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Time to Disconnect? eMail and Vacation

Do you ever struggle with balancing work and family time? I certainly do. Turning off a Blackberry can be hard - even on vacation. No ...

Do you ever struggle with balancing work and family time? I certainly do. Turning off a Blackberry can be hard - even on vacation. No doubt, there's plenty of advice available that tends to go to one of the two extremes - totally unplug or stay connected 24 x 7

   So what's possibly wrong with unplugging for a week or two? The benefits seem obvious, and experts encourage leaders to unplug so that others can to . A vacation should be a time to recharge and get away to de-stress, and many bloggers ( such as this one ) chastise people for reading emails on vacation. One argument goes further and says that your team needs to feel empowered and know that you trust them.  Reading emails on vacation can even send the wrong message to your team.

However, not reading emails at all for 7-10 days can also cause issues. For one, you return to well over a thousand emails (at least in my case), and getting through them can require substantial time and energy once you return.  In addition, what about hot questions or emergency issues sent requiring a quick reply? Yes, you can use "out of office" replies directing senders to others, but I have avoided dozens of major problems and challenges by providing a quick reply to customers or external partners on important projects. 

On the other extreme, there is little doubt that you can ruin the vacation for your entire family if you trot around Disney World looking at you Blackberry all day.  You are probably sending unwanted messages to your loved ones, and your mind may be focused elsewhere. That is not a vacation. I have seen Blackberry addicts at little league baseball games, in lines at amusement parks, and even in the lobby of a church right before a wedding. In each case, the user looked as if the "other activity" was secondary to sending their "essential" message.

So what do I do? Over the years, I've developed some guidelines that seem to work well for my entire family. I certainly "over-text or email" sometimes, and I make mistakes. But allow me to illustrate a middle-of-the road approach.

This past week my family of six enjoyed a wonderful week next to a beautiful lake in Northern Michigan. I knew that our rented house had no Internet access, and I was told that cell coverage was spotty at best.  Yes, there was a landline phone in the house, but at ten cents a minute, I wasn't biting on that hook. My initial plan was to check into the office and catch-up on (only the most important) email two or three times during the week as part of planned visits to Mackinaw City and Mackinaw Island.

 After we arrived, unpacked the car, divided out the bedrooms and ran out onto the dock with the kids to explore, my Blackberry started to vibrate. "I guess it does work up here. This will require discipline. Back to the guidelines," I thought to myself.   I stuck to the guidelines, and in this case they worked well and provided plenty of needed rest.

So what are the guidelines? Every person and situation is different, but I try and follow a "one-hour rule."    Here's what that includes:

  1. No more than one hour of email a day on vacation.
  2. Keep number of "checking-in" times to a minimum. (No more than three times a day.)
  3. Only respond to the most important (red) emails. Skip others or forward to another team member for response.
  4. Never interrupt important activities with kids or my wife Priscilla. (For example: No checking my blackberry at dinner out or during a family game/movie, etc.)
  5. Turn off my blackberry at other times. Reduce temptation to peek when hot emails or calls come in.
    I know. I'm supposed to have this perfected by now, since I wrote a book called Virtual Integrity and a PCIO article on the Seven Habits of Online Integrity . (Habit #5 is balancing online and offline life.) But this is still a constant battle requiring regular adjustments. The key is aligning your real priorities with your actual activities. I also recommend getting input from your family and friends as to how you are actually doing.

    I doubt if my one hour rule will work when I travel with my daughter to South Africa in September (on vacation) to speak at GovTech 2009 in Durban .  I doubt if my Blackberry will even connect, but I'll update you on how that turns out in a later blog.

    Meanwhile, what's your approach to disconnecting? How do you deal with "family time?" Does your Blackberry, iPhone or web-enabled phone travel with you on vacation? Any tips to share?

    I'd love to hear what works for you and what doesn't.

Daniel J. Lohrmann is an internationally recognized cybersecurity leader, technologist, keynote speaker and author.