The value of disconnecting

Issue March/April 2016 By David E. Belfort

As winter's chill subsides and softer breezes hint of summer, we need to remember something just as important as choosing vacation dates and making travel arrangements: ensuring that the time we take away from the office really is a break from the fast pace and pressured grind of the law. We are fortunate to have achieved the status of learned professionals and have worked hard to earn our clients' trust. But with that standing come immense responsibility and work-related stresses. It is often a daily struggle to meet professional demands while also keeping up with personal commitments to family, friends and community. Critical to our ability to juggle it all, yet at the same time compounding the difficulty, is our technology, which keeps us connected simultaneously to our work and to our personal lives at all times and wherever we go.

In many of our practices, time is a perpetual adversary. We constantly race to meet billable hour requirements, address time sensitive matters for demanding clients and comply with rigid court deadlines or tracking orders. It is all too common to need to respond to unrelenting opposing counsel, heavy on hyperbolic urgency, yet short on professional courtesy. At the same time, maintaining our stamina and sanity in this profession requires taking time to withdraw from all of those pressures and to do whatever helps us to regenerate, whether it be catching up with family and friends, getting a change of scenery or just enjoying the luxury of long, unhurried meals and getting lost in a good book unrelated to our occupation.

The notion that vacation time is important in making for a happier and more effective worker is well accepted in theory, if not always in practice. According to a 2013 Scientific American article on "Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime," which stated: "Many recent studies have corroborated the idea that our mental resources are continuously depleted throughout the day and that various kinds of rest and downtime can both replenish those reserves and increase their volume."1 In one 2013 study, the Society for Human Resources Management surveyed Human Resources professionals to obtain their views on whether employees who take more of their available vacation time experience a higher level of job productivity and enjoyment.2 The observational study revealed that using more of one's earned vacation time yields a more satisfied, productive and better performing employee. Specifically, HR professionals overwhelmingly felt that taking vacation improved employee engagement and retention, caused a reduction in the use of sick days, and promoted overall wellness.

Unfortunately, in our age of constant connectivity, the tranquility of a restorative break is too often interrupted by cell phone calls, text tones, email alerts and instant access to work related documents, even while in distant lands. It has become more difficult to unplug because we are increasingly reliant on mobile devices for all aspects of life. Being "linked in" can feel more like being tied down. The same "smart" device that provides instantaneous access to an urgent client email or newly revised legal memorandum also navigates the way to an off-the-beaten-path lobster joint and is a digital camera to memorialize vacation highlights. The multipurpose functionality of our devices not only keeps our work-related communications in constant view and in the forefront of our thoughts, but it also leads clients, opposing counsel and co-workers to consider us perpetually reachable. It can seem that to disengage temporarily from our professional circles will also cut us off from vital aspects of our personal lives. As our work and life spheres are electronically intertwined like never before, it becomes harder and harder to get away.

But the considerable stress of everyday law practice and the near-constant bombardment by electronic input are precisely why it is paramount for us to adopt strategies that allow for proper, relaxing breaks. Here are some workplace strategies that have helped me relieve the pressure and really get away:

  1. Avoid scheduling non-essential meetings a few days prior to departure or a few days post return, to allow for pre-vacation preparations and post-return catch up.
  2. Let clients know you will be away in the days leading up to your vacation. Tell them the dates of your leave and provide name and contact details for whoever is covering for you. Remember to set up an automatic "out of office" email and voice mail message reiterating the above information.
  3. Arrange for solid vacation coverage at the office by priming a trusted colleague to handle hot issues that may arise. Making sure someone is handling things on a maintenance level will give you the confidence to genuinely get away. A reliable coverage attorney will know to contact you if there is a true emergency that legitimately requires your immediate attention -- and, equally importantly, will know to leave you alone if matters can wait.
  4. Turn off your smartphone and avoid checking your email, or at least defer responding to it until a specific window each day. You don't want to find yourself hovering over your device and missing your kid's triumphant cannon ball launch off the diving board! If necessary, carve out a short period -- say, 30 minutes -- to periodically review and respond to essential email.
  5. Do not bring work with you! Unless absolutely necessary, leave the deposition transcripts, the thumb drives, the piles of professional articles and the ominous red accordion files at the office. Your piles of work will undoubtedly be there when you return.

Of course, one can pick and choose from the above strategies and, in reality, the author of this article occasionally violates his own advice. It is not easy to resist the urge to respond to messages immediately or to ignore the ping of a new email alert; but with resolve, some planning and a bit of consistent effort, one can practice the art of the true vacation. We can then return to our professional lives fulfilled, refreshed and more productive than ever -- with renewed enthusiasm for the legal work at hand and a new conviction that we can and will enjoy another extracurricular excursion before too long.3

Footnotes

1"Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime," Scientific American(, By Ferris Jabr (Oct. 15, 2013) http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/mental-downtime

2"Vacation's Impact on the Workplace" Paid Time Off Productivity report by the Society for Human Resource Management http://www.projecttimeoff.com/sites/default/files/PTO_SHRMProductivity_Report_0.pdf

3A special thanks to my colleague Peg Malt for her editorial assistance with this piece and to my wife and children, with whom I very much look forward to sharing my next vacation.