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.
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.