Unplugging: Is It Possible for An Entrepreneur to Truly Take a Vacation?




Thud! Screeeeech!


Me: Jesus, Jeff, what was that?!

Kids: (screaming from the back seat) Mommy, Daddy, did we just crash the camper?!? Are we there yet?

Me (back to the kids): “Everything’s fine, and no, we’re not there! We just pulled out of the driveway!”

Jeff (on an extremely important call for work): “Hold on everyone, I’m sorry I am just trying to get out of town at the moment. I thought we would be further along by now, and it would be a better time to stop and take this call.”

Me(mutters under my breath): “Yes, we were supposed to be more than an hour along by now, and it wasn’t because of me and the kids! I told you this was going to happen!”

Jeff (into his phone): “One second!” (as he gets out of the camper to access the damage and see what happened. Jeff takes his phone off of his ear and quickly whispers to me, “just scraped the bike rack on the pavement while getting out of the driveway. All good!” “Now, what highway do I take?” then back to his phone, “ok, everything’s fine, everyone, now where were we?”

Neighbor (whose house we were stopped outside of): “Hey, I don’t know what you have going on right here, but I like it! Everything ok?”

Jeff (friendly wave while still on the important phone call and trying to driving a 24 ft camper with all of us screaming…): “We’re good!”

Me: Seriously?! I don’t think this is a good time to be on an important phone call! Let me drive! We take C-470…


This all happened within the first five minutes of the start of our 11-day RV trip. The first vacation we had taken this year. A vacation we desperately needed. A vacation I was unsure if it would be a wonderful adventure or a wonderful disaster. And the way things were going on the first day, I was already leaning toward the latter. (By the way, I never would condone being on the phone while driving, let alone driving a 24 ft camper for the very first time! Yes, we had words after that!)


Of course, attempting to get out of town before a vacation is never an easy task, especially when young kids are involved. Planning, preparing, and packing for an 11-day RV trip took this to a whole nother level! Usually, the vast majority of the trip details and prep work tend to land on my plate since Jeff is typically working late and overwhelmed with tying up loose ends and squeezing in last-minute meetings before he takes time off of work (hence the important call he was trying to squeeze in). This trend of both of us taking on more than we probably should and then scrambling to get it all done leads to a rough beginning to most of our trips. We start the majority of our trips stressed to our max, exhausted and frustrated at one another. This trip was no different.


However, after the initial difficulty and frustration of packing up and getting on the road, things settled down, and we began to relax. I had made a great road trip playlist we were jamming out to. The kids were finally sleeping. I was starting to think this trip was going to be fun, after all. Suddenly, Jeff turned to me with a panicked look in his eyes, “Oh my gosh, you will never believe what I forgot.”


Me (racking my brain of all the necessities we needed for this trip (medications, maps, camping gear, tools for the RV, etc.). “What?” I said.


“My computer! I can not believe I did that!” Jeff replied


Oh, yes, a computer. Just what everyone needs on a family camping vacation. But the truth was, I could not believe it either. This was the guy who on our honeymoon backpacking around South America still brought his computer. I have a vivid memory of him sitting in the little cafe in our hostel in the remote village of Iquitos, Peru, video conferencing his sales manager through spotty internet service, trying to get a deal done before we left on a boat through the Amazon jungle for four days.


Jeff always has a computer. He has gotten better over the years, and he doesn’t always use it when he is away from the office, but he always has it “just in case.” It is like his security blanket. I had a nervous pit in my stomach just thinking about how he would handle being without his computer for 11 days. I could only imagine what was going through his head!


“Maybe we should stop at Walmart and just buy the cheapest computer they have just in case I need it. Plus, sometimes it’s just easier to wake up early and at least go through emails or do a couple of things, so it isn’t so overwhelming when I get back,” he said


After some debate and some strong convincing on my part, we decided that we were not going to stop and get a new computer and that he would have to go the whole trip without it. We decided it would be a test, and we both agreed that it was probably the best thing that could have happened for our trip. We then joked about how long it would take for him to start going through serious withdrawals without his “drug” of choice. Though we were joking about it at the time, there is still some seriousness to this joke. In the book The Passion Paradox, psychologists and authors Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness explain how passion and addiction are close cousins and, “the pursuit of excellence, whether it’s in sport, art or business can be equally as enthralling as a drug-induced high.” They go on to explain that, “even though the outcome of pursuits like these may be drastically different than drinking or doing drugs, what is happening inside our brains is very much the same.”


