Digital Detox—The Key to Unplugging from Work on Vacation

Your Summer 2020 getaway plans may be canceled, but that doesn't mean you don't need a break. A true digital detox benefits your energy, creativity, and productivity. Here's how to unplug strategically so you're not overwhelmed when you get back to work.

Rachel Cooke
6-minute read
Episode #603
The Quick And Dirty

A vacation and digital detox from work might feel stressful right now. But your mind and body need the break. Here are some steps you can take to do it stress-free:

  • Commit to your digital detox and inform your work team of your commitment.
  • Prep your tribe by sorting out what needs to be done before you leave and anticipating what might come up while you're away.
  • Tap your deputy, a person you can trust to contact you in a legitimate emergency.
  • Create a digital detox strategy by knowing your hotspots, like checking email or social media too often, and having a plan to avoid them.
  • Prepare to re-enter with grace, and remember that no one expects you to get caught up on day one of your return.

What do you think of when you hear the word "vacation?" Many of us imagine things like sitting on the beach sipping cocktails with tiny umbrellas in them, exploring new cities, or dining in hot new restaurants. But in the summer of 2020, those pleasures probably seem out of reach. Might as well cancel those vacation days, right?

You may not be able to venture far from home right now, but it's important to give yourself time to unwind.

I may be your Modern Mentor, but I can't tell you what to do. Even so, I can urge you to keep those vacation days locked in. You may not be able to venture far from home right now, but it's important to give yourself time to unwind, even if that looks less like "umbrella drinks by the beach" and more like lazing around your backyard with a blow-up pool and a great book.

Why you should take a staycation

Burnout is at an extreme high. According to global coach Sabina Nawaz, “While the number of hours worked is soaring, people’s capacity to focus and produce quality work is diving.”

A digital detox—a true disconnect—is about more than being able to fully indulge in an exotic destination (a thing you might recall having done in other years). It’s about giving your mind and body some time to recover from stress, demands on your attention, and the constant state of alertness to the needs of customers, colleagues, and your boss.

So how, in this moment of high anxiety, do you effectively unplug during a vacation so your mind and body get the benefit?

How to plan your vacation digital detox

Commit to and communicate your digital detox plans

Successfully unplugging begins with your commitment to it. If you don’t truly believe in the power of the break, then all the suggestions to follow will fall flat.

In a 2017 study in the journal Applied Research in Quality of Life, researchers found that technology use had a hand in determining a person's work-life balance. Being constantly connected digitally had an impact on job stress, the feeling of being overworked, and overall job satisfaction. So, unplugging, even just to do nothing, is the greatest gift you can give yourself. And it truly will pay off at work when you return refreshed.

Consider all you’ve been carrying—the stress, the juggling, the multitasking—and imagine how much value a true break of even a few days could offer.

But—for all kinds of reasons both practical and personal—it can be hard to fully step away from work. I recommend beginning ahead of your vacation by making a real commitment. Consider all you’ve been carrying—the stress, the juggling, the multitasking—and imagine how much value a true break of even a few days could offer. Picture your future self rested and recharged. Anticipate the newfound creativity, productivity, and engagement your rested mind might bring.

Then communicate your commitment to unplugging to your team, clients, or anyone who might look for you while you're away. State your boundaries and manage expectations. Let people know ahead of time you’ll be ducking out. Invite them to flag anything essential, and ask that they hold the rest for your return.

You’d be surprised at the respect people will show your boundaries. Maybe now more than ever.

Prep your tribe

Mindset matters. A lot. But so does your confidence that anything urgent will be handled in your absence.

A few days before your vacation, invest some time in looking at your calendar and emails.

Your work doesn’t take a vacation when you do. A few days before your vacation, invest some time in looking at your calendar and emails. Anticipate what is either certain or likely to pop up or need attention in your absence. If there is anything you can proactively put off until your return, go for it. And for anything that must be done in your absence, tap the best person on your team to field that for you.

Knowing the right people are ready to solve the right problems in your absence will offer your mind the freedom to let go.

Tap your deputy

Okay, you’ve made a commitment. You’ve communicated it to all the right people. You’ve tapped your tribe to cover the gaps. But still … Murphy’s Law is a thing. Anything that can go wrong will. And surely it will while you’re on vacation, right?

Realistically, it won’t. But you’re anxious, and that’s understandable. What you need is a deputy. A proxy. Someone whose judgment you trust to know what truly constitutes an emergency and what can wait, without real consequence, until your return.

Sit down with this deputy and state a clear case. Something like this:

I’m committed to unplugging on this vacation, and I’m trusting my tribe to deal with whatever arises. But I also know I have a tendency to imagine the worst, and I’ll struggle to unplug completely if I don’t trust that you’ll reach out to me if a true emergency happens—something that will only be more painful to deal with if I wait until my return. Can I trust you to get in touch?

So, give your deputy this speech, and together you can set some parameters around what a true emergency is and isn't. Make sure they know the best way to reach you should something come up.

Further, ask your deputy to check in with your tribe before your return so they can provide you with a one-stop summary of anything critical that’s happened in your absence.

Be sure your tribe knows who your deputy is so nothing gets lost in the shuffle. And if it makes you feel better, you can even ask your deputy to send you a single email at the end of each day with a thumbs up or any signal to say “All’s well here!”

Create a digital detox strategy

You’ve committed to yourself and you’ve enlisted your people. Now it’s time to honor your promise and actually trust your people.

Unplugging may look different for each of us. You need to identify what your working norms are and create a specific discipline to change them only for the duration of your vay- or staycation.

What do you need to shut down or look away from or leave buried in a closet for a week?

For myself, I don’t worry about phone calls. I almost never receive phone calls that haven’t been scheduled. My hot spots are email and social media. Those I check regularly. (If I’m honest, too regularly.) But I know my inbox and social media feeds are what I need to shut down during a vacation. No alerts, no checking.

Sounds simple. And it is. But it’s not easy. I have to be disciplined about steering clear of my phone, but it pays off in the end.

What do you need to shut down or look away from or leave buried in a closet for a week?

Prepare to re-enter with grace

A big part of the struggle to unplug is the anticipation of the chaos that lurks in our office, ready to welcome us back. So find some ways to give yourself a bit of grace upon your return. Having a planned approach to re-entry will give your brain further confidence in disconnecting.

Here are some strategies you might consider, depending on what would be acceptable for your organization.

  • Before you head out, schedule a meeting with your deputy for the day of your return, ideally early in the day. This way you can get a download of anything you need to prioritize, knowing the rest can wait.
  • Schedule catch-up time with yourself on your calendar before you go. When you return to work, aim to have three to five hours already blocked off in that first week, allowing you to review, plan, and prepare to re-engage. Protect those blocks from meetings to ensure you don’t start to feel immediately overwhelmed.
  • Put an extra day on your out-of-office reply. Returning on Monday? Put Tuesday in your auto-responder so no one expects anything of you on your first day back. You can still read inbound emails and choose to respond if something urgent hits. But otherwise, plan to use Monday as catch-up.
  • Remember that no one expects you to catch up completely on day one. That should include you. Be ready to wrap your first day back with an incomplete to-do list.

And there you have it. If you haven't planned to take time off this summer, please reconsider. Even a day or two that’s all your own to clean out a closet, binge-watch Netflix, or just sleep in can provide a healthy dose of recovery.

You and your team deserve it.

About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.