The Value in Unplugging


Is there any value in unplugging? It’s hard to think about it. How can one unplug in this day and time?

I have a confession to make: I design software and databases by writing on a window with a dry-erase marker. I also do my podcast outlines and about a quarter of my blogging on paper. Some of the best fiction writing I have done has been in my notebook, scribbled while sitting in a coffee shop.

This may come as a surprise to those who know me well. I practically hyperventilate when deprived of my phone for more than a couple hours, and my laptop travels with me on vacations. I also usually have my tablet with me as well.

Even though I work in technology, and even though I do things “by hand” at times, I still find it hard to unplug. But I had a lesson a few weeks ago that has me thinking about it.

Working Too Much

Since the work-from-home request began back in March, I have been showing up at my desk every day. Sometimes I work evenings and weekends – it’s the nature of the job I do.

Normally, if I were in the office, I would be taking my regular vacations: one at spring break, one for my summer camp in July and then one sometime in the fall or winter. All of those were passed by: spring break was during the stay-at-home order, my summer camp was cancelled, and there is nowhere to go for fall or winter vacation.

So I just kept working.

Until I almost tore a coworker a new one in a code review. Granted, my comments were true and factual. But my frustration with this particular coworker has been building for months as I repeat myself over and over instructing her in the basics of software development (“no, testing means you ran the software and checked the results. Compiling isn’t testing.”) Knowing I was frustrated, I was running one of my comments past another coworker, who works for my consulting company. He observed I was getting a little fried and I should probably take some time off.

So I talked to my client and my team lead and arranged for a five day weekend.

Time Off – Unplugged

I decided that my time off would be at home (of course). But I also decided that I wasn’t going to force myself to do anything on my task list, and that my computer would stay off for the majority of the time.

I allowed myself my phone for playing one video game and making phone calls, and my tablet for reading the comics in the morning and checking email twice a day. I loaded my Kindle up with library books. And I gave myself free rein on television.

That’s about as unplugged as I can go while stuck in the house.


So what did I do?

I slept in. I read the next books in three mystery series I follow. I played games with my daughter. I re-discovered the utter silliness of the Red Green Show. I made significant progress on a blanket I am crocheting. I napped.

I went to the botanical gardens with my daughter on her 18th birthday, because she wanted to get out of the house and we figured that was the safest place in our beach resort town. I filled my fountain pen and wrote an actual paper letter to a friend.

I didn’t do anything on my projects, or try to be productive.

I just allowed myself to be guided by what seemed interesting, within the electronic limits I had set for myself.

My Usual July Retreat

Normally at this time of the year, we would be going to our denomination’s summer camp. About a thousand Unitarian-Universalists descend on Western Carolina University and spend the week in intentional community. We take workshops, we hike and boat, we play games, we listen to concerts and services, or we do nothing.

My family has attended these camps for the last 14 years. I would have spent this week catching up with old friends, playing cribbage with the one person who can beat me more often than not, drinking too much fair trade coffee and presenting workshops on crafting and writing.

I always come back from this week relaxed and recharged. And this year I realized why.

This week of camp is an unplugged retreat.

Yes, there is internet there. After all, it is a college campus.

But I don’t use the internet very often because I have to re-authenticate each time. I would check my email maybe once a day, and then carry my phone around so that the staff could contact me if something was wrong with my daughter (who as a teen would stay in a separate housing facility).

This retreat comes with a price: a 7 hour drive each way, sleeping on rock-hard dorm mattresses, and eating every meal in a cafeteria.

My 2020 Retreat

I realized that I managed to do the same thing this summer, but from home. I was able to step away from the regular, leave the task lists and email behind, and focus on connecting and learning.

I came out of my five days feeling better than I have since July 2019.

The Value In Unplugging

Coming out on the far side, I realize that this was as much a lesson in the value of unplugging as it was a much-needed rest.

By stepping away from those devices where I give so much of my attention I was able to give attention to activities that I rarely allow myself to do.

By unplugging, I see that not only is my creativity increased, but I have a more calm and measured approach when I am connected.

It’s so valuable that I am thinking about re-implementing my technology-free Sundays. Not completely tech free, but with the same limits I put on myself during my time off.

Over To You

Have you done an unplugged retreat recently? Could you do one? Could you unplug for an evening? A day? I challenge you to do so.