Life Unplugged

Icon showing a plug, wall outlet, and an arrow showing the plug being removed

By Sara Veltkamp, Minerva Goddess-on-sabbatical —


“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.” —Anne Lamott


According to the U.S. Travel Association, American workers left 705 million vacation days on the table in 2017. 705 million days that could have been used to relax, connect with family and friends, and practice effective self-care.


I left zero days unused in 2017, or 2018 for that matter. When I talk to people who don’t take vacation, a patronizing “I know what’s best for you” look springs unbidden to my face, and that “don’t start” irritated look follows quickly on theirs. It’s difficult for me to suppress smug pride in being “so European” in my approach to time off.


That was until I read this publication (pdf) by Project: Time Off. It kicks off with this gem: “Just one-in-four employees actually unplug on vacation,” and then goes on to describe all of the reasons for this and how it’s negatively affecting company culture, burn-out rates, and people’s enthusiasm for their work.


Eek. Hold the self-congratulatory pats on back. I’m only doing this half-right.


I cannot remember the last time I took more than two days off without checking my work email, and I find the obsessive nature with which I check my phone for notifications disturbing – I feel as if I’m being operated by phone instead of the other way around.


This is one reason I’m looking forward to next week. I’m headed out to central and southern Vietnam on a four-week sabbatical, earned after five years of working at Minerva. While I’m taking my iPhone and iPad with me, I’m not planning to pay for data – turning my phone into a camera and my iPad into a notebook.


Studies abound on the value of unplugging. People feel less envious and more satisfied with life when they’re not on Facebook, we sleep better with less screen time, and without screens, kids are more empathetic. In one of my favorite studies from a few years ago, a group of CEOs were taken to Morocco and observed by neuroscientists first in a fancy, wifi-enabled resort and then on a desert trip where devices were relinquished. The scientists observed that the CEOs’ postures improved in the desert, they had longer and more robust conversations, and had better recall of the details they learned in those conversations – in other words, they listened more deeply.


As a communicator, I’m always thinking about the best ways to reach people. I spend time exploring different platforms and media to see what others are using, what they’re saying, and how they’re saying it. This also means I spend 95% of my time consuming information. Articles, posts, ideas, webinars, conference talks, podcasts, YouTube videos, lectures – the list goes on.


While I also create a lot for clients, Minerva, and for myself, this creation is usually in the midst of the steady stream of incoming information. Even writing this piece on unplugging, I have six different tabs open for reference and have stopped several times to respond to emails.


I recently started taking cycling classes at Flywheel and something an instructor said resonated with me. In high-intensity interval training (HIIT) the rest period is as important if not more important than the workout. I am curious to find out what happens when the information flow from an always-on, plugged-in life stops, and I give my brain a substantial amount of time to rest.


I anticipate I’ll hate it at first. I’ll pick up my phone for a shot of dopamine in the form of an Instagram like. I’ll get unnecessarily anxious about how work is going back in Seattle. I’ll feel powerless, bored, probably get lost, and spend a lot of time feeling disconnected from friends and family.


On the other hand, I’ll also be forced to pay closer attention to the things around me. I’ll have to meet people and make friends the old-fashioned way, by striking up a conversation. I’ll photograph things to appreciate them, not to get virtual thumbs up on Instagram. And most importantly, I’ll give the creative floor to the things that have been percolating in my mind for the past few years, without digital distraction. After so much consumption, I’ll get the chance to process and see what comes out.


The final observation the scientists made of the CEOs in the Moroccan desert was that after this trip, the participants looked at life with a fresh perspective. According to Fast Company writer Elizabeth Segran, “the lack of constant distraction appeared to free people’s minds to contemplate more important issues in their lives, and it also made them believe they had the willpower to sustain a transformation.”


I have no illusions I’ll return with a fully crafted novel, a complete plan to get all conservative Republicans to vote for the Green New Deal, or a solution for Seattle’s pressing homelessness challenge. But after so much biting off and less opportunity to chew, I will come back clearer and focused. And probably more than a little fired-up.

About The Author

Sara Veltkamp

Sara Veltkamp

Vice President

Sara lives in New Orleans, Louisiana and is Minerva's vice president. She takes a lead role in all aspects of Minerva Strategies’ smart communication strategies and implementation. She loves a challenge and is obsessed with learning new things, from how to use new platforms and tools for storytelling to languages like Amharic, French, or Farsi to mastering a difficult yoga pose. She applies this energy and curiosity to all clients’ communication challenges. Learn more about Sara.