I vividly remember my first completely unplugged vacation, five years ago, which I had tacked onto the end of a Seattle work trip. I went to Bainbridge Island of all places. I told clients I was taking a week off and wouldn’t be available and completely turned off all electronics. For a week.
The impetus had been a recent article in Delta’s Sky Magazine, which examined this idea of “adult play.” According to author and former Philadelphia 76ers trainer, Kevin Carroll, “Finding your own ‘red rubber ball’ and chasing it to your heart’s content” is the best route to happiness. Carroll states, “I have one ‘look up’ day per week. I spend more time looking up than looking down. It allows me to see new things from new eyes.” That rubber ball for me was travel, and rather than a “look up day,” I wanted an entire look up week.
My fear at the time was that while I worked in travel as a freelance writer and content marketer, I was afraid that I was seeing the world through the lens of assignments, editors, and the brands that I wrote for, rather than seeing the world as it was. Not to mention that my entire work was a by-product of the latest technology trends—social media, blogging, and mobile apps. Many of my closest friends I had even met through Instagram and Twitter. I was constantly “plugged in.”
But while I had never actually felt burned out, I didn’t want to get to that place. I always told myself that once travel became dutiful, I’d stop making travel my work.
During my first couple of unplugged trips, however, I must have appeared rather outlandish. On each trip’s first day, you could find me reaching for my phone or tablet every few minutes, quickly drawing my hand back as I reminded myself that I swore to completely disconnect for a week. By sundown, I was completely bored and in bed.
Nonetheless, by the second or third day, my electronics were out of sight and not seen again until I had returned home several days later. On that first trip, there wasn’t much of Bainbridge Island that I didn’t walk, from the eastern waterfront looking over Elliot Bay of the Seattle skyline to the many trails of Gazzam Lake Nature Preserve, located on the other side of the island. And every night I’d make the long walk from my bed-and-breakfast into town to the harbor, bellying up to the bar to chat up the bartender and other locals. One night I even talked a couple Seattle colleagues (now turned friends) into ferrying over for dinner.
And this became the modus operandi for these trips: to see destinations as they are, without the use or distraction of technology. But even more so, to see destinations on the ground level, walking, meeting with, and depending on locals and local transportation to get around and to view that destination through the eyes of the people who call it home. The goal was never complete isolation but, rather, disconnecting from technology so that I could better connect with myself and the world around me.
Now, 20 unplugged trips later (one every three months), it feels habit-breaking, like I was quitting a harmful habit. While I may not have tangible evidence to prove the worth of such trips, the benefits are obvious to me. I come back empowered, energized, and efficient, and a far better worker than when I left. I’ve made a few mistakes but I’ve learned a lot, and I now like to think I have these dialed in. And you can do it, too. Here are my five steps for planning an unplugged escape of your own:
1. Start small
For my first unplugged trip, to Bainbridge Island, I started small: just a few days. (And it helped to know that Seattle was close by if I found traveling unplugged untenable.) It was like test-driving a car before buying it. While I’ve taken trips from three to 15 days, I’ve found that four to six days is the sweet spot.
2. Stay at an unplugged hotel
More destinations and hotels are catering to the unplugged traveler, creating the environment that cultivates disconnecting, while offering unique experiences. Last year, for example, I stayed at a Mexican jungle yoga retreat, Haramara, just above the Nayarit beach town of Sayulita, where all the suites are off the grid. While the staff hosts yoga retreats, you can set up your own yoga itinerary or have them arrange any number of off-site activities, including surf lessons, fishing, ziplining, or whale-watching.
3. Hang out with unplugged travelers
This was the theme of my latest unplugged trip (two weeks in South America), where I took a five-day trek with Ecocamp, in Patagonia’s Torres del Paine, with 15 other adventurous travelers. With Torres del Paine National Park’s largely rustic accommodations, and devoid of any cell phone service, I couldn’t have gotten online if I wanted to.
4. Turn off those alerts
Typically when I unplug like this, I completely turn off any alerts and delete and disconnect all email and social media apps from my phone. However, there are also apps that can curb or block these sites from your phone, such as Offtime, which can limit certain apps, and Flipd, which can lock you out of using your phone for a set amount of time.
5. Set expectations
Lastly, set expectations for employers, friends, and family. This has been one of the most important things for having peace of mind on a trip, plus helping as I transition back into everyday life when I return. I clearly set expectations and “rules of engagement,” especially with clients. And it’s yet to fail, evidenced by this last trip, in which I didn’t have a single work call or text during my trip and caught up on email in 30 minutes upon returning.