The Power of Unplugging


I realize the irony of blogging about best practices for time away from the Internet and email, but just hear me out: Having spent 4 1/2 days off the grid in the Upper Peninsula, joyfully out of cell phone range and wi-fi capabilities, I feel compelled to share a few reflections.

We all know or can guess that less distraction and discursiveness in our lives leads to a happier outlook, a feeling of “being present,” and an greater overall satisfaction with our circumstances. What may not have occurred to others is how time away can actually improve your focus later, when you do return to Internet-related tasks.

After a much-needed vacation and time to reconnect with the natural world, part of me dreaded seeing what my inbox would look like. But I had a very concrete list of tasks in mind that needed to be accomplished. Brad and I checked out of the campground, loaded up, and headed to a cafe. I had two critiques to complete (on deadline) and gave them my full attention before logging in to email or social media. We had 4 hours at the cafe before we had to leave for our next destination and the work simply needed to get done. I started by doing it.

Rather than letting email be my boss dictate my time, I remained my own boss and focused on the top priorities. Once the critiques were complete, I logged in and sent my private students their critiques. Only then did I turn off the auto-responder on my inbox and begin to address time-sensitive messages. Sounds simple enough, but honestly: How many times do we approach the desk on any given work day and know that there are certain tasks we need to accomplish, but we choose to check email first, then complete the tasks (or worse, put them off one more day)?

Of course, some tasks require logging in to get updated information or instructions before we can complete them, but I hope I’m not the only one guilty of clicking “next” on the screen and continuing through my new messages, even after I’ve found the information I was looking for. This is the beginning of “going down the rabbit hole,” as they say, though it’s cleverly disguised as “getting things done.” Sure, it is getting things done, but only in the best possible scenarios. Usually, the things we reply to or get pulled into aren’t the same as those things that actually need tending at the time. In most scenarios, what actually happens is we let email interrupt our best work, slow our progress, and destroy our focus. All in the name of supposedly getting more done…Hmmm… 

A student in a class I recently taught told me she literally schedules her times to check email each day. She never checks it at any other time. I greatly respect this and have developed a somewhat similar model to balance my creative needs with my business needs. No email in the morning before I’ve done my writing on the novel–that’s a given. But what I’m taking away from my time off the grid and from the student I met, is that I’m actually not going to log in to read emails until I’ve attended to as many other time-sensitive tasks for that day as possible. Only then would I actually need to see what someone might be sending me. After all, my tasks will be complete and I’ll be ready for new ones. Chances are pretty good that I’ll find new work waiting for me via email. The difference is that now the work will come at me when I’m ready for it, rather than stacking up and creating a sense of overwhelm.

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