Last week I did something that seemed impossible.
Let me start by setting the scene with a brief description of the devices in my home. In my office, I have a desktop computer with a second monitor, plus a television. I also have a work laptop that I use sometimes when I need the Mac or just need a third screen. Like any good bookworm, I have two Kindle Fires and a Kindle Paperwhite. I have a gaming laptop in the living room and a smaller laptop that I use when I need something more portable (gaming laptops are heavy). I also have a Nintendo Switch Lite (though I’m in the process of upgrading to a full-sized Switch, and I’m so excited). Oh yeah, plus my cell phone.
All of these screens help me keep track of all my various roles, including three Microsoft Teams accounts, five email accounts, and several social media accounts, both professional and personal, plus they help me relax and engage in my hobbies. It can all be a bit much sometimes.
Last week, I disconnected. I mean I DISCONNECTED. Completely. Entirely. No screens. No email. No Teams. No messages. No social media.
It was more intoxicating than a mojito-filled pineapple on the beach in the Bahamas.
I am terrible at taking a real vacation.
I’m good at a lot of things, like balancing multiple jobs with full time school and irritating my Animal Crossing neighbors. I am very much not good at disconnecting.
I suspect that I’m not the only one that usually spends vacation days peeking at the email notifications on my phone. Raise your hand if you’ve ever said or thought, “Oh, I’ll just skim over this email real quick on my phone but I won’t respond until I’m back in the office.” How about, “I’m on vacation, but I really need to get this project done, so I’ll just work on it a little bit and then I’ll relax.” Or for those like me who have multiple roles, “This is a break from work, but I still have homework.”
And to my teacher friends and readers, you have it the worst, don’t you? I can’t think of a single “vacation” I took as a teacher where I didn’t have to set at least one day aside for grading or lesson planning. Even in higher education, I have still have grading that needs to get done and student questions to answer.
All of this, excuse my middle school language, sucks. We are human beings, not robots. We can’t just keep working without end. Vacations are not just a nice time to have some fun and work on your tan. They are absolutely 100% necessary to our mental health.
Last week, my husband and I went on an 8-day cruise, and after several weeks of waffling about whether or not I would need to purchase internet access to make sure all of my work got done, I made the brain-saving decision to forego the internet and even leave my laptop completely at home. Yes, I could have done some writing poolside, but I also could read a novel and let my brain have the break it needed.
The real game-changer for me here was the complete lack of access. I didn’t have to worry about my self-control breaking and just peeking at my email one time because I couldn’t. I wasn’t tempted by a never-ending stream of notifications. No service, no internet. I only used my cell phone to view the dinner menu and activity schedule in the cruise app.
Side note: In the spirit of honesty, I did take one screen other than my cell phone: my Kindle Paperwhite. BUT that was so that I could read books on the cruise without having to pack my whole library, AND I specifically took the Paperwhite rather than a Fire because the Paperwhite is a true e-reader and not a tablet. Kindle’s incredible e-ink technology (do they still call it that? I remember back when it was new and revolutionary!) doesn’t strain the eyes like a regular tablet screen.
The key to my success at disconnecting was in the advance planning. I made sure that anything due while I was gone was done and submitted. I told everyone who might need me during that time, including my students and the faculty I work with, that I would be unavailable. And I set up those beautiful out-of-office messages on all of my email accounts.
I know I’m not the first person to say this, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t need said: We all need to normalize disconnecting. We need to be able to spend non-work time on non-work things, especially when it comes to vacations. For me, setting that out-of-office message was freeing. It meant I didn’t need to worry abut someone waiting on a response from me because my email would automatically let them know that I was gone and when I would be back and able to respond. But I know that it’s not as freeing for some people. There’s still that anxiety of needing to be able to be reached. We all need to be better about respecting the boundaries between work and vacation.
Before I started working as an instructional designer, I’d never really used the out-of-office messages. I set one for the first time this past spring break. I can’t remember exactly what I wrote, but I know I used the phrase “using this time to disconnect and recharge.” This time I said that I would be “outside the range of regular cell and internet service.” This is an important message to send. For me, it wasn’t just about letting them know I’d be gone, it was also about showing the importance of digital distance during vacation time.
I saw a Facebook post recently (probably from Bored Teachers or one of those similar pages) that said that the first day after a break should always be a work day for teachers. Without that work day, teachers are spending their time over break preparing for the coming week of lessons, and that means that teachers don’t get to disconnect over a break, and that’s not right. Teachers more than just about anybody deserve their vacation time.
So, the next time you take even a single day of vacation, do yourself a favor and set an out-of-office message, turn your cell phone to airplane mode, put the devices away, and take the time to truly recharge.
Meanwhile, now that I’m back in the real world, I think I’ll put my gaming laptop away and go visit my Animal Crossing neighbors while I watch the Cowboys – Saints game.