Leadership Advice: Unplug, turn down the noise, and relax in 4 steps

I was recently on vacation in San Francisco and, for the first time in years, I didn’t check my work email. In fact, I barely used technology at all. As a result, I was far more involved and appreciated the trip more than I would have if I was checking Facebook every ten seconds or answering emails. While technology is great in many ways, we have become rather dependent on it. It allows us to be constantly connected, distracting us from reality. It also allows us to listen to music or watch videos wherever we happen to be. As Sherry Turkle from MIT says in her TED Talk, technology and social media are actually causing us to disconnect from each other. I would actually take that even further and say the constant influx of media that we consume is not only isolating us, but preventing us from being creative and fully being in the moment. Regina Dugan, former Director of DARPA, says it nicely:

“Our lives are so full of activity and “chatter” it’s difficult to find quiet time…Those are the moments that are most creative for me. The location is less important than the choice to turn other things off.”

Research has connected our technological obsession to increased rates of stress, attention problems, depression, cognitive function, and anxiety, not to mention the negative impacts it can have on our relationships. It also impacts our comfort level with solitude and silence as we feel we are missing out or that something is wrong. This is not surprising as we live in and are conditioned by an extroverted world where, to quote best-selling  Susan Cain, “teachers praise students who raise their hands, bosses reward those who speak at meetings, and the edge at networking events goes to glad-handers”.

The week away from the constant checking of technology reminded me about the importance of quiet. It’s in these moment that, as said about by Dugan, we are our most innovative and creative. We are free from interruptions and distractions, allowing us to focus on the task at hand. It gives us an opportunity for self-reflection, which as leaders we should always be doing.  After we overcome the feeling of discomfort and perceived frivolity, the quiet becomes peaceful and we can relax and recharge physically and mentally, which decreases stress and promotes stronger relationships. To quote Cain again, “Solitude is a catalyst for expert performance”.

So how do we disconnect and find quiet time? How can we regain our enjoyment of silence and solitude to capitalize on the health and creative benefits that come with it?


Step 1: Plan the time

It might sound ridiculous, but book off part of your day to unplug. We are all busy with things to do but putting it in our calendar makes it real and gives it intention. In fact, plan out your quiet time for the entire month. As with all things, it requires commitment and not planning it out makes it easy to revert back to your old ways. Planning also helps those around you adjust to your needs.

Step 2: Tell others about what you are doing

This has two effects. The first is they won’t bother you while you are taking the time to recharge. This is vital as the whole idea behind this is it’s a time for you. It also empowers them to do the same, which means they will also be recharging, thinking of new ideas, and coming back more focused. You may even want to make it a company policy that everyone has to take 15 minutes of their day to unplug. At Witz Education, we often take a walk around the building together. Sure it’s not quiet, but we don’t take our phones and we chat about whatever comes to mind. Afterwards we always notice a surge in productivity and I’m sure you will as well.

Step 3: Start with small steps

It’s not realistic to think you can turn off all your technology in the middle of the day for an hour (although wouldn’t that be nice!). Take 15 minutes to work on only one task with no distractions. If you have low will power, there are apps out there that help and Mashable gives their top 6. Look for the gaps in your day. Driving to and from work is a great time as it’s illegal and dangerous to text and drive. Leave the radio off and use that time to prepare for or review your day. Watching TV? Leave your phone upstairs and enjoy the show. If you’re like me, who checks their email every 10 minutes, give yourself permission to check it every 30 minutes instead. When you’re cutting back on technology, make sure you have another task to fill the void. Clean the house, see friends, do pushups…doesn’t really matter what it is! This will help you stay distracted from the fact you aren’t getting the latest Tweet from your favourite celebrity.

Step 4: Set your goals and rules

Determine when will be “anti-tech” time and when will be “quiet” time. These can overlap, but define your goals, such as checking emails less frequently, and stick to them. The more specific you can be the better as it makes it less likely that you’ll cheat…not that you would right? This is also why it’s important to start small. It makes it easy to stick to your plan and you’ll feel the benefits more than trying to commit to a huge change that causes more stress than good. I would recommend picking one activity a day that promotes quiet, whether that’s going for an early-morning or late-night run without music or a shower before bed. As mentioned before, we already do tasks every day that force us to leave our technology behind so I feel it’s less crucial to commit to a specific activity.

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