The Smartphone / Vacation Paradox

Today feels like the real start of the work year, back in the saddle after August. I spent two weeks on the west coast with my family - one week working in LA, and another week off in Las Vegas. 

Technology - specifically smartphones and wifi - has permanently altered vacations. Our habitual checking is hard to switch off when we go away for relatively short periods of time. It’s tempting to ‘unplug’ or take an extended ‘digital sabbath’ - however practically speaking smartphones are so ingrained in how we communicate with each other, this can end up a serious inconvenience. Try meeting up with extended family different hotels without text messaging - it can actually be inconsiderate to be unplugged! 

It’s tempting to vilify the iPhone and what its done to the modern family, nostalgically looking back at smartphone-less vacations. However, the same device provides unprecedented flexibility for where work can happen, which in turn can giving back us much more time with family & friends. Remote work has been normalized. Even if we don’t want it, our colleagues or stakeholders expect us to be available at short notice. 

So what’s the answer? On one extreme there’s the ‘airplane mode’ holiday - I see many people do these, although they don’t work for our family. And expecting to create real value as a growth company unplugging for multiple weeks a year isn’t realistic. 

On the other extreme, reflexive email creep can lead to your body on vacation while your brain is still at work. I’ve experienced starting a vacation week barely checking email, but by the end losing all discipline and falling back into normal checking patterns. 

I think we’re experiencing a paradigm in what it means to really be on vacation. Being conscious about this can lead to the biggest work-related lifestyle improvement in the past 100 years - the ability to work effectively, remotely, for far more time than the typical US worker currently takes off as vacation time. 

However we need common sense rules of thumb - its hard to imagine value created in a company where employees are at remote locations simply responding to each other for several weeks or months a year. And we need to shift our mind patterns - just because we can see the ocean or are deep in the mountains doesn’t mean the work stops. 

Remote work is here to stay. But work means proactive work - kicking off new initiatives, selling, driving results. I can imagine personally being effective for 2 months or more in this pattern. 

True vacation is something else. It’s reactive work. Whether this means its possible to unplug fully depends on many factors. Personally, I like to ensure value is building in my absence, which means responding to the occasional email or even ensuring a project stays in track. 

In true vacation mode the key lies in conscious choices. If I need to check email, I do so consciously rather than reflexively. I am making a choice. I also take a few breaths before checking, to ensure that I’m centered. I also try to not engage in debates that can turn emotional and therefore spill into my subconscious throughout the time away - I stick to the basics. 

I think solving the remote work / vacation / office time equation can allow us to live better lives, with more time experiencing and bonding with loved ones and friends. But if we’re not careful, we can sleepwalk into never really being on vacation, or potentially worse, work for companies where no real work is getting done.