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How to Avoid Burnout and Take a Digital Break

“Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.” ~Pema Chodron

By the end of 2011, I was trying my hardest not to see it: burnout.

I’d been going full steam ahead since I turned my part-time business into a full-time vocational mission, back in 2009. When people remarked that I was doing a lot, I would wave away their comments and say facetiously, “Well, you know—I’m a Sagittarius with three planets in Virgo.”

Part of the reason I didn’t want to really look at what was going on was that 2011 had been a banner year. After years of hard work, I was (finally!) starting to see the benefits that come with it: increased traffic, more clients, and more requests to collaborate on projects with people I admired.

But the burnout was obvious: not looking forward to Mondays, not wanting to check email, feeling perpetually tired and overwhelmed, and sometimes, resentful.

I really wanted to be away from the computer, away from email, and definitely not getting distracted with social media. This thought was always followed by an immediate fear: “I can’t do that! I’ll lose everything I’ve worked for!”

But as Chodron says, fear is what happens when we move closer to the truth.

My truth was that I wanted a complete digital break. So finally, from December 15th 2011 through January 15th 2012, I took one.

Since so many people have asked me “how” I could possibly run a business and take thirty days away from being online, I’ll share what I learned.

Is it possible that this is something you could do for yourself, too?

First and foremost, the hard part is simply deciding—and sticking to—taking the thirty days.

It’s easy to tell yourself that you’ll start “after XYZ is finished,” which is a great way to make sure that the sabbatical never happens! There will always be “something else to finish.”

Second, about two weeks before my sabbatical, I began telling everyone what I was doing so that they would know that I wouldn’t be available via email during that time.

I got ahead on anything that would be due immediately after I returned from my sabbatical, so that I wouldn’t come back and be slammed with work. I pre-scheduled updates to my social media accounts so that my clients and readers wouldn’t suddenly have zero updates, and I set up an auto-responder for my email.

Third, it’s worth noting that I didn’t finish everything.

Email conversations that were open, for instance. Taking a digital break is about being willing to surrender, to let go completely, and to trust that when you return, it’s all going to be okay. Everything that needs to get done will get done—and no one will die if you aren’t checking email every day.

If you decide to take a digital break, there will be those things—emails, unfinished projects—that call to you in the back of your mind, especially during the first few days of wide open spaciousness. You’ll be tempted to get back online, just to “take care of one little thing.”

These moments are great moments to practice getting present to your stories, those unconscious beliefs that drive behavior.

What story are you buying into when you believe that you have to take care of “one more little thing” during a time when you’ve promised yourself a break?

In fact, the greatest benefit of a digital break is seeing clearly the compulsive nature of getting online—another way of using fear (compulsive behavior) as a learning experience that gets you closer to your personal truth.

Ask yourself:

What will getting onto Facebook really tell you, that a one-on-one phone call wouldn’t? What’s behind the desire to check your Twitter one more time to see if anything has been re-tweeted?

If I was honest with myself, I found a well of comparisons, fears about enough-ness, and desires to feed my ego behind many of my choices.

The biggest thing I learned during my break was that email and social media were my go-to places when I was feeling anxiety.

Before my digital break, if I was trying to write and feeling blocked, I’d tell myself, “Take a break—what’s happening on Facebook?” Sometimes I’d do it while in the midst of balancing my checkbook! The compulsion to get online was one that was driven by anxiety.

Unfortunately, all of those little, brief “check-outs” were adding up to a major time suck that was leaving me feeling better in the short-term moment, but more overwhelmed in the long-term workday.

The end result of taking 30 days offline was this: I felt better, and despite my fears, my business didn’t suffer.

You don’t have to take an entire 30 days offline, as I did. I would suggest taking at least a week, because the real lessons come with space and distance, but you could start with something as simple as one day or a weekend—no smartphone, no social media, no getting onto the computer.

Ask yourself: What’s compulsive, and what’s a conscious choice? What am I currently trying to avoid seeing in my life? And how might really looking at it be the radical act of courage that shifts it?

