Ask The Engineers: How Do You Unplug?

Ask The Engineers: How Do You Unplug?

This week I’m on my (belated) honeymoon in Hawaii. As I’ve written about before (on my wedding day, no less!), my wife is a wonderful person to put up with my engineering ways. This time, I’m actually writing this post in advance, because I’m attempting to unplug and relax while I’m away.

No, not completely. I’ll be in pretty much constant contact with the outside world if necessary, though the plan is to unplug as much as possible. Baby steps, y’know?  However, my first big decision was not to take my laptop with me. While I’ll still have access to email and Twitter and the rest of those time-wasters out there, it will be on my phone. And you know what is much easier on my laptop than on my phone? Writing substantial emails and doing work. So I likely won’t do either. In essence, I’m just making it a little more inconvenient to be on the internet.

My main concern is not missing out on something. I’ve found that anything worth mentioning is brought up time and time again, often weeks after the fact. So that’s not an issue. I’m not worried about my radio show (our unofficial 3rd member is kindly taking over for 2 weeks) nor am I worried about Engineer Blogs (we have lots of great editors and admins here!). No, my main concern is actually more that I’ll have such an overabundance of ideas that I’ll go crazy thinking them over and trying to develop them in my head.

It makes sense, right? I’ve written before about the crazy places people come up with their ideas. The common thread is that most of the activities are passive, so the mind can wander; and in case you didn’t happen to click through to that old article, I think it’s worth bringing up Scott Adams’ statement that true creativity requires that you be bored (paywalled WSJ extension of that idea here). If I’m actively trying to unplug, I fear my brain will start shouting to let the ideas out! I’ll have to rely on a trusty pad of paper in order to capture all those ideas. And I’m not alone in this way of working; Steve Wozniak wrote in his autobiography about working alone as an engineer and how it’s a necessity. Why is that? Because when you’re by yourself, your brain wants to get ideas out. And when you’re developing ideas, your brain keeps wanting to focusing on those same ideas, which might not be possible if you have co-founders pulling you in many other directions. Though I’ve written (in my first article!) that I prefer to work in teams, I completely understand this mindset and think it actually depends upon the situation and project.

So what about you? Are you able to unplug? How do you deal with the ideas that flow forth from your engineering brain? Have you ever or do you regularly cut off ALL contact from the world? And what kind of effect has all of this isolation had on your engineering efforts? Let us know in the comments!


Thanks to functoruser for the picture of the plug!


I don’t ever disconnect completely. I’ll admit I’m a connection addict enough that it makes me itchy to be completely out of touch for more than a couple hours. Besides when I have an idea I immediately check out a) if someone’s done it already and b) if it’s feasible.

I ran across this video of John Cleese talking about where creativity comes from:

He echoes a lot of what you’ve said. I’ve also found some of my best solutions come from “the back burner” where I don’t consciously think about a problem. But I don’t really feel that problem solving and creativity are tapping into the same inspiration.

Disconnection was never a problem for me over thirty-five years of engineering. I always loved travel. I’ve been around the world nine times and visited over forty countries, some as many as twenty times. (Ahh, France. Food, wine, desert, Je ne sais quas)

Around the world trips involve going somewhere, then somewhere else, then somewhere else. Sometimes I visited six or eight places on a trip. That keeps your mind alive. Calculating exchange rates if nothing else. Once I took a small laptop and used it to write impressions of my trip, floating down canals in France. I never called home, even during five week vacations. If the house burned down or the company went bankrupt, I would deal with it when I got home. I never wasted a day of vacation, except when I crossed the date line!

Disconnection is regeneration. Connection is brain-draining.

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