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.

  • Hi James, This post makes me think about a couple of things. First, the issue productivity – that slacking off (or giving ourselves permission to take a break) for brief period of time during our work day or week can increase productivity is applicable to any line of work, not just in our world of arts administrating. During off-hours, I’m a writer, and I find that even though I really enjoy writing, I still need to take a break (whether during the day or maybe a few weeks off during the year) to re-focus. The issue for me is that when I focus in for a long time, whether on administrating or on writing, I lose the opportunity to cross-polinate (to inspire stories or my administrative work with something outside the usual realm). Second, I am still thinking about how we could adjust the *practice* of how we interact with our digital devices (like meditation, our relationship with our devices is ongoing). There is a kind of pressure to connect – instead of taking time off and then returning to “binge” connectivity, perhaps we could re-think how we approach “staying connected” generally – maybe there is a middle road?

    • Anna – There’s many techniques out there that help people budget time. My wife takes a break every half hour just to walk around and stretch her legs, which is good for a stagnant body. Others set timers to only work 25 minutes at a time, as with The Pomodoro Technique.

      From the New York Times:

      “Working in 90-minute intervals turns out to be a prescription for maximizing productivity. Professor K. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues at Florida State University have studied elite performers, including musicians, athletes, actors and chess players. In each of these fields, Dr. Ericsson found that the best performers typically practice in uninterrupted sessions that last no more than 90 minutes. They begin in the morning, take a break between sessions, and rarely work for more than four and a half hours in any given day.” http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/10/opinion/sunday/relax-youll-be-more-productive.html?pagewanted=all

      I try not to work for more than 90 minutes at a time. No matter whether I’m enjoying my work or not, I cease being productive after about an hour and a half. There’s certainly a middle road, but it requires us being mindful of our time, body and energy. It may feel like we’re putting more work into disconnecting, but anything worth doing takes a bit of work.

  • Thanks for the article, James. Reading your article right now is serendipitous, as my wife and I–both artist-slash-administrators–are in the middle of a 40-day cleanse which includes an evening meditation. We do not save up our “digital sabbath” for a single day each week, but instead spread it out throughout the week: after 7pm, we just refuse to be enslaved to the email and the mobile phones, so that instead we can spend more time with each other, and with our daughter. And we also find it vital to travel and/or take holidays as often as we can to “refresh” our minds and spirits, and to stimulate our imagination. These trips can be a trip abroad, or simply driving in the car 30 minutes in any direction. The point is to have something un-structured, so that our imaginations can roam free. Just like when we are rehearsing a new project, or brainstorming new community-engagement strategies for our Theatre, we need some “improvisation” into the equation, to keep the creativity flowing and the process fresh.

    • I really like the idea of spreading out that one day across the entire week, Brendan. It echoes what Anna’s suggesting: It’s a practice, not a binge. Just like binge working, binge relaxing can cause us to feel disconnected and mentally twisted up. You’re just swinging a pendulum between extremes, which can make for a very schizophrenic mind. We yearn for the good times, and we can push away the work in a very negative way. If we give balance to both work and relaxation, neither will feel so awesome or so horrible and creativity, like you suggest, will flow and feel fresh. In the end, work might just feel like play.

      Thanks for your suggestions. I’ve been thinking about them for a couple days now, and today, for the first time in ages, I did not bring my mobile phone to work with me. Obviously, I’m on my computer, but the tiny machine that constantly vibrates in my pocket isn’t going off every 5 to 10 minutes like some tamagotchi begging for attention. Additionally, I’m very aware of every time I reach for my pocket just to pass time and my phone isn’t there. There is a moment of anxiety, followed by a moment of self-awareness, and then…relaxation.

      When I reach for my phone and it’s not there, it’s actually bringing me into the present moment. And that is a great reward.

  • Bill Bragin

    A Day of Unplugging (which came from Reboot’s Sabbath Manifesto project) is great for those of us who are deeply addicted to being connected 24/7. But it’s hard to do in the middle of a 2-week online vote-gathering campaign ;)

    • Bill – that’s why I think we need to take a more holistic approach, as mentioned in the above comments. If we can find a way to unplug every day, we can still be productive when it calls for it, but we don’t become slaves to the machines in our pockets.

  • Erinn Roos-Brown

    As someone who works at a university as an arts administration, I can completely relate to this blog. While the faculty around me go on sabbatical every three years, the staff I work with are at full steam year-round and are not eligible for sabbatical. Yet, we often find ourselves talking about what it would be like to take a sabbatical and note the value that it would bring to have a semester or year off to see new works, discover new artists, visit other institutions, takes educational classes, etc. I think having that time to connect with new artists and improve ourselves professionally would only benefit our organizations and our field. Thank you for writing about this James!

  • Alison K.

    Disconnecting does not mean disengaging, and I love that James makes this important distinction. In the comments alone it’s clear that often what
    most artists/arts administrators/creatives are seeking in unplugging – be it
    literally or metaphorically – is the time and space to deepen their connection
    to the work that they do. We’re so busy juggling the many and varied roles demanded of us that we rarely have time to disentangle ourselves from the fray and mull over the bigger thematic issues facing our field, or to simply rest our harried brains and regenerate.

    Beyond making the case for powering down, it seems that today’s hyper-connected world also requires a little “how-to” guidance. How do we decide where to place our energies? How do we find the right day-to-day balance? The Emerging Arts Professionals/SFBA’s ‘Emergence’ symposium session “Personal Regenerative Practices in the Age of Information Overload” (link below) provided a variety of tools and perspectives that I’ve found helpful in getting started.