The Benefits of Unplugging. And Choosing to be Present.

Lessons learned from two weeks without my phone.

Photo by Kalen Emsley on Unsplash

“We get such a kick out of looking forward to pleasures and rushing ahead to meet them that we can’t slow down enough to enjoy them when they come,” Alan Watts wrote in his eye-opening 1970 anthology Does It Matter? He would go on to label us as “a civilization which suffers from chronic disappointment — a formidable swarm of spoiled children smashing their toys.”

This thinking recently led me to unplug for the past two weeks. No work emails, texts, or calls. I stopped writing articles, researching ideas, and filling Evernote with random thoughts. In short, I put away my phone and resolved to avoid all distractions for the duration of my family’s vacation.

I wish I could say this was part of a grand plan. That I had the foresight to recognize this benefit in advance. Yet — as is often the case in my life — my actions came about not through my own planning but through the wishes of my son and daughter. And their incredible ability to manipulate my behavior.

Divided Attention Means No Attention

“Dad…Dad…are you there Dad?”

“Did you see that Dad? Dad? Hello Dad?

“Dad, you’re not watching…You’re not listening…Are you too busy for us Dad?”

It was the first day of our vacation. And it seemed as though I’d spent more time on my phone than with my family.

My wife was not pleased. My kids even less so. And I was left torn between wanting my family to be happy and wanting to keep things running smoothly at the office.

Which, in retrospect, isn’t much of a decision at all. Especially when you’re sequestered with three family members that are all very willing to let you know their thoughts on the topic.

So I called into work. Told them that I’d be unavailable for the next two weeks. I said I trusted their judgments and their abilities. And if anything came up, they should handle it as they saw fit.

And then I put my phone away, resolving to use it only for reading books (and some select Medium articles). One seemingly small decision that returned a whole host of unexpected benefits.

Avoid a Lifetime of Regret

“To know what you like is the beginning of wisdom and of old age.” — Robert Louis Stevenson

After working for many years in palliative care, Hospice nurse Bronnie Ware documented some of the main regrets of her dying patients. One common to every male patient was “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.” In Ware’s words,

“They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship…All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”

With the benefit of hindsight, it becomes much easier to recognize whether our actions aligned with our priorities. And whether we spent our time doing things we truly value.

In another example of age-induced wisdom, Laura Carstensen investigated the relative happiness of different age groups. She found that on average, happiness tends to increase with age. As she tells us in her TED talk,

“When we recognize that we don’t have all the time in the world, we see our priorities most clearly; we take less notice of trivial matters; we savor our life; we’re more appreciative; we’re open to reconciliation; we invest in more emotionally important parts of life, and life gets better.”

With both Ware and Carstensen’s findings, more life experience helps us recognize and focus on the things that truly matter. Helping us to make the most of the positive experiences, while limiting the negative ones. Taking the time to limit my distractions and focus on the present pushed me into this mentality. It helped me to recognize the value of each moment and appreciate it, as opposed to constantly looking towards some future point.

Are you spending your time in a way that you won’t regret it later? It seems obvious as I write it. Yet if that’s true — why do we all insist on learning these lessons for ourselves?

Demonstrate Leadership Value

“One of the symptoms of approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.” — Bertrand Russell

One of the biggest barriers to disconnecting from work is in how we value our contribution. If we’re gone for a week and the team’s performance declines, we consider it a sign of our own importance. Not as a failure to effectively train backups.

We’re quick to praise someone for their necessity. We encourage people to develop specialized knowledge and become “indispensable” to the organization.

But this also encourages people to hoard their knowledge and inhibits collaboration. It rewards the individual at the expense of the organization. And reinforces the need for everyone to be constantly available.

Yes, we should reward specialization. But we should also recognize the efforts to share and spread that knowledge. Instead of individual heroics, we should recognize those that develop others and elevate the collective capacity of the organization. Because while the contributions of a top performer will always be important, it’s the employee that develops others who is truly indispensable.

As leaders, our success should be measured in how well others can succeed in our absence. In how well we’ve prepared others for their own success. Disconnecting helped show both sides of this equation. And highlighted further areas where I need to strengthen my team.

