Getting back in touch by going off the grid

by Becky Brasington Clark, Director of Marketing and Online Book Publishing

Not long ago, I did a quick assessment of the tools I use to stay in touch with the office, with my students, and with my family and friends. The inventory looked something like this:

  • Personal laptop
  • Personal iPad
  • Work laptop
  • Work desktop
  • Work landline
  • Work Blackberry
  • Home landline
  • Personal cell phone
  • Work email
  • Home email #1
  • Home email #2
  • University #1 email
  • University #2 email

Nearly everything requires a login and password, many of which require a uniquely nonsensical assembly of letters, digits, and characters. Most of this archive of personal cryptology is stored in a password manager on my smart phone. The password manager also requires a password. The only thing I fear more than losing my phone is getting hit on the head and forgetting that master password, which isn’t written down anywhere.

I don’t want to miss anything, so I start each day with a ritual. After I pour the morning’s first cup of coffee, I settle into an armchair with both iPhone and iPad and begin checking personal email. I review work email over breakfast, often so I can go into a meeting immediately after reaching the office.

I keep up with work email when I travel, because otherwise it quickly piles up into an unmanageable ticker tape. Like most professionals who travel, I’ve mastered the black of art of hotel wi-fi, responding to the mundane and miscellaneous across any number of time zones. For years, I’ve checked email and voicemail on vacation under the premise that it’s easier to keep up than to catch up.

That all changed last month when I learned that our vacation condo at the beach wasn’t equipped with wi-fi. My first reaction was one of colossal annoyance. How could you not have wi-fi on vacation?

I bristled when colleagues suggested that I might be forced to stay away from my email for two weeks. “That is not an option,” I’d hiss through clenched teeth. “What if I miss something important?”

I debated using 3G access to check in, considered lugging the laptop to a nearby coffeehouse. Then, just a few days before the vacation began, I made an impromptu decision. For the first time in a very long time, I crafted an out-of-office message on my work phone and email. In contemporary workplace parlance, this is known as “going off the grid.”

I stayed out of the office, physically and virtually, for the next nine days. I stared at the ocean, read non-digital books, took walks, ate ice cream, and worked on my skee-ball game. I didn’t log in until the night before I was scheduled to return to work. As I entered the password, I felt my chest tighten with the anticipation of unresolved problems and unanswered questions.

There were a lot of emails, to be sure. But after thirty minutes or so, I realized that I hadn’t missed anything. My colleagues had covered the urgent requests, and the few things that needed to wait for me had waited without complaint.

Connectivity and instant communication are great, but they come with a cost. By embracing the false sense of importance that is a contagion of the digital age, I haven’t improved my ability to communicate; instead, I’ve made it impossible to pay attention to what’s happening in real time.

The vacation is over, and so is some of the nonsense that preceded it. I’ve turned in the Blackberry, and I no longer take my iPhone to meetings. It’s enough, I think, to be fully present in one place at a time, paying attention. That way I don’t miss anything.