“Hi. I’m Eric, and I’m a wee bit addicted to tech and communications.”
The Eric who delivered this introduction/confession during a recent CVC session is Eric Garcia, a veterinary IT and digital marketing consultant. In spite of (or more accurately, because of) Garcia’s self-professed addiction, he takes a yearly 14-day digital sabbatical. That’s right—two straight weeks without a phone or internet access. Whether this sounds like heaven or hell, possible or impossible, he wants you to join him.
A lightbulb moment in the City of Lights
For Garcia, the realization that he needed to unplug from technology came during a trip to Paris. Surrounded by cafes, culture and companionship, Garcia stopped to “quickly” check his work email and peruse Facebook—and didn’t look up for the next three and a half hours. Worse still, the annoyances and burdens he’d seen while scrolling stayed in his thoughts long after.
So Garcia asked himself some painfully honest questions in order to understand why he felt he couldn’t disconnect. The exercise revealed the beliefs that kept him glued to his phone and computer.
- “I’m important and people need me.”
- “No one can do what I do.”
- “People will get upset if I take a vacation.”
- “Taking a break isn’t worth the mound of work I’ll face when I return.”
- “I’m fine! I love working!”
Garcia wanted to prove these beliefs were wrong, so when he read a 2013 Fast Company article about taking an extended digital sabbatical, he accepted the challenge.
Tapping in to what it feels like to unplug
Garcia developed a set of straightforward rules for his 14-day sabbatical. His phone: off. Computer and tablet: off. Social media, email and online news: off limits.
For the first 48 hours, Garcia was insatiably curious about what he was missing. He also experienced FOMO, or fear of missing out. His mind swirled. “What drama am I missing on social media? What is everyone doing at work?”
But after a couple of days, the desire to take a peek at his phone subsided and he no longer pondered what he was missing. “At that point,” Garcia says, “I felt free—like my phone and my work weren’t running my life anymore.”
Though he normally takes melatonin in order to sleep at night, Garcia was able to snooze without aids. He also saw his relationships improve and deepen during the sabbatical. “By the end of it, I didn’t want to turn my phone back on,” Garcia admits. “I felt like a completely different person.”
Garcia’s experience has been validated by scientific research. According to a 2012 study from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, spending two hours in front of backlit devices such as iPads and computers can suppress melatonin by about 22 percent and delay sleep. Another study from the University of Essex found evidence that the mere presence of a mobile phone (even if not being used) can negatively affect “closeness, connection and conversation quality.” Switching the devices off, then, would bring about the kinds of positive results Garcia noticed.
Back at work, Garcia discovered that he was more productive and had a better attitude. Case in point? “I was energized and ready to start answering emails!” he says, laughing. “My thoughts and conversations became more clear. I had new ideas and was excited to bring them to life.”
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Myth: Unplugging only works if you hate your job
You don’t have to dislike your job or hate working to benefit from unplugging, Garcia says. “People will argue with me, ‘If I love what I do, why does it matter if I’m constantly connected?’ Then they unplug, see the difference and the argument ends.”
Garcia wasn’t content to keep this newfound perspective to himself and began bringing his “unplugged” message to veterinary professionals at CVC earlier this year. He explains, “Constantly being connected is exhausting and distracting and can keep us from forming deeper relationships. In a profession that’s already prone to burnout, veterinary professionals are especially vulnerable. And in this digital age, things are poised to get worse. I’m not a wellness expert, but I know how unplugging has improved my quality of life.”
When asked if veterinarians can really unplug, Garcia didn’t mince his words: “The real question is whether or not veterinarians can go without unplugging.”
He admits that it’s easier if you have a team of associates to rely on but maintains that it’s possible regardless. “If you’re a solo veterinarian, be open to allowing a colleague from another local practice care for your patients in your absence with an understanding that the patient will remain with your practice after the break,” he says. “Then, you can return the favor. Letting go is the hardest part, but veterinarians must accept that there are others who can do what they do.”
Unplugging isn’t one-size-fits all, but if you want to follow in Garcia’s footsteps, he has some advice to ease you in. “Begin by spending a day without your phone,” Garcia suggests. “Then, try a day without social media or stop answering emails after 5 p.m.”
Hide your apps!
We are creatures of habit. “I can’t count how many times I’ve caught myself pulling out my phone to check Facebook or my email during an unplugged moment while in the Starbucks drive-thru or waiting in line at the grocery store without thinking,” Garcia admits. “To combat this, I move my most-used apps to another screen during unplugged moments so I’m able to catch myself before I start scrolling.”
Less intense than a full-blown digital sabbatical, these “unplugged moments” can range from a few hours to an entire weekend. “You can cut out as much or as little during this time as you want,” Garcia says, “but I usually go without my phone, email and social media.”
Garcia lists telltale signs that he’s in need of an unplugged moment: “If I become easily agitated and get upset when my phone dings because it’s another email to get back to, or if I’ve been working nonstop for several days (including in my bed at night) and can’t focus, I know it’s time for a reset. Over time, I’ve tried to become proactive about it and schedule unplugged moments right before particularly hectic periods.”
Tips for a better (and safer) sabbatical
When you’re ready for a longer stretch of going unplugged, like the two-week digital sabbatical Garcia takes every summer, don’t simply disappear without a trace. While speaking at a CVC session in Virginia Beach, Garcia met a veterinarian who had already taken a digital sabbatical with heartbreaking results. “She said that when she plugged back in and checked Facebook, she saw a message from a client who was seeking emergency medical services. The client waited for the veterinarian to respond and did not seek help elsewhere. The pet died as a result and the veterinarian is now weighed down with guilt,” Garcia says.
Though he admits that the pet owner was wrong to contact the veterinarian via social media and should have sought outside assistance, Garcia has developed the following tips for smooth, safe sabbaticals:
Notify important work contacts. “A month or two before your scheduled time away, start notifying important contacts of your plans,” Garcia says. At work, this means adding a paragraph to the bottom of every email.
He offers the following example:
PLEASE NOTE: I will be taking a digital sabbatical from June 13-21. I will be completely unplugged from the world. During this time I will not be able to generate any activity through phone, email or any social network, including but not limited to glancing, checking, syncing, Wi-Fi connecting, pinning, sharing, Googling, commenting, liking, loving, tagging, favoriting, plus-oneing, tweeting, vining, messaging, texting, Facetiming or uploading.
Pick emergency contacts. The next step is to establish emergency contacts. “Let some family and friends know how to contact you in case of an emergency,” Garcia recommends. “This could be on a landline or on a cell phone that is disconnected from the internet and kept silent.”
Set up your email to automatically respond. Right before you leave, set up an automatic email response with the name and number of a clinic to contact in case of emergency. You can do this on Facebook and on your voicemail as well. Again, he offers an example:
Dear Colleagues, Clients and Friends:
I am taking a digital sabbatical from June 13-27. During this time I will not be able to generate any activity through phone, email or any social network, including but not limited to glancing, checking, syncing, Wi-Fi connecting, pinning, sharing, Foogling, commenting, liking, loving, tagging, favoriting, plus-oneing, tweeting, vining, messaging, texting, Facetiming or uploading.
Why do I take a digital sabbatical? Learn more at simplydonetechsolutions.com/unplugged.
If you require assistance before I return, please contact my colleague Dr. John Jones at (417) 555-1212 or email@example.com. If this is an emergency, please call Nextdoor Animal Hospital at (417) 555-2323.
I look forward to replying to all of your emails, phone calls, text messages and social conversations when I get back. Thank you all for your understanding!
Now what? According to Garcia, “Now you unplug and smile.”