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Some of us have a problem of being so immersed in our work that it's hard to get away. Blackberrys, iPhones and portable computers allow us to be reached via phone, e-mail and instant messaging wherever we are, at any time, night or day. For some, myself included, staying connected has become an addiction.
When at home, I spend several hours online each day reading and writing e-mails and surfing a few dozen Web sites and blogs that cover news, gadgets, technology and the tech industry. But it's not as if I'm using that time wisely. I find myself checking for e-mail every few minutes, somehow worrying that I'll miss something important. Or I'll surf to a site and come back 30 minutes later looking for something new, which rarely occurs.
This addiction to stay connected stretches to the times when doing it is impolite: in the middle of a meeting or while out for dinner with friends or family. You fear that if you don't answer the phone or respond to an e-mail right away, you'll either forget or that others will think less of you.
So a couple of weeks ago my wife Jane and I took a vacation to the Napa Valley for a few days. Before leaving she challenged me to stay disconnected for 48 hours: no phone calls, no e-mail and not doing any business on my computer. This seemed like a realistic challenge, and Napa was an ideal location to do it, since it's one of my favorite places in the world: a beautiful, peaceful and serene countryside, with the excitement of discovering and trying new wineries and restaurants, and photographing some of its magnificent scenery.
While I could have (and as it turned out, should have) left my laptop and iPhone home, I took them along, planning to use them just for nonbusiness activities such as finding directions to a restaurant or researching a winery to visit.
We stayed at Meadowood, a spectacular resort just off the Silverado Trail in St. Helena that combines elegant and luxurious accommodations with a feeling of rusticity. Meadowood, a Relais and Chateaux hotel, has several dozen cabins, some with large single rooms and some suites, situated in the woods at the base of Howell Mountain. My plan was to escape from technology, read a book, relax on their grounds and explore the area.
But freeing oneself from an addiction, albeit this one less serious than most, requires a lot of self-discipline. Would I be missing an important e-mail, would skipping a client's weekly conference call put me at a disadvantage? Could others get along without my advice? I saw how my mind played games, playing to my ego and insecurities, as I tried to withdraw.
The day we arrived I received a late-night call from an important supplier. I should not have answered the phone, but you know how hard that can be. There was no caller ID, and as I decided whether to answer it, my mind wondered whether the call could have been an emergency. I'd better answer. That was my first mistake.
The call led to the need to contact others to address an issue. What was going to be a short, five-minute phone call turned out to be a couple of hours of more calls and e-mails.
So my first day was less than successful, and as I went to sleep my mind was still occupied by that first call. But this also gave me a chance to think about why I should not have answered. After all, in past years most of us were able to take vacations without interruptions. The world didn't end, others were available to fill in and nothing terrible happened.
But now it's expected that you respond day or night, wherever in the world you are. If you don't take that call from your boss late at night or on a weekend, might she start to rely on a coworker rather than on you? And if you don't answer her e-mail, will you be viewed as a less valued employee?
Remember how technology was going to transform our lives and make us more productive so we could enjoy more leisure time? It turned out to do just the opposite.
On the morning of the second day I decided to be more realistic about the challenge. I wouldn't try to go cold turkey and disconnect entirely, but I would follow a set of common-sense rules that would reduce my connectivity to a trickle without it affecting my ability to relax. Here's what I did:
â€¢ First I sent a message to all of my clients saying that I was on vacation. I allowed myself to check the iPhone for a few minutes in the morning and then again in the evening to look at the list of e-mails. I didn't open more than a couple that seemed to be urgent. But I didn't respond.
â€¢ I used the computer once or twice a day for just a few minutes, but only for vacation-related purposes, such as to make a restaurant reservation, or to check out some reviews and get directions to some of the wineries. But I didn't open the e-mail program.
â€¢ I avoided all visits to news sites; most have become more gossip than news anyway, and their negativity often just upsets me.
â€¢ I ignored all phone calls and allowed them to go to voicemail.
As a result, I spent more time outside away from the gadgetry and more time actually talking to Jane while we walked around Meadowood and downtown St. Helena.
We also visited two magnificent wineries, Quintessa and Pride Mountain, each producers of hard-to-find old world Cabernets. We toured the vineyards, learned about their histories and, most of all, enjoyed tasting their wines. There's nothing like a great glass of wine to take your mind off of business.
Freed of business intrusions, the last two days of my vacation turned out to be thoroughly relaxing and, surprisingly, free of anxiety about not being connected. While I didn't remain completely disconnected, I was able to reduce the amount to a tolerable level so that I could truly relax in one of the most idyllic locations in the world.
When I got home and turned on my computer to review the several hundred e-mails that piled up, I found that no one died, my business didn't dry up and the world was as I left it. I was able to dispose of the e-mails in about an hour. Now my next challenge is to adopt some of these changes at home to reduce my online dependency even further.
Phil Baker is the author of From Concept to Consumer published by Financial Times Press. He has developed and marketed consumer and computer products for Polaroid, Apple, Seiko and others, holds 30 patents and is an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year. Phil's blog is blog.philipgbaker.com and his Web site is philipgbaker.com. This column first appeared in the San Diego Transcript and is reprinted with its permission.