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Career Coach: Some ways you can ‘unplug’

By Joyce E. A. Russell,

There seems to be a surge of interest in hotels and resorts where you can go to get away from technology by staying in a room without television, cellphone service or Wi-Fi. Travel & Leisure predicts these “black hole destinations” will quickly increase in popularity, just as the idea of unplugging from technology seems to be gaining momentum in our personal and professional lives.

People are feeling the need to give their brains a rest from all of the e-mails, texts and phone calls barraging them at all times of the day. According to researchers, our increasing dependency on media may be hurting our attention spans and our ability to develop meaningful relationships with others, both in our personal and professional lives.

Of course, many say they must respond to the messages or risk falling behind at work. That may be true, but by constantly responding we’re also sending the message that we are always available, whether something is urgent or not.

One executive I know says on weekends she no longer replies to e-mails until Mondays. After a few weeks of doing this she noticed that she was receiving fewer and fewer e-mails on her off days. Here are some other ways you can unplug from technology, even if you can’t afford to go away to one of those expensive “detox” resorts.

Set boundaries and stick to them. Give yourself time each day when you disconnect. Maybe you can start out with an hour per day and work your way up to longer periods of time. If you are more daring, try to give yourself a whole day away from technology.

Tell people you are unavailable during that time so they don’t have expectations of being able to get in touch with you. An executive I coached told his business partner he was leaving his phone at home while taking a day trip with his family. At first he felt really anxious, but as the day progressed he became more and more relaxed and really enjoyed the time with his kids. When he plugged back in, he had 15 messages from his partner despite the fact that he told him he would be unavailable. As I mentioned to him, when you unplug, you need to set realistic expectations for others.

Help others understand what qualifies as urgent. People think everything is pressing, yet this false sense of urgency is another thing that stresses us out. Couldn’t that e-mail you just responded to wait until tomorrow? Try and explain to people what sort of things require an immediate response and what messages don’t.

Put your technology is another room when you are having meals or in a meeting. It is amazing to me how often people check their messages without even trying to hide it. One colleague told me she felt like a slacker for not checking her messages, despite the fact that she was actually listening to the speaker. Since when did showing good listening skills equate to being a slacker and being rude equate to being more productive?

Close the screen on your computer when you are working on another project that you have to concentrate on. I once coached an executive who mentioned he was having trouble focusing on his work. When we examined his work practices, it turns out he kept seeing the new messages pop up on his computer while he was reading or reviewing some papers. Once he closed the screen (which was not easy on his part to do), he was able to accomplish so much more. The change was simple, yet it made a difference.

Get out and go for a walk. Whether you go for a walk outside or a stroll through your building, get up and go for a walk without any technology. Even if you leave your phone for 15 minutes as you take a walk, you’ll have a chance to give your brain a break. Who knows, you might just come up with a new idea or solve a problem you’ve been working on.

Take the challenge. Could you unplug from technology for one day or even for a few hours? Could your kids? Try it. You may realize you actually had a chance to think and be more creative, and you had fun doing it. Your brain will thank you for it.

Joyce E. A. Russell is the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management. She can be reached at jrussell@rhsmith.umd.edu.

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