Technology expert recommends taking a tech vacation

Rey Junco is a widely recognized technology expert who’s often quoted for his expertise by the national media. But twice a year, he unplugs and turns all of his gadgets off.

“For me, it’s for mental health reasons,” Junco said. “It’s for psychological well-being. It’s for balance. I can’t get away from the psychological pull of technology any other time, so why not during a time when I have a planned break?”

Junco is an associate professor of education and human computer interaction at Iowa State University and a faculty associate at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.

He researches social media and new technology, examining their effects and how they can be used to enhance learning outcomes. The nature of his work requires him to interact regularly with technology.

“For instance, I’ve done quite a bit of research on Yik Yak,” Junco said of the social media app with discussion threads about the casual, relatable, heartfelt, and silly things that people nearby are saying. “I kept using Yik Yak longer than when a typical user’s interest might wear off because I wanted to get a better picture of the platform.”

Email no longer a productive tool

Of all the technology platforms that Junco works with, he said email takes the biggest chunk of his time.

Junco ascribes to the philosophy of David Allen, author of the book Getting Things Done, that the things we have left to do exert an unconscious pull on us. But Junco said the volume of emails he receives makes it difficult to accomplish everything he has to do.

“I have often thought of it as a choice between getting my work done or answering emails,” he said.

Junco receives about 50 emails that require a response each day, in addition to emails received as part of a list or group. He had to get a paid Gmail account to hold the large volume of emails. For one year, he even spent his own money hiring an email assistant to help him stay on top of the load.

“I am not the only one who believes that email is no longer a productivity tool,” he said. “I think it detracts quite a bit from productivity.”

Taking a true break

Junco started taking tech breaks over five years ago, when he wanted his vacation time to be a true time off.

“For me, not working is also not being on tech,” Junco said. “I’m going to be spending time with my family. I’m going to be spending time with my son. I don’t want to be emailing people about work or projects or anything like that.”

He takes two tech breaks each year: one in the summer and one in December around the holidays.

But Junco soon found that coming back to an overloaded inbox made returning to work more stressful, and began to cause stress while still on vacation — defeating the purpose of the break.

So during his last vacation, he decided to take it a step further: deleting all emails received while he was out of the office. Junco created an automatic reply email and activated it slightly in advance of his vacation, to let people know that if they needed to reach him, they would need to resend their email when he returned.

“Was it peaceful? Yes!” Junco said. “The first day is hard. You get a little itchy because you are used to checking. But after the first day? Awesome!”

During the break, Junco was able to relax and spend time with his 9-year-old son, including going to see the new Star Wars movie.

“I didn’t see any Star Wars spoilers,” Junco said. “I was waiting to see Star Wars with my son in Miami and so I had to wait five days. No email, no Facebook, no Twitter — so no spoilers!”

Returning to technology

Junco’s experience taught him how refreshing a break can be. He plans to continue using this technique to improve his workflow and mental balance, including blocking off chunks of time to turn off email, Facebook, and other technology distractions so he can focus.

“I’m a big believer in the benefits of technology because of my research,” Junco said. “It’s all in the framing and how people are using the technologies and what effect it has on them. And that’s what people have to figure out for themselves. For me, I was very clear about what it was doing.”

Junco is also using Twitter less and has deleted the Facebook app from his phone. But he still finds the platforms valuable overall.

“I believe in communicating my research results broadly and openly to have an impact for educators,” he said. “So I do share my work via social media.”

Junco found that deleting emails during his last vacation was especially beneficial. When he returned, only three emails were re-sent. Otherwise, the flow continued as normal without a stressful backlog.

“I had a lot of colleagues who said, ‘I am so jealous that you are doing that,’” Junco said. “My response was I have been thinking about it for years — many, many years.”

Although he heard positive and understanding responses, Junco said he could understand how it could have been frustrating for some to not be able to immediately reach him, as it’s not common for people to take breaks from email and delete all emails received during the break.

“I think it would be cool for other people to do it and thereby making it a thing that people do, so it’s much more common and understood,” he said.