually hop online and play some games with a group of my friends every night for a couple of hours. During that time i ignore pretty much everything else going on around me and just forget about normal life and reality. For me that is the best way I can relax the best after a long stressful day, or just a normal day in general. I don't think of it as sitting in front of a computer and playing video games. I see it as more of hanging out with friends chatting and doing something we all enjoy.

My personal mottos for unplugging for myself and my direct reports:

  • Aim to leave work everyday on time. Leave me with the impression that you have your poop in order. Working late constantly is admirable, but after a while I will question your organizational skills... and it will quickly become a CLM.
  • When you go on vacation Go. On. Vacation! You owe it to yourself and the company to take time off. I don't want you responding to emails, doing work, etc. If you feel that you need to be connected so that IT keeps working let me ask you one question: What happens when you get hit by that bus?
  • Furthermore, a mature IT organization allows its employees to take time off. Always work to make your IT organization more mature.
  • Sev1/On Call - If you are on vacation wait to be called. If you are working don't wait to be called, regardless if you feel the outage is related to the stuff you are responsible for.
  • Finally, I guarantee you that if you go home or go on vacation all that work that you need to do will be there waiting for you when you return.
Level 10

"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.

Level 9

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.

Level 12

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).

Level 12

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.

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.

About the Author
In my sordid career, I have been an actor, bug exterminator and wild-animal remover (nothing crazy like pumas or wildebeasts. Just skunks and raccoons.), electrician, carpenter, stage-combat instructor, American Sign Language interpreter, and Sunday school teacher. Oh, and I work with computers. Since 1989 (when you got a free copy of Windows 286 on twelve 5¼” floppies when you bought a copy of Excel 1.0) I have worked as a classroom instructor, courseware designer, desktop support tech, server support engineer, and software distribution expert. Then about 14 years ago I got involved with systems monitoring. I've worked with a wide range of tools: Tivoli, Nagios, Patrol, ZenOss, OpenView, SiteScope, and of course SolarWinds. I've designed solutions for companies that were extremely modest (~10 systems) to those that were mind-bogglingly large (250,000 systems in 5,000 locations). During that time, I've had to chance to learn about monitoring all types of systems – routers, switches, load-balancers, and SAN fabric as well as windows, linux, and unix servers running on physical and virtual platforms.