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During Stress Awareness month many of us – especially parents and teachers – will be planning to travel alone or with our families in an attempt to relax and unwind. I’m just back from 6 days abroad with my wife and children, completely unplugged – no calls, no emails – only using my phone to capture photos to remember the quality time with the family.

In the modern age of endless notifications, dozens or hundreds of emails a day and countless interruptions from all angles, the promise of a completely unplugged holiday can seem both alluring and impossible.

Here’s a summary of how I did it, and what I learned in the process:

Of course, if you’re already practicing GTD®, your holiday has likely been a Project for a while, and you’ve been moving forward by identifying and completing all the Next Actions associated with it.  If you aren’t already using GTD you can still benefit from some of this advice before your well-deserved break.

Prepare yourself

Planning a trip for yourself or a family can be stressful as there are so many moving parts. Get the chaos out of your head by doing a Mind Sweep – grab a piece of paper and write down everything that comes to mind about your upcoming trip (note this may include non-holiday related tasks that still need to be accomplished – more on that later).

If you are like most people, you will feel a sense of grief or relief at the product of your labours – grief at the sheer volume of stuff in your head or relief that at least it’s now all laid out in front of you.  You may experience a bit of both.

Next – it’s time to Clarify and Organise your thoughts.

Decide what everything means; decide if it’s actionable and what the Next Actions/Projects actually are.

Most people will create a Packing Checklist before going on holiday, but what about a “Before Trip” list? What about an “After trip” list? These temporary contexts are great place holders for all the time sensitive things you must do before your break and all the other things that can’t be actioned until afterwards but still need some urgent attention.

If you already have an existing GTD system, scan your Next Actions and Projects lists and move anything that is mission critical to these lists – be prepared to work almost exclusively from your “Before trip” list in the week or two leading up to your holiday (this list is likely to include all of those loose ends that might exist at work/home/school etc. that aren’t necessarily linked to your vacation).

As you’ll be unplugged on holiday you may also want to create a “During trip” list to organise things you may want to do/see or even buy, plus conversations you might need to have with, say, the hotel concierge.

Of course, if you’re used to using digital capture tools but don’t want to on holiday, you will need to ensure that you have paper capture tools handy and a folder to park them in – I managed fine with the pen and small pad provided in the hotel room – and printed copies of documents such as tickets, reservations and medical information.

I thoroughly recommend adding an extra day to your Out of Office and having a meeting-free day (if possible) on your return to work to catch-up and deal with accumulated backlog.

Prepare others

A lot of the stress of day-to-day work comes from commitments we’ve made to others or things that we are Waiting For from others.

Do your colleagues, friends and family a favour and chase any time sensitive actions/items that you are Waiting For and scan your calendar out for at least a week after your holiday – be on the lookout for potential problems in your absence – also prepare or offer solutions.

Your “Before Trip” list will ensure that you haven’t dropped that ball on anything at your end before you leave.

Finally, send a polite reminder to important colleagues, clients etc. that you will have no access to your phone or email the week before your trip. This gives them time to prepare for your departure.

Try your best to decline anything but essential meetings on your last day in the office and dedicate this to tying up loose ends and dealing with any last-minute fires that may crop up.

Tell your bank that you are going away so that all your cards work without the need for phone verification whilst you are away.

Common questions (FAQs)

Q: But my job is very time sensitive/requires me to be available at the drop of a hat…

A: I get it. The pace of the TV and entertainment industry and the communications within it are relentless too. Prior to my trip, I drafted a message specifically to my agents, producers and of course the Master Trainers at Next Action Associates informing them that I would be taking an unplugged holiday, but also included the name and phone number of the hotel I was staying at should anyone desperately need me.

You won’t be surprised to know that no-one called. But at least we all knew they could.

Q: But I use my mobile phone to do everything…

A: Our smart phones have grown to be ubiquitous thanks to the fact that they are so good at handily allowing us to do multiple things. Take the time to think about how you would perform your regular tasks without your smart phone. But also be realistic about what you need your phone to do when you’re on holiday – you won’t be surprised to find that mine (in Airplane Mode) simply served as nothing more than a camera for my entire trip.

Q: But I need to speak to my spouse/child/parent etc. regularly.

A: I call my folks every day. In this case, if you are really dedicated to taking an unplugged holiday, I’d pay the extra to call from the phone in your hotel room and absorb the monetary cost in exchange for the value of not turning your phone on.  You could also get a SIM card for the country you’re visiting when you land for this purpose, but I don’t think it’s necessary.

Problems and solutions

My unplugged holiday wasn’t without any hiccups, so I thought it’d be worth reflecting on these and proposing some solutions that I will be implementing next time:

  • Needing the internet to do ‘x’… in my case, it was Check-in for flights home, do my daily Duolingo practice and scan QR codes for menus in the resort restaurants. My solutions was simply to borrow my wife’s phone, but an alternative could just have easily been to use the computer in the hotel lobby. Once I explained that my phone was going to remain in Airplane Mode so that I could be completely present with my family, hotel staff were more than happy to supply me with a printed menu on request.
  • Cloud storage – I take a lot of pictures. Doubly so on holiday. Like most people these days, these are stored automatically online, freeing up valuable storage on my actual smart phone. Having not been connected to the internet at all for 6 days, these large photo files sat on my phone until I landed at London Gatwick. Unfortunately, I thought that this would resolve itself once I was back online, but my phone needed a little reserve memory to start syncing back to the cloud – cue frantic deleting of files and apps that were hosted on my phone.

Two possible solutions here: 1. Invest in a digital camera with a large memory card, thus avoiding the issue completely. 2. Instead of running your phone in Airplane Mode, choose “Do Not Disturb mode” but set it to run from 00:00 to 00:00. This will silence notifications but still keep you connected – also allowing you to make calls and do online check-in etc. too – be warned though – it can be very tempting to just check-in on mail, social media etc. once you’re online.

Today I ticked “Family holiday to Crete 2023” off my Projects list. The Desired Outcome of quality family time and fun had by all was most definitely achieved.

On reflection the biggest win for me was knowing that all of the other commitments in my life were waiting for me safe in my GTD system for when I was ready to engage with them – a true product of Stress-Free Productivity.  

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