Dana Brownlee Describes her '95% Unplugged Vacation Model' [Interview]

Dana Brownlee Dana Brownlee is the founder of Professionalism Matters, a consulting firm that helps other businesses become more productive. As a busy business owner, she knows how important vacation time is for herself and her family, but began to fear that inevitable onslaught of emails and missed urgent messages she would find when she arrived back in the office. To help herself manage it all, she developed the '95% Unplugged Vacation Model'. It helps her maintain her work-life balance, without drowning in a sea of unread emails upon her arrival back in the office.

Brownlee tells us all about her vacation model and why getting time unplugged is so important.

1. What does the '95% Unplugged Vacation Model' entail?

It really means that for many of us, instead of pretending that we're going to be completely 100% unplugged, embrace the more realistic 95% unplugged model. This model means that you're on vacation - focused on relaxing and spending time with friends and family for sure - BUT you do recognize that the rest of the world continues, issues continue to be addressed via email, employees continue to have questions, etc.. So it may be setting yourself (and others) up for disappointment/frustration to strive for 100% unplugged. In my case I need to stay about 5% plugged in to keep the trains running and keep my sanity, really. After all, who wants to return to an avalanche of 1,000+ emails and possible unresolved issues/missed opportunities the day they return from vacation? To be clear I activate an out-of-office message while on vacation and I don't plan any work to be done while I'm gone, but I'm just realistic enough to know that the Earth won't stop spinning because my family is on vacation.

2. What limitations should people set for themselves while on vacation?

Everyone has to decide this for themselves, but for many busy professionals what seems to work is unplugging fully for most of the vacation but consciously taking time to plug in periodically to keep things moving smoothly back at the office, reassure yourself that all is well, or just maintain a light connection to work. For me, I might be doing a scuba excursion with my husband or chasing the kids on the beach - the Blackberry is off or better yet, not even with me. BUT I do want to check email for about 20 minutes every other day or check in with my assistant if needed. In my case, my 5% plug in is almost completely email checking/responding -- not making phone calls, reading reports or doing other 'real work'.

3. Do you think it is possible to have a 100% unplugged vacation? Why or why not?

Of course, it's possible, but I just discovered over the years that it wasn't worth it ironically. The price that I paid my first day back in the office was much more than the 5% I could have sacrificed by taking just a few minutes during my vacation week to send a few emails, forward a presentation, ask my assistant to submit a proposal or resolve an issue that surfaced while I was out. Some of this is obviously dependent on the duration of your vacation (obviously easier to completely unplug for a shorter period of time), the type of work that you do, etc., so my comments really are reflective of many busy professionals but clearly not all. An implicit danger (depending on your work environment) is that you don't want to create an expectation on the part of your boss/coworkers of your doing work while on vacation. So again, I reiterate that I don't plan to do any work, and I certainly would not recommend planning a vacation with the expectation of working through it. To the contrary, I recommend that one always establish someone "in charge" for them and establish other processes so that work can flow without them, so that if they do happen to chime in on an email exchange (where they really felt it necessary) or address an urgent issue that arose unexpectedly, it's seen as an unexpected and highly appreciated contribution (not an expectation).

4. Why is getting time unplugged so important?

It is ridiculously important. When I worked as a college intern at AT&T Bell Labs in New Jersey in the late 80s with some of the most brilliant [Research and Development] minds on the planet, they had established these "romper rooms" (my term, not theirs) where the scientists could go during the day to forget about the problem on their desk, relax, and recharge. The room was filled with nostalgic games, whiteboards, and I think even a few places to sleep. It reminds me of the image that we have of Google now, but this was 1988! Sue Shellenberger wrote a great article about this same concept - how allowing your brain an opportunity to take a break and recharge can really spark innovation

5. How can people find unplugged downtime during the regular workweek

Actually, the irony is that I make time to get unplugged much more regularly than most I'm sure. (This might be why when I go on vacation I don't feel like I must drop completely off the face of the Earth.) I'm a huge believer in scheduling. I think that "what gets scheduled gets done...eventually." If it's not on the schedule, it probably won't - let's be honest. This is why many of us have rooms in our house that haven't been cleaned out in years or have child momentos that were never made into keepsake books - great ideas that didn't get scheduled. So, scheduling may not sound glamorous, but it works. Find 2-3 ways to unplug that fill you up mentally and emotionally and put them on your calendar. It could be a yoga class, morning meditation, playing racquetball, meeting a friend for an afternoon tea break on a bench outside the office building, listening to your favorite CD in the car on the way to work, etc. We must recharge the battery to keep it movin'!