This is why it can be so difficult for a profoundly passionate entrepreneur to simply “unplug” from their work and why everything else can become secondary.


I know that we are not alone in this struggle of balancing work and family time and the question of if an entrepreneur can ever be truly unplugged from work. In fact, it was one of the most common challenges reported by spouses I’ve interviewed. I heard countless stories related to this very topic. One spouse whose husband owned an IT company said:


“You have everyone’s data, and if something goes wrong or something goes down, you are on the hook, so it is a lot of stress and pressure. So every time we would go on vacation, it was stressful because we didn’t know if something was going to happen back at the office.”


She went on to share a story about how they were able to take their first vacation in a very long time, and the second they stepped off the plane at their destination, her husband had a voicemail from their biggest client saying their server was down and they needed to have it fixed immediately. Her husband had to spend the first two days of vacation dealing with that issue. I know this type of situation all too well. So well, that we even have a running joke related to the fact that the biggest issues only happen when we are on vacation. I’m sure you have your own similar vacation story to share too!


Are Entrepreneurs Ever Truly Able to Take Time Off?


The threat of potential critical issues arising, the thought of the enormous amounts of work piling up, the withdrawal of the usual dopamine fix that comes from passionate work, and the sheer mental space the business occupies in their mind can make it nearly impossible for an entrepreneur to unplug and take a true vacation. I have often wondered over the years what it would take to get to the point where Jeff could truly leave his work behind when on vacation. And I found out that for us it took the act of forgetting the computer and also heading to remote destinations without internet or phone service. Now, to be perfectly honest, he did make a couple of phone calls and I would catch him sneaking glances at his email when we would head into town and I know he still thought and worried some about work; but overall these things were very minimal and he made a huge effort to be present and truly relax and unplug. It was a big step and I was really proud of him. Making the effort to unplug from work (or maybe being forced into it in this case) had a positive impact and allowed for more connection as a couple and as a family. It allowed Jeff to be more present during the trip.


The Benefits of Unplugging


One of the best parts of the trip for me was our simple evenings around the campfire. The majority of the campsites we stayed at were off the beaten path in national forests with little to no service or connection to the outside world. There is something very freeing about that. We would all relax at the campsite, eat dinner together, and roast marshmallows around the fire. Then after putting the kids to bed in the RV, Jeff and I would have our own time together by the campfire free of any distractions. This quality, uninterrupted, distraction-free time is rare for us. Jeff has shifted his work schedule to be home early to have family dinners and for the kids’ bedtime routine, but that typically means he has work to finish up after the kids go to bed. Many of the evenings we do spend together, we are both so tired that we end up just watching a TV show and going to bed early! So, being forced to unplug opened up space for more quality time together and deeper connecting conversations.


Research supports what I felt during this trip. Disconnecting from work decreases stress, helps to prevent burnout, and improves marital relations. In both laboratory and natural settings, it has been shown that the mere presence of a cell phone during a conversation causes people to feel less connected to their partner and also rate their partner as less empathically attuned to their needs. This was true even when the phone was out of direct view of the participant! Another study examined individuals who feel they are expected to monitor work communications and emails during non-work hours and what impact that has on them and their families. They found that regardless of the actual amount of time spent on work outside of work hours, the mere feeling of being obligated to do work and maintain electronic communication from home diminishes well-being and puts a strain on their domestic happiness. There have been many studies that have shown the positive effects of truly disconnecting relating to stress and burnout as well. Therefore, if you want more connection, empathy, and overall happiness in your marriage, finding the time to unplug and letting go of the expectation that you should be available to your work at all times is key!

Entrepreneur, author and investor, Brad Feld, is very vocal about the benefits of intentionally unplugging from work and forcing himself to take real vacations to rejuvenate and reconnect with his wife. In his book The Startup Life, as well as in a recent interview on the Tim Farris Podcast, Feld stressed the importance of this for entrepreneurial couples and shared how it saved his marriage. He recommends taking at least one “off the grid vacation” together each year. He explained that these vacations should be focused solely on relaxation, rejuvenation, and enjoying each other’s company. They should also be free of any technology whatsoever! So that means no phones, internet, computers, and no TV for the entire trip.