Technology makes distraction an easy option, but there’s so much richness that we can gain from taking a break and gaining a new perspective. If you’re at least a little bit curious about what this might hold for you, listen to that whisper.

Set a date. Begin.

Photo by tfkrawksmysocks

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About Kate Swoboda

Kate Swoboda is a coach, speaker, and writer who works with women who want to live unconventional and revolutionary lives through practicing courage. She's the creator of The Courageous Living Guide and The Coaching Blueprint, and she hangs out online at yourcourageouslife.com.

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  • http://crazyintrovert.com/ Glori (CrazyIntrovert)

    Your experience in 2009 is what I’m feeling now. I feel really resentful and very tired. I work hard (my day job) but I don’t see anything from my hard work. I want to take a break but I can’t because I’m the eldest in the family. It may be contradictory, but being online and watching movies are the only stress relief I have.

    But still I wish I could take a break from the responsibility of being the bread winner…

  • http://www.boomerangpr.com Katy Cowan

    Thanks for sharing this. It’s all too easy to go guns blazing with work. Especially when you run your own business. I think it’s crucial to take regular breaks from our increasingly digital world and switch off from too much information overload.  Thanks for sharing your story because it’s a very current issue and one I feel deserves credit. A lot of people will enjoy reading this and it’ll be a good reminder to take a break now and again. I also tweeted your post to my 30,000 followers on @Creative_Boom because I think my community will appreciate it. Thanks, Katy

  • Arachneh

    Holy cow! Timely and spooky — I’ve been mulling over a similar move this past week, and I’m also (synch!) a Sag with three planets in Virgo. Thank you. :)

  • http://www.spokesholistic.com/ Angela Marchesani

    Thank you, Katie!

    Your proposal to ask ourselves how much is compulsive and how much is conscious choice rings especially true— Bringing mindfulness to all aspects of our daily lives can be so liberating. Keep writing! 

  • Howard

    Can relate very well to what you have written here, I’ve had a strange dull, grey, forceful tornado in the back of my mind for the last year, fuelled by running my own business made worse by being successful as this only drove my anxiety deeper inside me and felt like I was getting more and more worked up but wasn’t sure what about. Only now do I realise its the stresses and anxiety of running the business and thinking of every possible outcome that scared me into a state of full alert and restlessness for the last year. I have been resenting looking at emails for a while so think my trip abroad for a long weekend will be more needed than I thought!

  • Kandicenate

    I am going to set my date. It is definitely time!

  • http://twitter.com/GlowingBalance Merja Willock

    Thank you for this! I’m just starting my business and feel the constant pressure of being all around in social media because everyone is saying that it is something that you should do. I feel that because of that my creativity suffers and I feel that it drains me more than gives energy. Time to start to believe in my inner voice and find my own authentic way to do things.

  • Cleopatra3456

    I recently took on the challenge of taking a technological break to preserve my sanity, noticing that I had developed a compulsive behavior to checking my social network sites on a daily basis. I hadn’t realized that doing this caused me a considerable amount of stress, distracting me from my goals and side projects, costing me a lot of time lost. By learning to disconnect myself from technology, I’ve taken control of my bad habits which helps me to be more productive. Its not an easy challenge to take on in this technolgy driven world, but its worth a shot. Set a date and just do it!

  • http://yogicrystal.wordpress.com/ YogiCrystal

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, thank you for this post. It might get me that much closer to a little break from social media and constant checking of email.

  • http://www.unmappedcountry.blogspot.com/ Hope

    I appreciated this post. I’m enjoying watching my blog’s audience increase, but I’ve gotten into a crazy “need” to check and recheck FB or my stats or my Twitter feed (so far only a couple of retweets) and I know it’s compulsive. 

  • http://www.simplemindfulness.com/ Paige – simple mindfulness

    About a month ago I started unplugging on Sunday’s.  Normally my computer and work space are on the dining room table in the middle of all activity in our house.  This sounds crazy but it’s the only way I can watch my small children while I work.  On Sunday’s I move my laptop to my (for now) unused office downstairs so I can’t see it and be tempted.  I love the feeling of seeing an empty dining room table.

