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Unplug and stop everything

December 30, 2011
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I recently got back to work full-time after an illness forced me to take what was in effect a full month off work and then a part-time step back into things – the longest I’ve ever taken, and a shocking indulgence! Being unplugged for such a long period of time did make me reflect on the stuff that normally fills my time, and habits I’ve got that I know are unproductive and range between indulgence and addiction – without any real pleasure or gain.

The space – being isolated and detached did me no good, I was like a grumpy grizzly bear with a sore head – did help me hone in on what’s actually important to my personal development and career, and which work activities merely provide the illusion of progress. Inspired by HBR blogger Peter Bregman’s idea of creating a to ignore list,here are the activities I’m going to stop cold turkey in 2012 – perhaps you should do a list too!

Responding like a trained monkey. Every productivity expert in the world will tell you to check email at periodic intervals – say, every 90 minutes – rather than clicking refresh like a hyper Pavlovian mutt. Of course, almost no one listens, because studies have shown that email’s variable interval reinforcement schedule is basically a slot machine for your brain. But spending a month away, and only checking email weekly, showed me how little really requires immediate response. In fact, nothing. I wasn’t that important after all. A 90-minute wait won’t kill anyone, and will allow you to accomplish something substantive during your workday.

Reading annoying things. I have nearly two dozen online newspaper, magazine and blog subscriptions, the result of alluring specials offers and the compulsion not to miss out on apparently alluring, crucial information. But after detoxing for a month, I was able to reflect on which publications actually refreshed me and I was much more clinical.  Which provide insights, broaden my perspective and are a genuine pleasure to read? The pretentious tech publications with crazy layouts and headline grabbing headlines (what else?!) went first, then the indulgent marketing blogs that didn’t really say anything, and then a clutch of ‘global entrepreneurial lessons’ that didn’t really inform or inspire. I’m weeding out and paring down to literary essentials.

Work that’s not worth It. Early in my career, I was thrilled to be involved in winning long-term big contracts, they made me feel important. That is, until the reality set in that it was a contract filled with ridiculous reporting mechanisms, low reimbursement rates, penalty clauses and administrative complexities that sucked the joy and profit out of the work. These days, I’m eschewing any contract, public or private, that looks like more trouble than it’s worth, and my focus is simple: Can I make a difference to this person/their organisation? Can I foresee mutual respect, camaraderie and great chemistry from the engagement? Finally, will I learn something new from this project? The criteria isn’t cash. I want to work with people where I can make a difference and we get along well.

Making things more complicated than they should be. I’m really an expert at this, always wanting to create a pan-galactic prize winning elegant global solution when my start-up bike shop client based in Rawtenstall has a need for it to simply do-what-it-says-on-the-tin. I’m an optimist, so design solutions for the future, often missing the simplicity required today, but at the same time raising the bar for my clients with my thinking of where they should be aiming. I think too much! So fit for purpose, it does the job it was designed to do is now part of my more disciplined approach. Don’t get me wrong, Mike’s Bikes will one day be the leading global online supermarket for all your cycling needs, and be acquired by Amazon, so I did create value for him.

Unplug and stop everything. My wireless connection to the Internet had suddenly stopped working. At first I was frustrated — I had been in the middle of browsing some downloads on iTunes. But I quickly took it as a blessing. I had a client report to write and the iTunes browsing was a distraction. I resisted the temptation to distract myself further by trying to fix it and got to work. I finished the report in record time. That’s a lesson in itself. But it’s not the whole story.

Once I was done with the report I needed to send it to my client. What was previously a distraction — fixing my Internet connection — was now essential. So I put all my deep technological know-how to work: I yelled at it. No change. So I yelled at it some more. When that didn’t work, I closed all the applications and rebooted the Mac. It still didn’t work. So I opened the wireless router software and played with some of the settings. Still nothing. Finally, I turned the wireless router off and on several times but that didn’t do anything either. I just sat there silently angry, staring at my screen, ready to admit defeat. But then I remembered the solution that had worked for me before, when all else failed. I unplugged everything and waited one minute. While everything was unplugged, I had nothing to do, so I just sat there.

It’s strange, because one minute is so little, but when the time was up, I felt noticeably different. I wasn’t angry or frustrated or annoyed. I wasn’t on the verge — as I was before — of throwing all my electronics out of the window if this solution didn’t work. I felt oddly refreshed. My situation hadn’t changed, but my perspective had. It turns out that when I unplugged my equipment, I unplugged myself at the same time. And when that short, barely noticeable minute had passed, I felt different. Renewed. Ready to speak softly and gently to my wireless router instead of yelling at it. Maybe even joke around with it a bit to lighten up the tension. Which got me thinking: This unplug and stop everything for a minute strategy might be a pretty good solution for whenever things aren’t working in life

And that’s my motto for 2012, unplug and stop. Previously it was dig deeper and crack on.

Unplugging and waiting for a minute is an unexpected strategy because it appears passive. You aren’t actively developing new strategies, arguments or viewpoints. In fact, you aren’t actively doing anything.  When you unplug and wait for a minute, you restore yourself to your factory default settings, which for most of us tends to be generous, open-hearted, creative, connected, and hopeful. That makes us more likely to be effective when we plug back in.

In a meeting that’s going nowhere? Take a break. Making no headway on that proposal you need to write? Stand up and take a walk. Arguing with your kids? Give yourself a time-out. Unplug for a minute and breathe.

This is not a strategy that requires practice and skill building. All it requires is remembering to do it. Sometimes, life requires active, focused engagement, but sometimes, as I have learned, the smartest move is disengagement. That magic minute of not doing anything has the power to change just about everything. You’d be a clot not to try it.

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