There I sat staring at my screen wondering if I could really do it. Could I actually hit “save” on the Out of Office auto-reply I just wrote?
It was the start of my vacation – just a few short days in Tahoe to unwind. I’ve done this trip dozens of times, but I was determined to make this one different. How, you ask? I was going to completely unplug – no work, no technology, no social media for three whole days.
I know, big deal right? Well, it was for me.
Like many of you, I intrinsically understand the value of unplugging. I’ve read the studies, articles and raving testimonials from those able to put the phone away. I understand the value of being present as I meditate nearly every day and I’m pretty good about disconnecting from work once I’m done. But, also like many of you, I enjoy working hard and carry a sense of guilt when I’m not – it’s just how I’m wired (for now).
But with COVID, quarantines, little time off and lots going on – I needed to give the full unplugging thing a shot so I could enjoy what may be the only time in the foreseeable future to be away with my family.
So, I went all in and unplugged. I boldly announced my intentions to my family, friends and teams (which was key accountability I needed) who were all somewhat skeptical I could actually pull it off but willing to support my intentions (or at least humor me). Here were the rules:
- No calls
- No meetings
- No checking email (personal or business)
- No social media (posting or checking – don’t even open the apps)
- No texts (other than with my family or emergencies from the office)
- No news (online or on TV)
The only thing I gave myself permission to use my phone for was taking pictures and playing music. And I did it – for three full days. Like doing anything uncomfortable, I definitely learned a thing or two about myself and the process. Ultimately, it had a much greater impact on me than I anticipated. Here are four big takeaways from my “unplugging experiment”.
1. My kids & wife sincerely appreciated my attention
At first it started off as a bit of a game, but they soon realized I was taking this very seriously. They went from giving me a bit of a hard time to my biggest cheerleaders. Each day filling me with confidence and support as if I was an Olympic weightlifter throwing more plates onto the record-setting barbell.
But in addition to the support, there was sincere appreciation for my attention. I’m normally pretty good at home, but during this time I was locked in at a different level. It was noticeable for me, but I think for them too. Doesn’t mean I didn’t work through a few grumpy withdrawals, which I did, but it felt good to be fully present with them. Not just for an hour or a meal or part of a day, but the entire time. It allowed for deeper conversations, more laughs (which is my litmus test for my stress level), more fun and more spontaneity.
2. My out of office notification worked like gold
OK, this was really hard for me – I won’t lie. I’ve never used one before – ever. I’ve prided myself on being available, always. I felt like out of office messages were a sign of weakness, or worse yet, that I was letting people down. But if I was really going to unplug – this had to be part of the deal.
It read as follows:
I wanted to let you know I received your email, but I won’t be able to respond until Thursday, July 16th as I’m taking a few days to hide in the mountains at Lake Tahoe. I’ve promised my family I would completely unplug and enjoy our time together – and the kids are holding me to it!
So, unless it’s an emergency (for which the right people know how to track me down), I’ll look forward to catching up with you later this week. Thank you for understanding.
After finally figuring out where you set up these damn things, and I know this may sound weird, I was actually nervous to turn it on. After I hit send though, something strange happened. I felt this massive wave of relief. I’m not kidding. It was physical and mental, as if a hidden relief valve was opened up and let out years of mounting pressure. It was freedom I had never felt before.
It worked like a charm, and in fact, was probably the most important part of the experiment (even though I wrote it with the wrong date!). It served as a reminder for my team, informed others reaching out to me, and also set an important tone to reinforce my values and our company culture. That last part yielded some really fun and interesting responses to my Out of Office message. Here are a few of my favorites:
- I am glad you are relaxing, reach out when you are back! (partner)
- Go for it! (my dad – who ironically wired in my work ethic)
- Sent you an invite. Go unplug! (colleague)
- Hope you are enjoying Tahoe – it’s beautiful up there (cold marketer)
- Go unplug… listen to the Mrs… 😀 (colleague)
- Enjoy the mountains and Lake Tahoe! Sounds like a wonderful time with the family. (cold marketer)
- One guy even copied it to use himself!
3. I had less email coming back than expected
Like you, I receive a lot of email. For context, I likely receive 50-100 emails a day (not counting my spam box) plus dozens of Slack messages. Many of these are solicitors or just updates, but nevertheless, it’s easy to get behind.
I braced myself for email madness when I returned. Another hard part for me was not checking that last night after we had returned home knowing the monstrous pile that no doubt was waiting for me. Keep in mind I’m a zero inbox person, so the suspense was brutal. But I held off and when I returned the following morning – I was blown away. There were a total of 110 emails – that’s it. Now that may still seem like a lot, but it was a fifth of what I was anticipating.
I was able to crank through them in a day and boom, just like that I was caught up. It was a powerful lesson in setting expectations. I just didn’t realize by setting them, everyone would respond accordingly.
4. I was noticeably (by myself and my family) more relaxed and engaged the entire time.
I’m sure you have been there, it’s day 3 of 4 on “vacation” and you just start to relax. Right? It’s as if you need a detox vacation to prep for the actual vacation. It’s always been that way for me, and each time I return and kick myself for missing out on the first half (or more) because I just couldn’t relax.
While I certainly was not instantly in vacation mode, I was noticeably more present right out of the gate. I was keenly focused on absorbing as much as I could as soon as I could. It allowed me to have more fun, to smile, to laugh and not worry in the back of my mind about everything else. Heck, I was not even worried about our plans each day – which is saying something for me. I was truly able to put “real life and work” on hold to be in the moment. It felt good and I think they noticed.
Needless to say, there were some big takeaways from this experiment. There were also some smaller, more unexpected ones too. Here’s a few of those along with some suggestions:
- Accountability is key – with your family and your teams
- Out of Office Replies are your most powerful tool
- Plan your return – I came back to a pretty packed schedule with 10 meetings on the first day which made it a bit more of a blunt re-entry. In hindsight I planned well for emails, but would suggest you also block out at least a half day upon return for no meetings.
- Leave on a Sunday – having the Saturday in between created some space to start the unwind.
- Social media requires a clean break to see the impact it’s having on your life – I’ve significantly reduced my time on it since returning.
Whether you are planning a vacation, frustrated you didn’t get to enjoy that last one, or looking for some proof that you can actually unplug – I hope this helps. In fact, I want to give you permission to try it. You don’t even need to wait. Test it on a Saturday, then a weekend and then – I know, let’s pace ourselves.
But trust me, if I can do it you can do it. You deserve it.