We just planned our annual summer vacation — a week at a Rhode Island beach resort—and while I’m looking forward to the time away, I am also dreading the implications this will have at my job and the effect it will have on my email account.
Back in the old days, planning for my vacation used to be easy — I’d leave a short voicemail message on my answering machines at home and at work that I was gone for a week and that I would return all messages when I returned. I wouldn’t think much about work while I was away. I’d come back to about a dozen phone messages, which I would carefully write down and then return a phone call to each individual person. No one seemed to mind the delay.
Now it’s a different story. While I program my work email to send automatic reply messages to folks while I am away on vacation, I still find myself checking my email regularly while I am gone. It’s partly because I don’t want to come back to 500 email messages the day I return to work; it’s also because I am a stickler for returning all of my messages promptly. However, I think it’s mainly because we live in a world where the expectation for any inquiry or message is an immediate reply.
I love my work. And I love being able to take a vacation. I wish I could better separate the two, the way I used to. But at this point, I simply cannot.
One of my mentors, Marty Edelston, never took a vacation. And he never had a problem separating work and play — because he didn’t. He hated to travel… and this was before 9/11 and all the security measures that have made travel more difficult. He owned a plastic palm tree that he kept in his office, which he told people was his way of taking a vacation. One of his favorite quotes was from L.P. Jacks:
“A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both.”
My guess is that if Marty were alive today, he would like the fact that most people are answering their emails immediately while on vacation, and merging their work lives and their recreational lives like never before.
However, I think we have lost something in our inability to separate work from play. And a large part of it can be attributed to the attachment we have to our smartphones.
Today a person can’t even get their car backed out of the garage or take a walk without being on a cellphone. We are incessantly interrupted by texts, phone calls and emails—and we feel the need to immediately respond.
Fifty-plus years ago Napoleon Hill wrote that he had his phone removed from his home, to avoid the constant interruptions in his life. I think he was on to something. I can only imagine what he would have thought of the constant texts and WhatsApp messages we are bombarded with today.
Dan Kennedy, a marketing guru who gets paid $25,000 a day for his advice, also shares Hill’s revulsion for the disruptions that technology has caused. He does not read emails, and keeps a cellphone in his car only when he leaves the house, in case of an emergency. The only way to reach him is by sending a fax to his office; eventually you will get a fax back from him in response. I bet he has plenty of time to really focus on the things that are important to him.
Dr. David Pelcovitz once told me a story about a man who was constantly checking his phone at all hours for his business. Before Pesach, his 17-year-old daughter asked if she could steal the afikomen at the family Seder. Perplexed as to why someone that age would be interested in such a thing, he asked her why she would want to engage in such an activity at her age. His daughter simply said it was something she wanted—and her father agreed. She successfully stole the afikomen at the Seder, and refused to give it back to her father unless he agreed to do one thing—have coffee and a conversation with her for one hour without looking at his smartphone.
In addition to our attachment to our smartphones, the other big reason why we simply cannot separate work from leisure is that many more of us are working from home. It used to be that at the end of the workday (whether it was 5, 6 or 7 p.m.), we would go home, and not deal with business activities until the next morning. However, when one works at home, it’s much harder to shut down our desktop and call it a day. And even when we close up shop and have dinner, there’s a tendency to go back to the computer in the evening—just to check whether you may have received an email that you might want to address.
I’m hoping I’ll be able to relax a bit and not think of work when we do take that vacation in August … but chances are that I’ll be checking on my work email quite a bit. It’s easy to say that I will be better off not to—I am fortunate that I have a very able assistant who can cover for me quite well—but it’s quite another thing to be able to accomplish it.