An Argument For Downtime

In its Lexington column last week, The Economist correspondent who writes in that space lamented the fate of Britons -- and indeed any European -- working on American soil.  You see, Brits and their Euro counterparts are accustomed to a great deal of vacation time, whereas we Americans can't even seem to use the meager allotment we get each year.

According to research done by travel search-and-reservation company Expedia, the average American adult is allotted about 13 days of paid vacation time each year.  By contrast, the average Briton receives twice the number of days on average as his Yankee counterpart and the average Frenchman (though, it must be said, there's nothing average about any single French person) gets 38 days.  Thirty-eight.

I know.

Here's the real scandal: though Americans get the fewest number of paid vacation days in the industrialized world, we fail to take even that (comparatively) small allocation, giving back, according to Expedia, a total of 436 million days per year.

In another report last week, this one from WHYY's "Fresh Air" on NPR, Terry Gross interviewed Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Matt Richtel of The New York Times.   In his capacity as technology reporter for the Gray Lady, he writes about ongoing research being done on the impact on humans of being "always on" -- that is, what toll it may be taking now that a powerful computer with a screen, which beeps, buzzes and rings almost constantly, is in a growing number of pockets and purses across America, a device that most Americans regard as indispensable, even during the few days of vacation we actually grant ourselves.

In the interview, Richtel described a research "vacation" that a number of academics took, which included travel to a remote area of Utah with no cell phone service, no 3G and no Internet access.  The entire team was forced to be "always off."

"You start to feel more relaxed. Maybe you sleep a little better. Maybe you don't reach for your phone pinging in your pocket," Richtel said. "Maybe you wait a little longer before answering a question. Maybe you don't feel in a rush to do anything  -- your sense of urgency fades."  Richtel termed it the "three-day effect," referring to the amount of time it seemed to take before people began to really relax.

My fellow and sister Search Insiders and I spend a great deal of time writing about the virtues of search, how to optimize it, how it could be better, and how companies can improve the ROI of their search marketing campaigns.  We often extol the virtues of the rise of mobile search and how being "always on" can make our lives more efficient, more effective, more social, and more connected.  And all of this is true.

But as I head off to my own (long-overdue and too-short) vacation to the British Isles, where my partner and I will join dear friends who are American expats living and working in the U.K., and who thus enjoy an average of 26 days of paid time off each year, I travel with all the accessories that will ensure I'm never really "always off."  I'll have my iPhone (natch); my partner will have his iPhone and an iPad, to boot; and we both will have our MacBook Pros (hey: we're natives of the San Francisco Bay Area -- fanboydom is a requirement of the place.)  Our friends, who work for Deutsche Bank and Dell, respectively, will be similarly connected (though with things like BlackBerries and Nokias and, well, Dells...)

The Time' s Richtel tracks researchers who worry that the consequences of too little downtime will mean Americans may, over time, suffer cognitive impairments; that our addiction to the little bursts of dopamine our bodies release each time our mobile devices buzz or beep or ring or sing out the latest Justin Bieber hit (to the horror of many) will lead to a permanent state of distraction -- a persistent lack of focus.  And an inability to truly relax.

We Americans take far too little time for ourselves.  And we're among the most connected people anywhere.  This means, of course, that we're also the most productive people on the planet, which is why we lead in innovation, invention and creative enterprises.  But it seems there may be a cost. 

So in this one column, I encourage you to log off if you haven't yet this year.  For at least three days. As soon as possible.  As you read this, I'll be attempting to do the same myself.  Bon chance.

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5 comments about "An Argument For Downtime".
  1. Suzanne Sanders from S2 Advertising , August 30, 2010 at 12:47 p.m.

    Interesting read. I just got back from a two week vacation in Europe. It was the longest vacation I have ever took which is a shame in itself. My European friends and family couldn't beleive that it was my first two week vacation. After throughly enjoying the European Culture and lifestyle, I came to the conclusion that Americans spend too much time working. The Europeans work to live while Americans live to work.

  2. Thomas Siebert from WOLFGANG SOLO: Strategic Communications & Benevolent Propaganda , August 30, 2010 at 1:52 p.m.

    Suzanne nails it. Americans work their life away, don't spend nearly enough time relaxing and tuning out to recharge. Europe has it right -- everybody should get a month's vacation, reconnect with family, friends, a more natural life.

    But it's hard. Even while I'm in the most rural place I know, Ocracoke Island, I find myself jones-ing to get information on baseball's pennant races, share pix on Facebook, catch Mad Men On Demand. Maybe if I actually managed to let go for 3+ days I'd feel differently, but having information so easily accessible provided pleasurable relief.

    Good piece.

  3. Melissa Lande from lande communications , August 31, 2010 at 10:27 a.m.

    Read the Evolving Self by Mihaly Czikzentmihalyi, author of a wonderful book called Flow. This book is "a psychology for the third millennium" and discusses how the human species literally has to go through evolution to cope with this new world of quick communication- He's an insightful psychology expert who writes with depth and warmth, using both science and legend to get his point across. Only problem is I wonder who will sit down with a book after coping each day with so much stimulation. Turning it all off is not always possible to stay in the money game (which is no game) and it may be a Lady or Tiger decision. Turn it off: you may not make money. Keep it on: you may go into complete overwhelm, no doubt affecting your health. Good article, Derek. www.landepr.com

  4. Pamela Page , August 31, 2010 at 10:46 a.m.

    I thought your readers might like to know about a 48-hour Media Fast challenge called The Sound Off for Poverty. (www.soundoffforpoverty.org) It's a great way for youth to tune out their media distractions as a group and tune in to God's heart for the poor in America.

  5. Debbie Newhouse from Newhouse Strategic Marketing, Inc. , August 31, 2010 at 12:12 p.m.

    Derek I enjoyed your article and have found it frustrating in the past when the passion of the team was all over the board. And it's next to impossible to motivate some to a level of performance that is needed at times.

    Yes, I think we spend so much of our lifetime at work that it is important to define your passion, you may be brilliant at something; however if that's not what you enjoy then you should feel free to move on.

    Europe, oh yes their life balance is amazing and well said Suzanne.

    Good discussion points!