Entrepreneurial couple and authors of the newly released book Love of Work, Andre & Jeff Shinabarger, shared that it took Andre getting to a point of extreme burnout and depression to make a radical change in how they view taking time off and fully unplugging from work. At that time, they decided to take a three-month sabbatical to a remote eco-lodge in the mountains of Nicaragua. They have continued to make these extended vacations a priority by taking a break during the entire month of June to travel overseas with their two kids. Not only do they say they recommend this to other couples, but they say “many people say they couldn’t afford to do this kind of thing. But we couldn’t afford not to take time off and be with one another.”


I have heard this idea about taking a sabbatical from a few spouses of entrepreneurs I have interviewed as well. One spouse told me they take a three-month sabbatical every three years, so it is something that they can plan and look forward to. She works full-time and her husband owns a small business, so she said that it was very nerve-racking for them to do this the first time. They wondered if the necessary work would get done or if things would fall through the cracks in their absences; however, it made them both realize that “maybe we are not as important as we think. Things will still function without us and the business will not fail just because we are gone for a few months.” I definitely think there is something to be said for this!


Look, I know many of you are probably reading this and thinking yes taking a three-month sabbatical or even a week vacation free of technology sounds great, but that’s just not possible for us! I get it and the truth is that it hasn’t been truly possible for us yet either. Many factors such as being in the beginning or a difficult phase of the company, having young kids, tight finances, etc can all make it more difficult to get away and a week without technology or an extended sabbatical might not be possible. Still, the concept of setting aside some period of time for you and your spouse to disconnect from everything so you can truly reconnect is attainable and necessary for everyone. Especially for entrepreneurial couples! This RV trip helped to solidify this notion for us and helped Jeff to see that it is possible to disconnect from work. This can happen by starting small. Brad Feld suggests, “if you can’t take a week off the grid, then start with a weekend and if you can’t take a weekend, then start with a day.” Start small and build from there.


Possible Doesn’t Mean Easy


Just because it is possible for entrepreneurs to truly unplug from work, doesn’t mean it is easy...Remember how I told you the experts compared the rush obtained by the pursuit of excellence in business to experiencing a drug-induced high?! In addition, when you own a business sometimes there are things that are going to come up that need immediate attention such as in the example one spouse shared with me about their largest client’s server going down the first day of vacation. That is just something that comes with the territory of being an entrepreneur and business owner. Sometimes things happen that are outside of our control and unfortunately, we don’t usually get to decide when many of the challenges faced in the business occur! Therefore, as the spouse of an entrepreneur, when it comes to vacations, having realistic expectations, and being flexible while also setting appropriate boundaries to unplug is a must. Like I mentioned, on our recent RV trip, there were a couple of calls Jeff needed to make due to some unforeseen challenges that arose while he was gone. We discussed this and decided when the best time to make the calls would be then when he was done dealing with the urgent matter he made the effort to put his phone away and reconnect with the family. Although it may be difficult to fully unplug, and there may be some bumps and scrapes as you leave, the benefits of “leaving the driveway” are abundant!



Bonus Activities

  1. Plan a time you can have an “off the grid” vacation with your spouse. This doesn’t have to be long, expensive, or elaborate. Even if it’s just a one day staycation where you hide all technology and focus on relaxing, rejuvenating and enjoying each other’s company, I know it will be worth it!

  2. Make a long term goal with your spouse about when and how you can make a week long “off the grid vacation,” and/or extended sabbatical a reality. Begin working toward that goal today!


References:

Becker, W. J., Belkin, L., & Tuskey, S. (2018). Killing me softly: Electronic communications monitoring and employee and spouse well-being. Academy of Management Proceedings, 2018(1). doi:10.5465/ambpp.2018.121


Feld, B., Bachelor, A. (2013). The Startup Life: surviving and thriving in a relationship with an entrepreneur. USA: Gilden Media.


Misra S, Cheng L, Genevie J, Yuan M. The iPhone Effect: The Quality of In-Person Social Interactions in the Presence of Mobile Devices. Environment and Behavior. 2016;48(2):275-298. doi:10.1177/0013916514539755


Przybylski AK, Weinstein N. Can you connect with me now? How the presence of mobile communication technology influences face-to-face conversation quality. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. 2013;30(3):237-246. doi:10.1177/0265407512453827


Shinabarger, A., Shinabarger, J. (2020). Love or work: is it possible to change the world, stay in love & raise a healthy family? Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA: Zondervan Thrive.


Stulburg, B., Magness, S. (2019). Passion paradox: a guide to going all in, finding success, and discovering the benefits of an unbalanced life. New York, New York, USA: Rondale Books.



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