How Long Can You Unplug?

Deep thinking and creativity is a necessity for the sustainability of you and your organization. Yet that thinking is interrupted by all the digital distractions. Experts offer ways to unplug and think deeply.

By Marco Greenberg October 19, 2021
How Long Can You Unplug?

At the end of the summer, I conducted an informal psychological experiment in which I was the guinea pig. 

Some people are proud of how they can resist checking email, social media, texts, voice mail, Slack and the like for maybe an hour, but few report that they can go without for an entire day.  I decided to take it further still. I tested my capacity to stay totally offline for over a week. 

It had a profound effect. While some of the benefits of unplugging have receded, I returned to work with a different mindset. I envision myself as a temporary resident of the online world rather than a citizen of my phone. 

Try the Experiment

Many people cannot even attempt this because of job demands. But if you can, for the experiment to work, it's best to leave your normal stomping grounds. I went with my college-age son to a Club Med along Florida's St. Lucie River. Having grown up in the 70s, I had fond memories of the resort's TV tagline, "An Antidote to Civilization." 

Like for many, my last year and half has been brutal, reaching its low point when my mom suddenly died from COVID-19.  I was in dire need of a break. But with research showing two-thirds of us check work emails while on vacation, is it any wonder that most of our "time off" feels like remote work? 

So I powered down my phone at the airport and left out-of-office messages to answer for me in my wake. 

While sunbathing the next day, for the first time in years, I realized that this trip was a tribute to my mom (as well as to another version of myself).  I found myself turning to a more "primitive" lifestyle familiar to me from my two hippie parents on Venice Beach.  I did deep breathing and stretching during sunrise yoga, swam alone before anyone else had arrived poolside, and then took a leisurely outdoor shower to begin my day. 

I read hardcover books and ate a constantly changing variety of fresh, French-inspired unpackaged foods, stayed off coffee, took afternoon naps and had several easy-going and illuminating conversations with fellow visitors recharging their respective batteries. 

My sleep was uninterrupted, dreams were vivid and uplifting, and my one-on-one time with my son was priceless.  It began to feel like a kind of payoff for hard work that few of us actually cash in on. 

While others were compulsively staring at their screens despite being surrounded by the wonders of nature and even their own kids, I stuck to my decision and never turned on my phone (though I did briefly use my son's cell—he had no interest in the experiment—to let my wife know I was alive). 

Open to Deep Thinking

It's not realistic for any human being to ever stop thinking. But my ideas for work began to seem more organic, like puffy pink clouds slowly forming at sunset.  My vision for my company and career sharpened; new thoughts were spurred about attracting and retaining the best talent; clarity and creativity replaced frenetic frustrations. All this with no agenda, no plan, no updates and no appointments (other than for massages). 

And therein lies the point. While you can't replicate Club Med every day you can do more than you realize, including taking a yoga class and giving your phone a rest.  It is not a luxury, but a necessity for the sustainability of yourself and your organization. 

Your capacity for deep thinking (along with collaboration, creativity and productivity) is diminished by the frenetic mindset of a 911 operator bombarded with easily misunderstood messages from employees, vendors, clients and bosses. Neuroscientists will confirm that multitasking is not the path to cognitive excellence. 

Cal Newport is a computer science professor at Georgetown University, and no luddite. Yet he does not rush to return emails; it can sometimes take weeks. He sets his own priorities to free himself from the distractions. The author of Deep Work and the new A World Without Email teaches us that productivity and keeping busy is not the same and that most things are actually not urgent. He talks about how Carl Jung retreated alone in nature to come up with a tangible alternative to his formidable mentor Sigmund Freud. 

Upon my return from the retreat, I engaged three brilliant minds to help me put my experiment in broader perspective and share their own workarounds for keeping sane at work amid the digital onslaught.   

Worthwhile Time

Alan Lightman is a novelist, essayist, physicist, and educator. He is Professor of the Practice of the Humanities at MIT. He's also the author of best sellers including Einstein's Dreams. You would think that Lightman has no time to waste, yet one of his recent books is actually entitled, In Praise of Wasting Time.  

"My concept of 'worthwhile' wasting time is any activity that does not have a goal," Lightman told me. "When we don't have a goal, we can let our minds wander. Wandering minds often come up with creative ideas or simply restore themselves." 

His words gave me further understanding as to why this vacation felt so good and was so necessary. 

Daily Reminder

Another master in helping us maintain serenity among workplace chaos is Dr. Erica Brown. She is the author Take Your Soul to Work: 365 Meditations on Every Day Leadership and Happier Endings and the director of the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership and an associate professor at The George Washington University. 

She helps leaders and managers navigate the modern world and yet retain time-honored values like truly listening to colleagues without interruption. 

"Our devices prevent us from ever being truly alone with ourselves," Brown wrote to me right before she got offline for Shabbat. "Times that used to offer us a respite from outside noise, like a daily commute or a vacation, now always have a crowd tagging along who live in our phones and join us for everything." 

Brown has a workaround that might work for you: "I usually don't check my phone for the first one or two hours of every day when I study and pray and think. I need a daily reminder of who I am without a device." 

Find Your Internal Desires

Patrick McGinnis is a venture capitalist, writer and speaker. He is the creator and host of the hit podcast FOMO Sapiens. Patrick coined the term "FOMO" (short for Fear of Missing Out). 

"Social media is designed to feed us filtered versions of opportunities or things that are divorced from reality," he said to me. "When we feel FOMO, we lose agenda over our decision-making because we are reacting based on external triggers and not true internal desires." 

And so it is about self-empowerment. 

When there is an emergency, sure, respond immediately. But to do your best work, you need to give yourself the time and space to think before you hit send.

Now go book your retreat.

Marco Greenberg is Senior Partner at Thunder11 and author of Primitive: Tapping the Primal Drive That Powers the World's Most Successful People.

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