Our Hi-Tech Lives: The challenge: Disconnected for 48 hours

Some of us have a problem of being so immersed inour work that it's hard to get away. Blackberrys, iPhones and portablecomputers allow us to be reached via phone, e-mail and instantmessaging wherever we are, at any time, night or day. For some, myselfincluded, staying connected has become an addiction.

Whenat home, I spend several hours online each day reading and writinge-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 usingthat 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 asite and come back 30 minutes later looking for something new, whichrarely occurs.

This addiction to stay connected stretches to the times whendoing it is impolite: in the middle of a meeting or while out fordinner with friends or family. You fear that if you don't answer thephone or respond to an e-mail right away, you'll either forget or thatothers will think less of you.

So a couple of weeks ago my wife Jane and I took a vacation tothe Napa Valley for a few days. Before leaving she challenged me tostay disconnected for 48 hours: no phone calls, no e-mail and not doingany 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 favoriteplaces in the world: a beautiful, peaceful and serene countryside, withthe 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, shouldhave) left my laptop and iPhone home, I took them along, planning touse them just for nonbusiness activities such as finding directions toa restaurant or researching a winery to visit.

We stayed at Meadowood, a spectacular resort just off theSilverado Trail in St. Helena that combines elegant and luxuriousaccommodations with a feeling of rusticity. Meadowood, a Relais andChateaux hotel, has several dozen cabins, some with large single roomsand some suites, situated in the woods at the base of Howell Mountain.My plan was to escape from technology, read a book, relax on theirgrounds and explore the area.

But freeing oneself from an addiction, albeitthis one less serious than most, requires a lot of self-discipline.Would I be missing an important e-mail, would skipping a client'sweekly conference call put me at a disadvantage? Could others get alongwithout my advice? I saw how my mind played games, playing to my egoand insecurities, as I tried to withdraw.

The day we arrived I received a late-night call from animportant supplier. I should not have answered the phone, but you knowhow hard that can be. There was no caller ID, and as I decided whetherto answer it, my mind wondered whether the call could have been anemergency. 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 acouple of hours of more calls and e-mails.

So my first day was less than successful, and as I went tosleep my mind was still occupied by that first call. But this also gaveme a chance to think about why I should not have answered. After all,in past years most of us were able to take vacations withoutinterruptions. The world didn't end, others were available to fill inand nothing terrible happened.

But now it's expected that you respond day or night, whereverin the world you are. If you don't take that call from your boss lateat night or on a weekend, might she start to rely on a coworker ratherthan on you? And if you don't answer her e-mail, will you be viewed asa less valued employee?

Remember how technology was going to transform our lives andmake us more productive so we could enjoy more leisure time? It turnedout to do just the opposite.

On the morning of the second day I decided to be more realisticabout the challenge. I wouldn't try to go cold turkey and disconnectentirely, but I would follow a set of common-sense rules that wouldreduce my connectivity to a trickle without it affecting my ability torelax. Here's what I did:

• First I sent a message to all of my clients saying that I wason vacation. I allowed myself to check the iPhone for a few minutes inthe morning and then again in the evening to look at the list ofe-mails. I didn't open more than a couple that seemed to be urgent. ButI didn't respond.

• I used the computer once or twice a day for just a fewminutes, but only for vacation-related purposes, such as to make arestaurant reservation, or to check out some reviews and get directionsto some of the wineries. But I didn't open the e-mail program.

• I avoided all visits to news sites; most have become more gossip than news anyway, and their negativity often just upsets me.

• I ignored all phone calls and allowed them to go to voicemail.

As a result, I spent more time outside away from the gadgetryand more time actually talking to Jane while we walked around Meadowoodand downtown St. Helena.

We also visited two magnificent wineries, Quintessa and PrideMountain, each producers of hard-to-find old world Cabernets. We touredthe vineyards, learned about their histories and, most of all, enjoyedtasting their wines. There's nothing like a great glass of wine to takeyour mind off of business.

Freed of business intrusions, the last two days of my vacationturned out to be thoroughly relaxing and, surprisingly, free of anxietyabout not being connected. While I didn't remain completelydisconnected, I was able to reduce the amount to a tolerable level sothat I could truly relax in one of the most idyllic locations in theworld.

When I got home and turned on my computer to review the severalhundred e-mails that piled up, I found that no one died, my businessdidn't dry up and the world was as I left it. I was able to dispose ofthe e-mails in about an hour. Now my next challenge is to adopt some ofthese changes at home to reduce my online dependency even further.

Phil Baker is the author of From Concept to Consumer publishedby Financial Times Press. He has developed and marketed consumer andcomputer products for Polaroid, Apple, Seiko and others, holds 30patents and is an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year. Phil'sblog 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.