Your Take Roundup::We Need to Learn How to Unplug

    by Mark Glaser
    June 1, 2006

    i-23ca99e46baea57d9896a1c8c4b8bbf4-Turn It Off Book.jpg
    Our lives are wired to the hilt, especially us urbanites. We have cell phones, laptops, handheld PDAs, broadband access at work and at home, and the availability of news updates at our every whim. But maybe there are times — especially now as the weather warms up — when we should take a technology vacation and totally unplug.

    So I asked you whether you thought it was a good idea to unplug from your technology, from your always-on world, or whether it was a necessity at all times. Before I get to your varied answers to my question, I want to point you to an interesting resource on the topic, the book Turn It Off by Gil Gordon. Though the book came out in 2001, its ideas are still relevant to our current situation.

    Gordon recommends that workers split up their hours into three zones, with 100% involvement in work, 60% involvement, and 0%. In an interview with Line Zine, Gordon says that some people just work during vacations because they are unsure how to spend time disconnected.


    “One of the reasons I think a lot of people are working the kinds of hours they are and checking their emails on vacations (and all the other stuff) is that perhaps they have forgotten how to do nothing,” Gordon says. “They’ve forgotten how to spend quality time with their significant others or their family members or even by themselves. They’re so used to sneaking work in between phone calls and between soccer practices that they keep doing it…When we have the luxury of three hours together with our kids, with our spouse, or on our own, we don’t know what to do with it. So, we gravitate back to the laptop or the cell phone just because that’s what we are so accustomed to doing.”

    One MediaShift reader, Evan Orensky, who blogs at A Clever Sheep, shared an interesting story about his failed attempt at unplugging on vacation. The problem was that a breaking news story required that he go online to get the best information.

    My wife and I stayed in a hotel in Manhattan over the first week of this year and I promised not to bring my laptop. When we woke up the morning of the 3rd, the news about the trapped miners in the Sago mine was just breaking. The newspapers didn’t have much info because they’d been going to press just as the incident was being reported. Television had already christened it the “Sago Mine Disaster” and had generated rotating 3D logos to hang over the newsmodels’ left shoulders.

    I knew that if I’d been online, I would have been certain about exactly where the mine was in West Virginia, who owned it, and whether it had a good safety record. I would have found some good background on mining technology and methane explosions in coal mines, as well as an idea of how severe previous mining accidents had been and how many lives they had claimed. The papers had very little of this and the TV stations were in agreement that the families were the only part of the story worth covering.

    The next morning I woke up and saw that the TV was reporting that 12 of the 13 miners were dead and that one was in critical condition. The New York Times however had a story on the front page claiming that 12 were alive and 1 was dead. The Times had gone to press sometime after midnight when a rumor based on a mis-heard conversation spread about most of the miners being alive, and the paper of record had run with it. As I ate my breakfast, I looked at the TV and I looked at the paper… and I looked at the TV and I looked at the paper. Finally, my wife gave me the go-ahead and I ran for the hotel’s computer room and spent an hour or so finding out all the information the media had left out of the story.

    There’s too much to learn in the world to be comfortable in cutting myself off. If the world decided to shut down for a weekend, I might try it again.

    Clearly, Orensky felt like he was not informed by TV and newspaper coverage, and that the most relevant info was online. So cutting himself off from technology meant cutting himself off from the truth of the situation — but couldn’t he have waited until after the vacation to follow the story? What was so pressing about it?


    Pat MacManus doesn’t even try to unplug and uses technology to help in non-work tasks on weekends.

    “I have no desire to unplug on weekends but this is because my technology serves me rather than my serving my technology or those who provide it,” MacManus wrote. “On weekends and holidays my Palm contains the tasks, appointments and reminders that forward my goals instead of mine and my employers. My cell phone never tolls for anyone but me because I have chosen everyone who has the number. How we manage our technology determines whether it is an enabling tool or a leash.”

    That’s an important point to make. So maybe it’s not about cutting ourselves off from technology as much as it’s about cutting ourselves off from work tasks when on vacation. But some of you have made a practice of unplugging. Fred Villegas unplugs “whenever I’m on sensory overload” and “at times I need to get away from it all in order to recharge my mind, body, and soul.” Imagine that.

    Ann Handley, who helps run the MarketingProfs.com site, says she unplugs even though she might feel like it puts her behind the curve in work and other communication.

    “I unplugged over the long weekend for a while — not long, certainly…but for a day or two,” Handley wrote. “Incredibly — it’s spring in Boston! And my 9-year-old daughter learned to read at some point in the past year or two — who knew? Seriously — despite being a self-described blogaholic, I do find it’s critical to unplug every few weeks for a few days. Did I miss my blogs, the news, and email? Did I feel less informed? Certainly. But there was something nice about it, too. It was less busy, more quiet and restful and relaxed.”

    For those of us who are freelancers and contractors, it’s even more difficult to totally unplug when you have no paid vacation days. But I do solemnly swear that I will try to disconnect for a full week this summer. I’ll report back on how it goes. And tell us in the comments how your experiences unplugging have gone. Did they help you, or did you feel like you missed out on something important?

    UPDATE: William Conroy recently filed a report for the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey about people disconnecting (and not) while on vacation. He interviewed author Gil Gordon, and found that many people in New Jersey were having trouble leaving their work behind.

    • I now make a point of ignoring all morning, afternoon, and evening national and international news. (As opposed to local news and professional news, which I pay more attention to because they actually affect my daily life.)

      Almost every national or international event I want to know about, I want to know about roughly 2 weeks later, after it’s become clear that it will play a part in some generally agreed upon form of history, and isn’t just the media filling time/space with sensationalist crud. And I want to hear about it in reasoned analysis, not 15-second sound bites/news blips.

      Exceptions include highly temporal disasters like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, or the results of the latest presidential election. Even though they won’t actually affect my life in the near term, they’ll be sufficiently common topics of discussion that it’s worth being immediately informed.

      I find this approach to news reduces stress, increases productivity, and leaves space in my brain for things that matter to my everyday life.

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