The Lost Art of Downtime

Anne Tergesen

I just returned from a week off. Our itinerary (Disney World, Yankee spring training) wasn't designed to maximize R&R. But despite activity-filled days, I did get some much-needed mental downtime. No email. No deadlines. No “to do” list. No tiresome juggling of the demands of work and home. For the first time in months, I felt totally focused on the moment “instead of doing things with half a mind and spirit”—to quote a former colleague.

Sounds par for the course when it comes to vacation, right? No way. Thanks to BlackBerries, cellphones, laptops, and overnight mail, my husband and most of the friends we linked up with on our travels were in constant touch with colleagues and clients. During a Yankees game, my husband conducted a conference call while two of our sons sat on his lap singing “God Bless America.” At a pizza party in our hotel room last Saturday night, a lawyer friend whipped out his BlackBerry: “We have a filing due on Monday,” he explained. An investment banker had it worst of all: A conference call at Disney World; documents expressed mailed to his hotel room; at least one morning holed up with his laptop; and constant BlackBerry messages. The poor guy even tapped out messages on his Crack—er, I mean Black—Berry at a restaurant as fireworks from the Magic Kingdom exploded in the distance. But he was smart enough to make the best of his misfortune: Every day, after parking in one of Disney’s vast lots, he’d email himself the location of his car.

With all of this frenzied work going on during roller coaster rides and 7th inning stretches, I hit upon a rather obvious conclusion: Technology has rendered downtime obsolete (at least for lawyers and bankers). My husband argues the phenomenon isn’t new and that technology isn’t the problem. He says that because so much of his work is done in teams, each member has to be on call around-the-clock or nothing would ever get accomplished. Without his BlackBerry, he’d have spent more of our vacation on a cellphone. Without his cellphone, he’d have been stuck in the hotel room.

But I’m not convinced. It’s hard for me to believe that the hundreds of emails and dozen or so phone calls he received over the week were all necessary. Technology makes it so easy to be in touch all the time, it seems to encourage the habit of compulsive communication. Moreover, when you’re sitting on the beach or at a ballgame and an email pops into your inbox, it’s hard not to take “just a few minutes” to read and respond—whether the matter is crucial or not.

My goal isn’t to criticize my friends or husband, who seem to do a pretty good job of coping. Instead, my point is to express alarm about the endangered state of downtime. “Downtime is a lost art,” says Dr. Edward Hallowell, a psychiatrist and expert on Attention Deficit Disorder.

I recently about his new book, “CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap—Strategies for Coping in a World Gone ADD” (Ballantine Books; $24.95). In it, he argues that our society is afflicted with an environmentally induced form of ADD, brought on by technology and activity overload. The solution? Turn off your cellphones and BlackBerries as often has you possibly can. And ruthlessly prioritize by “giving yourself permission to end relationships and projects” that are draining, Hallowell advises. In other words, reclaim some downtime—not just to save your sanity and family time, but to ensure your mind gets the rest it needs to function creatively. Hopefully, employers will get the message before employees get too burnt out.