Comms professional takes an 8 day screen amnesty

Sophia Cheng / 7 min read / Digital Nomad Days
7 October 2016
Result: the world did not end & she felt much better for it!

Switching off – it sounds simple enough – but then we humans do like to complicate things don’t we.

I know I find switching off hard. I’ve been brought up on backlit screens; since I was 13 I’ve been multi-device-tional (Nokia 3210 for anyone who’s asking). Since then my subsequent choice of career; communications, consistently rewards me for being ‘switched-on’. A quick response to that email, a re-tweet here, a mention there. Keeping more balls in the air for longer means I am better at my job. O and I love it. That kick you get when you meet a deadline. Spotting your project content on a viral website on a Saturday night and being the first to inform everyone. Being the first to share a story. And let’s not forget, multi-tasking. Being able to draft a proposal, put together a budget, schedule tweets and at any moment reply to an email instantaneously and boom, I am fantastic! It’s not an epic high but it’s addictive enough.

And so I’ve conditioned myself, just like Pavlov’s dogs. I throw myself into a project and wait and lurk for more moments when I can get that kick.

But it does have some side-effects. Maybe you can relate to some of these? You never really stop working. Concentrating on just one task becomes difficult. In fact the idea of doing just one task seems less appealing and less rewarding. You find it difficult to carve out time for yourself. You lose your creativity. You become more task orientated. You become skittish, floating from one thing to another, not realising how you ended up down a particular rabbit hole. And a growing resentment, grumpiness that can be difficult to shake.

An added element I’ve noticed, is since I’ve taken my job on the road, as a digital nomad, I’m even more conditioned than before. Like the underlying guilt I have for the lifestyle I am living is being played out by never stopping work (and I don’t mean it’s productive work) – in order to ‘warrant’ my fortunate position.

And so, that quick email response, that tweet, now is a reflection on me, not of just my professional self but the whole me. I am better when I am online. I am less good when I am not.

It takes its toll. Physically in terms of bad posture, sore eyes, neck pain, RSI, bad sleep patterns, psychologically there is a growing and overwhelming sense of anxiety attached to not doing enough and therefore not being enough.

I can rationalise it, my prefrontal cortex is wonderful at that. But it does not calm my internal chatter at the end of the day, I fall asleep thinking of all the things I did not achieve and I wake up thinking of all the things I am yet to do. I start the day already behind. It stops me from enjoying the here and now; from being mindful.

And so, eventually, I made a stand. And booked in 8 days offline and off screen. It doesn’t sound like a lot but it’s the longest time I’ve spend away from the internet in the entire year since I have left the UK, and that was to get away from the rat race!

In the build-up I made my boundaries clear and I communicated them, a new skill I am practising. I needed this break, for my productivity, creativity and sanity. To my team, to project stakeholders, to clients, suppliers, friends and family. Six weeks notice for 8 days off, there were calendar reminders, Skype status updates, last minute nudges and the out of office set on 5 different email accounts. My ego managed the reaction well. No one was going to miss me, the world was, in fact, not going to fall apart. A healthy dose of realism.

For the first 5 days I walked. I walked into the Colombian rainforest. The initial anxiety of leaving my phone and laptop switched off and far away from my body with my unfinished to do list wrestled with me in the jeep up to the start of the walk. But once we set foot it was difficult to remember details when steep clay slopes threatened to short-cut my way down the hill. Or the uphill climb in the afternoon sun and humidity and the sweat. So much sweat.

Very quickly, life became very simple. One foot in front of the other, breathe and repeat until you made it to camp. It was a tough hike for someone that doesn’t exercise as much as they should. The internal chatter continued but the spectacular views at regular intervals silenced them, the frequent river crossings forced me to focus on my foot placement and balance. I listened to the sound of the tropical thunderstorms instead of my Spotify account. And physically exhausted at night I read my Colombian novel by torchlight and dreamed of walking, not communications.

It was refreshing. I tried to use some mindfulness techniques while walking; what is it about the view specifically that takes my breath away? How many shades of green can I spot? What exactly does that cool breeze feel like and where on my body can I feel it?

It was not without its challenge, I spotted other people on Instagram, I knew my friend was receiving Whatsapp messages from mutual friends, I found moments where I did not know what to do with my hands, or not knowing where to look when I was on my own. Boredom crept in but I tried to challenge it, what would be at the other end if I pushed through it? I took out my boredom in my Moleskine notepad and doing laps in the water.

Eventually I was able to switch off and put to one side the anxiety, stress and distraction which comes from always being connected and attached to a two dimensional world. I noticed I was more relaxed, having more in depth conversations, spending more quality time with the people around me and with myself. I devoured a book and it absorbed my thoughts for days after; I allowed the plot to ruminate and expand. I also thought about the friends and family I’ve left behind in the UK and even came up with new ideas! In some moments I even gained a little bit of peace.

My body and mind felt the benefit of spending time in nature, something I spend my entire professional life promoting but not always finding enough time to eat my words.

Now I am back ‘online’ I plan to make some small adjustments;

  • separate my devices – my phone being my alarm clock means I start each morning with a back-lit scroll
  • prioritise sleep and a small bit of exercise each day
  • try to start each morning with some writing, stretching and ideally some mindfulness
  • carve out space to be creative each day
  • turn off all notifications on my phone after 7pm
  • avoid screens on weekends as much as possible
  • seek out nature more regularly and more doggedly
  • and lastly not to beat myself up if I don’t do all of the above!

What are your tactics for avoiding burnout? When’s the last time you switched off?

Avatar photo Sophia Cheng With a decade of communications experience across the for profit and nonprofit sectors, agency and in-house, Sophia has made a habit of making ‘the hard stuff’ more accessible. Since 2018, she has reorientated her life around the climate crisis. She has forged her decade of communications experience into offering workshops, mentoring, blogging, and more, on the biggest issues of our time. View all posts
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