Powering Down For Reflection

We’ve just passed the season of the break for most of us academic librarians. It’s common for our institutions to give us a nice bonus this time of year – a week off between Christmas and New Years. What did you do during your break? Did you have a list of projects to work on during those days off or did you just try to relax and leave the work behind? And what about your digital life. Did you take a break from e-mail, Facebook and Twitter? Based on my observations the majority of us stayed active with our electronic lives, though perhaps to a lesser degree than during a normal work week.

I certainly didn’t take much of a break. For me, no suits and ties sure makes it feel like a break. I usually look forward to the break as an opportunity to get a bit ahead on projects, a desirable thing when you have a weekly column to keep up with. And proposals for ACRL’s conference will be due before you know it. The break is also a time when I try to write at least one fuller length article or essay. So while I spent less time online than normal, I would hardly say I was powered down. That only happens for me once a year or so, mainly when I go camping as there is no connectivity and I don’t bring along a computer. On family vacations I don’t bring along a computer and only check email once a day. But for this most recent break I didn’t even bother to put a vacation message on my email because I knew I’d be checking it a few times each day.

There is one anecdotal indicator that suggests to me that many academic librarians took a break from some of their familiar routines, such as checking the online news. I say this because there was a significant drop in traffic over at Kept-Up Academic Librarian during the break week. KUAL averages close to 300 visits per day but starting with December 24 it dropped just below 100 and never made it back above that mark until Monday, January 4, 2010 when it jumped back into the 200 visit range. That drop has to be more than a coincidence. I suspect the academic librarians who regularly read KUAL were off doing more entertaining activities. Some may have expected there’d be no higher education news to keep up with that week (there was less). But perhaps some just took a complete break from the Internet during their time off – and if they did would that be a good thing?

KUAL traffic between 12/24/09 and 1/3/10
KUAL traffic between 12/24/09 and 1/3/10

It just may be. During the break I came across a NYT article about a college where the President took the unusual step of holding a one-hour no technology meeting where the students focused on silent reflection. From the article:

Dianne Lynch wanted to give the students of Stephens College a break from the constant digital communication that pervades their generation. So she asked them to put their phones and computers away and revive the 176-year-old school’s dormant tradition of vespers services. On a bitterly cold December night, with the start of final exams just hours away, about 75 of Stephens’ 766 undergraduates grudgingly piled their cell phones into collection baskets and filed into the school’s candlelit chapel, where they did little but sit, silently. For an hour, not an iPod ear bud could be seen. There were no fingers flying on tiny computer keyboards, no chats with unseen intimates.Several other schools are encouraging technology-free introspection…Amherst College in Massachusetts hosted a ”Day of Mindfulness” this year, featuring yoga and meditation and a lecture on information technology and the contemplative mind.

I do get the value of unplugging – if not for days on end – at least for specific periods of time during the day. I set aside several periods where I unplug. Any time I go to the gym, usually two or three times during the work week, I leave my cell phone behind so I’m not checking email or keeping up with social networks. I do listen to music which helps me contemplate. During this time I often find myself coming up with solutions to work challenges or ideas for new blog posts or essays – or they come in the post-workout shower – which is actually a fairly common phenomena. Studies have found that when we free our minds from any complex thought activity, some of our best ideas will emerge from the ether. I also unplug at breakfast and dinner and just take time to read the daily paper. But I know I should probably be setting aside additional hours for powering down.

Disconnecting from the Internet also has to be better for our physical and mental health. As one blogger recently put it, “Sitting in front of these glowing screens (as most of us do) for around eight hours a day for work and additional hours for leisure can’t be good for us as living, breathing organisms.” You can get me to do just about anything if you can convince me it’s going to improve my health (except eating cauliflower or brussel sprouts – even I have my limits). One academic librarian who shares when he is going offline for multiple days is Kenley Neufeld, which I always find interesting since he is one of the most socially-connected academic librarians I know. So we certainly have good reasons to unplug and power down – for all important contemplation, to improve our health and mental sharpness, and to provide times during the day when we can concentrate on sustained reading and writing without the constant interruption of email, status updates and tweets.

