I parked the car down the street
And I unplugged the phone,
So it would look just like
Ain’t nobody home
(Joe Cocker, in “Dangerous Mood”)
How can one disconnect in today’s world, and why would one want to anyway?
Taking the second question first, I think disconnecting or, as it used to be known, switching off, is tremendously important. The world today can feel pretty relentless. One of the less fortunate side effects of email, for example, is that many people seem to think that if they send an email, the recipient should answer straight away. Ditto text messaging. I think it’s good to take time out not only to have a break and feel the wind in your hair (literally if possible), but also to be able to gain some distance from, and therefore perspective on, a problem or issue which needs dealing with.
We always bang on about the wonders of the 24/7/365 world, and the fact that learning can take place anytime, and anywhere, of one’s choosing. But I also think we have an obligation to tell students (and ourselves) that taking a break is not merely OK to do, but necessary.
Here are some ways, some of which I do myself.
Switch your phone off
Simple but effective. Obviously, if you’re worried about not being able to be contacted if there’s an emergency, this isn’t feasible. In that case, try…
You don’t have to check your email, Twitter or Facebook every five minutes. If you really cannot stop yourself from doing so, try taking the advice of Yogananda, an Indian guru who founded the Self-Realisation Fellowship in 1920. When one of his followers bemoaned the fact that he couldn’t give up smoking because “I don’t have the willpower”, Yogananda told him “Then try using won’t power".
Put your phone on flight mode
If you don’t need to be able to take calls, but can’t bear the thought of being parted from the wonderful functionality of your phone, set it to flight mode. You will still be able to use it as a camera, play crosswords on it, or even read your Kindle book (as long as you’ve downloaded it or synced it first).
Turn Twitter off
I used to have Twitter on all the time, but if you keep being distracted by interesting-looking messages, you can waste an awful lot of time. Maybe “waste” is not the right word, but if you’re trying to meet a deadline then stopping every few minutes to take part in, or listen in on, a conversation is not necessarily the most sensible use of time.
Turn your email off
Email is another time-drain. What you can do to avoid being distracted by incoming messages is to check it only at certain times of the day. For example, I had a line manager who seemed to get through an inordinate amount of work in a day. I asked her how she managed it. “I check my email when I get into work, and then check it again late afternoon”, she told me.
If, like me sometimes, you need to refer to email messages in order to actually do the work, then work offline. In Outlook that option is in the File menu. It means you can still read emails, and even write emails, but not send or receive any until you go back online.
Send and receive emails at longer intervals
There is a bit of a danger in working offline: it’s easy to forget that you’ve done so, and end up wondering why you haven’t received a reply to any of your emails! (Answer: they are still in the Outbox of course!) A good compromise, then, is to change the length of time that elapses between email checking. I, for example, have set mine to send and receive every 180 minutes. I need a break every three hours anyway, so if I’m working at home I’ll make myself a cup of tea and then come back and read my emails. In Outlook 2007, which is what I use, you have to go to Tools->Options, then Mail Setup, then Send/Receive, then check the Schedule an automatic send/receive message, and set the interval.
Check email manually
This is a sort of compromise between working offline and setting a longer interval between sending/receiving email. Follow the procedure given above, but uncheck the Schedule box, and check your email whenever you feel like by pressing F9.
Declare (and observe) non-work times
I met someone a few months ago who said he switches his computer off on Friday evening, and starts it again on Monday morning. That sounded it pretty sensible to me. I can’t quite manage that, but I almost never work at weekends these days, unless a deadline is really really urgent. Having tried both options, ie working on Sundays to be prepared for Monday, and not working at all on Sunday and getting up early on Monday to work when I’m feeling refreshed and recharged, I’d say the latter is much better, or at least it is for me.
The same goes for evenings. I don’t think it’s healthy to check emails after a certain time, for instance. What do you do if you read one at 9pm that makes you furious? Even working past a certain hour can make it difficult to relax and sleep properly.
Again, that’s what I’ve found anyway.
Get away from it all for a day
Take a day off if you can, or spend one of your weekend or vacation days going somewhere nice, preferably somewhere you can’t get a signal!
Get away from it all for a month…
… even if you don’t actually go anywhere. Danah Boyd recommends taking a email sabbatical, whereby you don’t receive or send any emails for a month. Read more, especially on the practicalities, in her article How to take an email sabbatical.
Get away from it all for two months
This is one for university students really. Quarr Abbey is offering 25 internships. The successful candidates will get to spend two months living as a Benedictine monk. It may be possible for someone to arrange something similar somewhere without applying for an internship, if they think they can manage it.
I have a few thoughts about all this.
First, what works for one person will not work for everyone. And it may not work for some people all the time. Last weekend, for example, I did work: I had a deadline to meet, and I thought it would be psychologically good for me to be able to break the back of the work by the time normal life started again on Monday.
Second, you may ask the question, don’t I miss out on things because of switching off after a certain hour or at weekends? The answer is: undoubtedly. However, logically speaking, unless I stayed awake 24/7 staring at my computer or smartphone, I’d always miss out on something. I think what it comes do in the end is a decision about costs and benefits: do you think the benefits of spending an extra hour taking part in a Twitter discussion, say, outweigh the costs in terms of time that you could have spent with your family or reading a book?
In other words, there is no right or wrong in any of this, but I think it’s good to think about it at least.