Have you trained your team well enough that they can succeed without you? Or do you need to stay involved because you haven’t effectively prepared them?

Become (Even More) Brilliant

“Once you start daydreaming and allow your mind to really wander, you start thinking a little bit beyond the conscious, a little bit into the subconscious, which allows sort of different connections to take place.” — Dr. Sandi Mann, Boredom Researcher

Blaise Pascal blamed all of humanity’s problems on our “inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” And podcaster Manoush Zomorodi showed that this same practice is linked to our most creative ideas.

She launched an initiative called Bored and Brilliant, encouraging us all to put down our phones and let our minds wander, free from constant distractions.

For everyone else who finds themselves pulling out their phone when they have a free fifteen seconds, this was eye-opening. It seemed as if every free moment, I’d reach into my pocket looking for a convenient distraction. And sacrifice any opportunity for deep reflection. In the words of Dr. Daniel Levitin,

“Every time you shift your attention from one thing to another, the brain has to engage a neurochemical switch that uses up nutrients in the brain to accomplish that. So if you’re attempting to multitask, you know, doing four or five things at once,you’re not actually doing four or five things at once, because the brain doesn’t work that way. Instead, you’re rapidly shifting from one thing to the next, depleting neural resources as you go.”

By keeping my phone out of reach, it was like lifting a burden from my ability to think. No longer held captive by a screen, I was better able to be fully present both within my own mind and with the surrounding world. A key to developing new ideas and opening up to new experiences. As Manoush told Guy Raz on the TED Radio Hour,

“We’ve lost the capacity in many ways, I think, for patience. If we want to have excellent ideas, the best ideas, we need to let them take the time to take root and then blossom, and that does not happen in a tap of an app.”

Whether you’re on a vacation or just have a few minutes to spare, try keeping your phone where it is and just being present within your own mind. Like Galileo inventing modern timekeeping after watching a pendulum swing in a cathedral, letting your mind wander beyond the conscious can open up all sorts of new ideas.

Recognize Your Priorities

“When I am feeling unfocused, the first question I ask myself is, ‘Am I rehearsing my best self?’ And if the answer is no, I ask myself how I can reset.” — Adam Robinson, Tribe of Mentors

Whether it’s a two week vacation, an afternoon at the park, or just a nightly dinner with those close to us, we deserve to be fully present in these moments.

It’s easy to make this decision once, but if we expect to sustain it over the long-term, we need to actively define our priorities.

Who — Who takes priority in your life? Your family, your friends, your coworkers? How are you giving each one the time that they deserve in your life?

When — What time boundaries do you want to set up to prevent one priority from creeping across the others?

What — Do you prioritize those areas where you’ll make a unique contribution? Or perform at the best version of yourself?

Taking the time to prioritize how we spend our attention gives a criteria for future decisions. Each potential distraction simplifies to the question — is this aligned with my priorities? After that, decisions on how we spend our time become much more clear.

Choose Presence over Productivity

“You are 99 years old, you are on your deathbed, and you have a chance to come back to right now: what would you do?” — Jerome Jarre, Tribe of Mentors

In a world that equates busy with important and considers leisure to be the realm of the self-indulgent slacker, it’s not surprising that people feel pushed into a never-ending workday. Or rationalize staying connected throughout a vacation and allowing our work to linger through all hours of the night.

Our ego’s there to tell us that we can balance everything. It’s ready to say that we can get all of the benefits with none of the trade-offs.

We all have different priorities. Just as we all have different aspirations and goals in life. So while there’s no one answer as to how you choose to spend your time, it’s important that you do choose it.

Recognize what’s important to you. Make the choice. Live your life. And be present in whatever you do.

After all, in the advice of Bertrand Russel, “What will be the good of the conquest of leisure and health, if no one remembers how to use them?”

Thanks, as always, for reading. If you enjoyed this or have any suggestions, please let me know your thoughts. I’d love to hear from you. And if you found this helpful, I’d appreciate if you could clap it up👏 and help me share with more people. Cheers!