Did you power down during the break? Are you setting aside times each day for connection-free activity? Use the comments to share your story about how powering down helps you.

10 thoughts on “Powering Down For Reflection”

  1. I did a 10-day holiday this winter (compared to twice that last winter), but I ended up looking at my email (without responding) a few times during the 10-days. Not ideal, but it worked. My preference is complete blackout.

    Now, the idea of setting aside times each day for connection free is an interesting idea. Of course, I usually start my day tech free for about an hour but I think what you might be hinting at is sometime during the day. That is much more challenging.

    Even at lunch I have my iPhone next to me (sometimes on) which isn’t such a great habit. You’ve set a new aspiration for me in the coming semester.

  2. I took an extended break this past December and spent time contemplating life while sitting by the Atlantic ocean.

    I’m usually VERY plugged in but over the break found I was more unplugged than I had planned (thanks to the poor coverage by AT&T in eastern NC!) I did run into a public library a couple of times just to check back with the office and keep track of anything that needed answering. I found the time not writing, not working on projects, not answering email very rejuvenating. (I didn’t even take professional reading with me—instead I tacked a very large stack of murder mysteries!)

    I found when I came back that I was probably sharper and more alert than I’ve been in a while. I’m at the midcareer point where I have tenure, I’ve made full professor and I’m sort of wondering what I want to tackle next. I have been playing around with an idea for some time. Being unplugged and away from the office gave me time to reflect on this next step and how I wanted to approach it. I do think for 2010 I will try to schedule some “mini breaks” into the semester that allows for this type of reflection (minus the ocean sounds, but you can’t have everything!)

  3. I’m one of the 17 people in the country who doesn’t own a cell phone (!), so being unplugged is a bit easier for me! I took a 2 week break, and only read e-mail once each week. I spent time preparing for the Jan Plan I’m currently teaching — but since that course is Religious Responses to Harry Potter, I will understand if folks consider that to be as much about play as about work (I certainly see it that way!).

    I also meditate daily for about 20 minutes on or off break, and go to a gym twice a week during work times, and every other day or so during break times. I came up with LOTS of creative ideas for what I call “warm-ups” for each class (inspired by the ACRL Intentional Teacher Track in December — perfect timing!), and tried to get myself ahead on the reading load (yes, we’re reading all 7 novels in a month, along with 2 other books, 3 articles, and a video). What I appreciate the most about break time is being able to flow from one activity to another at *my* pace and on no particular schedule, allowing for the unexpected to bring up new approaches without feeling rushed.

  4. I work four ten-hour days in a row every week. When I get home in the evenings, the last thing I want to do is “plug in.” Weekends are the same – I log on only if it’s necessary to balance my checkbook or look up a time for a movie. This past Christmas break my husband and I felled two trees in our yard and then prepared them for the burn pile, continued the never-ending cycle of home improvement, and spent as little time staring at a computer as possible. Heaven!

  5. I kept myself busy in the break because I had to do so — my institution set up a very challenging timeline for annual evaluation and my file is due in the first week of Jan. I was fully plugged in, combing what I did in the past year and planning for the New Year.

    It’s getting hard for me to imagine that I could live without internet for a single day — not only for work, but for life, and entertainment. For instance, how to even pick up a movie that you want to watch in the theater if you don’t check the trailer online?

  6. As for movie choice, Ying, I listen to NPR or to friends with similar interests!

  7. I took a week-long trip to Paris and was totally disconnected the whole time. I couldn’t have been happier! I realized when I got back that I feel oppressed by the hyper-connectedness I have created for myself most of the time. I feel like I am constantly playing catch up. So this year, it’s boundaries for me and technology, starting with unsubscribing from a bunch of RSS feeds I never keep up with! Also, during the academic year, my institution offers the fantastic perk of lunchtime yoga classes, three times per week. Even if I only get to go once a week, I am markedly more productive and happier afterward. It is such a treat to devote an hour in the middle of the day to oneself.

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