Why Don’t We Give Ourselves Permission to Disconnect?

Overworked arts administrators tend to run on autopilot. How can disconnecting momentarily help us refresh our energy and refocus our work?

A pledge to disconnect from the National Day of Unplugging.

Observing yourself

In 2004, I had just become associate artistic director of terraNOVA Collective, a New York-based theater company that focuses on the development of new plays. One of the programs we started was the Groundbreakers writers group, which allowed playwrights to develop a production-ready play.

At the same time, I discovered mindfulness meditation. After a 10-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat, I returned to the playwrights’ group in an open and receptive place. I remember very vividly the focus with which I approached art and administration. It changed my perception on the world.

In this madcap world of arts administration, we tend to run on all cylinders at all times. There is a feeling that if we are not moving constantly and working around the clock, we aren’t being successful. But there are great examples of uber-successful people who disconnect in a big way.

Sabbatical for sanity

Designer Stefan Sagmeister is remarkable. His work is creative and innovative, but perhaps more fascinating is how he fashions his work schedule. Every seven years, he closes his New York studio for a yearlong sabbatical to rejuvenate and refresh his creative outlook. In this TED Talk, Sagmeister talks about the value of time off and shares the innovative projects inspired by his time in Bali. Sagmeister’s presentation is wonderful, and I highly suggest you watch the entire video.

The concept of sabbaticals isn’t new. University professors frequently take sabbaticals to reconnect with their work and themselves. So often, I hear professionals – not just in arts administration – lament the amount of time off our European neighbors across the pond get. But rarely do we see American companies following suit. Might arts administrators benefit from the personal battery recharge administrators and artists need to be productive and innovative?

Disconnecting digital devices

The Center for the Future of Museums recently published a report on Trends to Watch in 2013. One of those trends is something with which I’m becoming increasingly fascinated: Disconnecting to Reconnect. One of the observations made in their newsletter is the movement for a “National Day of Unplugging,” during which we disconnect from digital devices. I already know many who take “social media vacations” for a few weeks or a weekly “digital Sabbath” – one day a week in which they unplug from all computer devices.

The National Day of Unplugging calls for turning off digital devices.
The National Day of Unplugging calls for turning off digital devices.

In my previous post, “Why aren’t More Organizations Bringing Artists into the Office?,” I explored the concept of offering artists hybrid residencies in which they work as administrators and artists for salaries and benefits. In response to my piece about artists in the workplace, I received sundry responses – everything from high praise to indignant concern. The voices of dissent came from administrators who expressed concern over how other employees might react to the resident artists leaving early to go work on their art. They anticipated jealousy from an already overworked staff. Another issue regarded a concern over hiring artists because – even in the best financed of organizations – employees take on the workload of two or three people.

We’re overworked and underpaid. While arts administration can be rewarding, it can also breed jealousy and frustration. We could use some tools to help manage stress levels. I’m suggesting unplugging from our devices and meditating might be the answer. Perhaps, you have other ideas. Maybe you can offer an hour of yoga or other group exercise during the workday. Getting the blood flowing and pumping to the brain is one of the best ways to ensure a sharp mind. Breakout sessions where employees have time to work on their own projects, like the ones Google and Facebook offer to their staffs, are another way to re-engage and re-excite one’s work.

A moment of mindfulness

Yesterday, before I hopped on the subway for my hour commute home, I pulled my phone out of my pocket. Typically, I answer emails or catch up on my Twitter feed while I ride. This time, my phone’s battery literally died in my hands. After a moment of anxiety over the work I wasn’t going to complete over the next hour, I boarded the train and sat quietly in silence, noting my breath, listening to my thoughts, and mindfully observing my fellow passengers. It was sublime. And the work I accomplished later in the day was much more focused and creative.

You, too, may have anxiety or fear that disconnecting from the rest of the world will make you less motivated and less inclined to meet deadlines – but in fact, it offers an opportunity for you to connect with that one person so often ignored: yourself.

Going on a meditation retreat, taking a sabbatical, ditching devices for a day. They are all great ways to disconnect. But they won’t bring about adaptive change unless we put them into daily practice. Once we identify what helps us to reconnect with ourselves, we need to regularly return to it. What helps you unplug? Does your office have a regular practice of unplugging to reconnect with the work?

James Carter is a dramatist, experience designer and producer. He was a founding member of terraNOVA Collective and its associate artistic director for eight years. Recent transmedia plays include FEEDER: A Love Story and NY_Hearts: LES. For more about James, read his blog onemuse.com where he explores the intersection of art and technology, or follow him on Twitter @jdcarter.