I woke up one morning about four weeks ago and realized in a flash that I’d hit a wall. Most days I can’t wait to get to work. On this day, I struggled to get myself out of the house.
The first three months of the year had been intensely demanding, between hiring a series of new employees for a rapidly growing business, working with colleagues to develop several new products, traveling frequently and taking on multiple writing assignments.
One of the primary principles of the work we teach at the Energy Project is that the greater the performance demand, the greater the need for recovery. I needed a vacation, but what I needed most of all was a period of total digital disconnection. My brain felt overloaded and I needed time to clear it out.
My wife and I made reservations to go to our favorite hotel for nine days. But I knew that getting away from my office wouldn’t be enough if I remained tethered to my online life and my work. I decided not to bring my laptop, my iPad, or my cellphone. I left an away message that made it clear I wouldn’t be checking email.
I was determined to eliminate temptation to the maximum extent possible. I had learned from past experiences how easy it is for me to succumb, given the opportunity.
From the moment I boarded the plane for our trip, I noticed a shift. Ordinarily, I would have skittered between reading the newspaper, magazines, answering email and surfing the Web (if it was available). I’d brought along a pile of books, mostly novels, and none of them related to work. I began reading the first one, and I very quickly became absorbed. For once, nothing else was competing for my attention.
The first time I felt a distracting impulse, it was to Google something I’d read. The initial pull was compelling, but I let it pass. Over the next several days, it happened perhaps a half-dozen more times, and on each occasion I simply observed the feeling without responding to it. By mid-week, that impluse evaporated, and I realized how much richer and more satisfying any experience is when it’s not interrupted – even if the interrupter is me.
It turned out there were no newspapers at our hotel. My first response was a bit of panic – I’ve read The New York Times daily since I was a teenager – but soon, I realized I was giving up the fix of more information that I didn’t really need.
Instead, I became increasingly aware that the relentless diet of information I ordinarily consume leaves me feeling the same way I do after eating a couple of slices of pizza or a hot dog and French fries – poorly nourished and still hungry.
What grew each day was my capacity for absorbed focus. By the end of nine days, I felt empowered and enriched. With my brain quieter, I was able to take back control of my attention. In the process, I rediscovered some deeper part of myself.
If there had been an emergency while I was away, I could have been reached. The humbling truth is that not a single thing demanded my attention. Most everything can wait.
(Tony Schwartz is the president and CEO of The Energy Project and the author of “Be Excellent at Anything.”)