Why You Will Be Happier If You Unplug

This article was originally published on my Forbes column here.

In 2017, Sarah Solomon woke up in a hostel in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. Days earlier, she’d left her life as a high-flying New York publicist to travel the world. Now, she was on the greatest adventure of her life, using freelance PR work to make ends meet as she roamed the globe with her boyfriend, another digital nomad who’d quit his job at a lucrative consulting firm.

Solomon’s radical break from the office grind might seem like an extreme lifestyle choice—but it’s actually one more people should emulate. In 2019, most people suffer from some form of technology addiction. In fact, Americans check their phones an average of 52 times per day, including keeping tabs on work during personal hours. But that’s just an average; some admit to checking their phone 100 times per day or more. We’re spending our lives glued to screens while the real world passes us by.

This phenomenon is best described as the “attention economy,” in which dangerously addictive digital stimuli vie for our limited attention, leaving us frazzled, burned-out and less creative than ever.

As a result, today’s entrepreneurs don’t necessarily dream of a $100 million exit. Most people would rather blog about making pasta in Italy than burn the midnight oil for a corporate overlord. After all, why work more and produce less for companies laying off employees left and right when you can launch what marketer Drew Sanocki calls a “lifestyle business”? Instead of making lots of money to spend on more expensive gadgets, people are realizing that investing in experiences leads to a more fulfilling life.Today In: Leadership

While taking a step back at work might seem counterintuitive, it might be the only cure for our widespread technology addiction—and the only way we’ll actually have time to enjoy life.

People are always plugged in—and their work isn’t better for it

Today, people lead busy lives that seem built on constantly being plugged in. At work, emails, text messages and social notifications continuously pile up—all at the same time. People pride themselves on their hustle, their drive and, most of all, their ability to multitask.

However, studies show the idea of multitasking is a myth. Multitasking means simply jumping from to-do-list item to to-do-list item, never diving deeply enough into anything to come up with new creative ideas. No wonder science found that this constant hurried pace dulls your IQ as much as skipping an entire night of sleep.

It’s also no wonder that more than half of employees report feeling overworked, citing longer than 40-hour work weeks necessary just to stay afloat in a job market with faster turnaround times and lower job security. In an environment that seems to demand more and more of workers and bosses alike, burnout has become epidemic. A recent viral article summed up the experience of modern adulthood this way: “‘To adult’ is to complete your to-do list—but everything goes on the list, and the list never ends.”

The biggest problem? Despite the fact that today’s employees do more, they produce less. Or in the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ terms, despite this rise in hours worked, productivity is growing at the slowest rate ever.

Luckily, there’s a middle ground between being constantly plugged in and being professionally unplugged.

Focus on what’s truly important and let go of the rest

You don’t need to renounce your smartphone to access the benefits of unplugging. Instead, you have to be aware of how tech companies manipulate our attention and take steps to reclaim your ability to unplug.

Tristan Harris spent three years as a design ethicist at Google. He knows firsthand that, in the race to monopolize our attention, tech companies design interfaces that pit our psychological vulnerabilities against us. Apps purposely interrupt us, prey on our fear of missing out and disguise the real breadth of choices available. Now that Harris isn’t working for Google, he urges people to regain control of their attention by recognizing and resisting these mechanisms.

Another example of this is what author Greg McKeown calls “Essentialism,” or the practice of making space and time for only the most important things and exporting all the rest. In his book of the same name, McKeown argues that Essentialism is “not a business phenomenon, but a human phenomenon” that can yield better work-life balance.

Essentialism isn’t simply walking away from it all to go live in a shack with no cell reception or Wi-Fi, though that could certainly be your answer. It actually comes when you balance the activities you love with work you love. So, if you stop pretending to multitask and actually focus for a few hours on a single project, clients will be happier with the work, and you’ll have extra time to travel around the world.

Think you couldn’t possibly make the time?

Exhibit A: Marc Benioff. As the CEO of Salesforce, he’s a busy guy. He also recently bought Time Magazine and even took on helping provide funding for the homeless in San Francisco.

And while the stock market had its worst year in the last 10 in 2018, Salesforce stock grew 34%.

Why? Because after a two-week vacation where Benioff completely unplugged, he realized he was too busy and named a co-CEO, so the two could “divide and conquer.” As a result, he has time to do the things he cares about.

It’s true, though, not everyone is a billionaire who can export half the work of their lives to a co-CEO. How can you take the same lessons of Essentialism to help you focus on what matters while still doing great work before taking off to Thailand or Timbuktu?

Use automation to its full potential

In choosing where we spend our attention, technology doesn’t always have to be a negative force. Automation technology can free us from constantly monitoring work on our devices.

It might seem like it takes a special touch to pick the right Instagram story filter or email subject line. However, social media, email and other admin duties are some of the easiest tasks to outsource, delegate or automate, freeing up time to spend on more important things in life.

There are plenty of ways to test this approach on your own workflow, from adopting the Fortune 500 CEO mindset of using virtual admins to streamline the day to using software tools to automate posts across various channels, creating the consistency necessary for growing a following.

While it’s not as glamorous as becoming a travel blogger or Instagram influencer, it’s an easy and practical way to do better work and not just work more.

Less is more

Today, technology is designed to keep us constantly plugged in, yet never fully satisfied. Instead of renewing our energy or enhancing our connections, technology leaves us feeling drained by the constant barrage of notifications that prevent us from truly living.

It’s not always easy, but taking a step back is the best way to open up the creative space necessary in today’s business world. Tomorrow’s economy is knowledge-based, which means deeper thinking, innovation and creativity aren’t just nice-to-have skills; they are need-to-have competitive advantages. While it might feel good to check small administrative tasks off your to-do list, every minute spent handling work someone else could do is a minute not devoted to the next big idea.

There’s a balance between strategic unplugging, delegation and automation—and within it, there can be more time for the things that matter but also more results for the clients that matter, too. Sometimes it’s true that less is more: More time, more focus and more business.