    Email is my downfall. I notice a dramatic decrease in the stress in my body when I simply close my email program.  It’s like the world can’t get to me that way.  My time is my own.

    I would love to work up to a 30 day sabbatical but am not sure how it would work with my day job. :(  I’m sure when I have my own business up and running it will be much more manageable.  For now I’ll enjoy my Sunday’s with my family and sneak more of the unplugged time into my Saturday’s.

    Thank you, Kate, for being an inspiration and showing that it’s really possible to unplug and prosper!

  • Jo-Anne

    Great post and it reflects my sentiments about technology. I often quote that technology is a tool………..My Tool…..but I soon realised I allowed myself to be it’s tool.

    It is just a sign of the times when the Doctor you are consulting asks if you are going to answer a call or you are in a public toilet and there is a one sided conversation going on in the next cubicle……No I don’t do either.

    I love to single task now. My mobile phone is a flip top and I use it primarily, to send and receive text and secondly, to receive and make important calls. I have one computer to connect to the internet. I have kindle to read. I have one tv set in the house and we share it as a family. I give my full attention to each only when I have chosen which is most important at that moment.

    I have a car…I don’t compulsively get in and drive it every time I see it. I have a hair dryer…I don’t uses it every time I go to the bathroom…I use them when necessary and I have decided to do the same for for technology. So every day, every moment I get to choose what is ‘necessary’ for me.

    I have letter box at the front of my house and receive important, not so important and junk mail is but I don’t go out and check it every few minutes. I check it when I hear the postie or when I go out or come home. Some days I even forget to do that……and surprise the world stayed on it’s axis.  I am now committed to treat my email inbox the same way and that will be as hard or as easy as I decide it will be.

    I also removed myself from facebook because ‘my friend’s posts were becoming more and more impersonal with less value to me and as I write this I have just gained an insight………….maybe I stay on sites for longer and longer periods to recapture the deeper connection I had with the few ‘friends’ at the beginning. Newsflash….not gonna happen because we are spreading ourselves too thin and even 24/7 online won’t fulfil that need though we do try.

    Here is a technique you may like to try…….if you find a technology fast is not for you, you may like to try a technology feast……I unintentionally did it when I was unwell for a week or more. I was at the computer checking email and facebook and searching the internet and following links with abandon and the tv was on and I was recording all sorts of shows and I texted and I made calls on the land line and and and I minimally did the basics……slept as little as possible and ate what ever was in the house and  stayed in my nighty. One day I ‘woke’ up it wasn’t fun any more it became quite boring.

    Less is best more is a chore……

  • Belinda

    What a great – and most of all, true! – article! Congrats that you ‘dared’ to take that break, most people wouldn’t. Hope you feel better now! All the best and please keep doing your amazing work!

  • Bumpy Bear

    Great article and so true. I actually feel sitting in front of the computer for longer than 30 min. At a time shrinks my brain and completely zap creativity. And I have been feeling burned out from digital media and the best wash is to walk away from it all.

  • Asoka

    I am brutal when it comes to taking a digital break.
    Everybody in the house have to follow suit by default and I pull out all the wired and wireless connections to the router and it works well in my household..
    Then I dismantle all the computers and do a thorough clean up, updates, format and installing Latest Linux distribution of my choice out of over 200.
    This usually takes about two weeks.
    During this period some members go on holiday.
    Others use a dongle or cellphone for most urgent needs.
    Suddenly everybody finds the freedom to enjoy the extra time most welcome which includes sleeping uninterrupted. 
    I wish I could do this twice a year but our work commitments do not permit the second chance of digital hibernation.

  • http://www.peacefoodlove.com/ peacefoodlove (Stacia Trask)

    Thank you. I have always felt like there was something deeply wrong with me to wish for the lights–and all the technology–to go out. For goodness sakes, what I do is cook–I can bypass even technology of the electric start on my gas burners with a simple match if I want to do that! 
    I do find it fascinating that when I go to whip my cooking meditations into blog posts, it can have a frantic feeling, just like whipping. I am better writing entirely offline, or I get pulled by false “needs” (Jonathan Franzen writes in bare room on a computer smashed of anything but its word processing ability).
    Isn’t it funny that “connectivity” actually undermines our ability to authentically connect?I’m no Luddite, and I love technology and social media…but I do notice that I trick myself into believing (with gnawing compulsion) that I HAVE to “just check on” something (the blog, FB, Twitter…) when the absolute truth is, if I take myself out of the mix (save paying bills online and renewing my library books) for a bit, nothing will actually happen–certainly nothing worth that restless dread, numb gut, and spinal compression (metaphorically too…) from sitting there waiting for something to happen, or to “find out” what I already know: go BE.
    I took almost a month off from my blog, determined to write (and eat) only when truly hungry. There have been moments of dread and fear about momentum–all external, “out there” stuff–but once I closed the laptop, I was able to see past it to the real horizon.
    And sure enough…I was able to feel the true sensation of hunger again, in my gut. 
    Thank you for this!

  • http://rathersplendid.org/ Rather/Splendid

    To carry what I learned from my digital sabbatical into real life I found it useful to remove email notifications, social applications and all but my personal email from my phone; and check it only when I am truly wanting to or in front of my computer. 

    I feel digital simplicity is important here too – unsubscribe from newsletters, set Facebook not to notify you that a friend of a friend like a photo that you liked, turn off all unessary IM’s etc.

    All of this aids in keeping focus, reducing burnout and increasing productivity. Then you find yourself enjoying your *insert favorite website(s) here* for fun again!

  • http://rytisb.com Rytis

    Way to go Kate!  Something we should all do once in a while :)

  • http://twitter.com/katecourageous Kate Swoboda

    I really love all of your comments, and all of the support that you’re bringing to this! It was definitely a tough decision, but it’s one that reaps so many rewards. I am trying to find other small ways to take digital breaks throughout the year, so that I’m no longer getting to a place where I’m needing such a long amount of time. Thus far, I’ve been really successful with that. Thank you, all, for reading! ~ with care ~ Kate

  • http://twitter.com/katecourageous Kate Swoboda

    Yes! I *so* understand how that pressure can feel! ;-)

  • http://twitter.com/katecourageous Kate Swoboda

    We’ve got to stick together, right? ;-)

  • http://twitter.com/katecourageous Kate Swoboda

    I think Sundays are a beautiful day to start–the day of rest, right? ;-)

  • http://twitter.com/katecourageous Kate Swoboda

    Thanks, Katy! I’m glad that it resonated with you and your readers–and really glad that there is more of a movement building around taking this time off. Otherwise, I think what happens is that we all start to assume that “that’s the way it is” or “that’s just the price you pay for working for yourself.” ;-)

  • http://twitter.com/katecourageous Kate Swoboda

    I have total trust that you will find that place. Sometimes just putting what we wish for out to the world at large is enough to have something, somewhere, respond with a new idea or opportunity. And I hear you–sometimes some online surfing and movie watching is exactly how I need to decompress, too.

  • http://crazyintrovert.com/ Glori (CrazyIntrovert)

    Thanks Kate! As update, I’m actually going to quit my job soon and my family fully supports my decision! I’m finally going to be be able to do what I want to for the first time in along time!

  • http://twitter.com/phdemoulin Philippe Demoulin

    Great post and I totally “see me” in this burnout (mine was in 2009): I was able to take a complete digital break during one month: I decided to work in a forestry development for a month.. 6am to 6pm cutting trees.. then to tired to loggin on any device (iPhone, computer, TV)… this one month work was a salving therapy !

  • http://reviewsheview.blogspot.com/ Puneet
  • ChiropracticCoaches

    Thank you for these wonderful article. Technological advances though they are great. They sometimes cause us too much stress. Is there any places where we could go and just relax without technology by your side?

  • http://www.facebook.com/Hamon1215 James Johnson

    great post I too am Sagittarius, and everything you said descibes exactly were I am right now with my business,getting away from technology, ect I always felt I was the only one now I see I’m not alone thanks:).

  • vik

    Thank you.