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Ask HN: Learning to switch off
31 points by waldr on July 15, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 39 comments
What do you guys do to try and switch off from your work? I am completely wired in. I never feel relaxed or refreshed, I can't concentrate on anything else (I've tried watching movies, reading, running etc).

Even on days where I've planned to recoup I wake up ultra early, read / respond to emails, check metrics / analytics, read posts in my pocket, scroll through twitter, browse HN .. it goes on.

Has anyone found some successful hacks to lose themselves for a few hours?

I'm sure YMMV, but I'll relay one of the best bits of advice that I ever got. My employer had a "health day" where they brought in some health professionals and let all of us go and talk to them throughout the day (trainer, chiropractor, psychiatrist, acupuncturist, etc).

The psychiatrist asked some basic questions about my family, my daily routine, and I mentioned a very similar comment as the one that you've posed. He suggested getting a small notebook that can fit in my pocket and a pen. When I get on the train after work (live in NJ, work in NY), just take out the pad of paper, and start writing, stream-of-conciousness, every single thing that's in my head. From things that worry me, to things I want to do, problems I've had at work, everything. And then once I'm done, tear out the piece of paper and throw it away.

I was somewhat skeptical, but I gave it a shot ... and you know what? I do find that when I do that I am very much more relaxed later on in the evening when I get home. According to him, just the act of writing down your thoughts helps your brain process them much better. Once you've gone through the act of putting them on paper (I assume it'd probably work the same if you talked to someone similarly) your brain doesn't have to sit there and churn on it. And because you've thrown the piece of paper away you don't have to worry about holding back in case someone else finds it and reads it at some point.

This gives me the headspace to do what I want when I get home, or on the weekend ... whether that's to be with my family, or even work on side projects. One minor note, I don't actually use a pen and paper. I simply open a new word doc on my phone, type away, and then close the doc without saving.

Give it a shot :)

Hey - thanks this is awesome advice. I've tried it today and actually enjoyed it. It's made it easier to get clarity on my thoughts and led to some useful ideas

Glad you enjoyed it :) I was actually looking for this video back when I posted this reply but couldn't find it. Just found it though ... this is a great talk at Google by Chade-Meng Tan, I highly encourage you to give it a watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r8fcqrNO7so

In particular, the part about training for mindfulness has also been extremely helpful for me. I'm really starting to believe his assertion that learning to calm your mind can be trained. I tend to close my eyes and focus on breathing while I'm on the train after I finish the stream-of-consciousness exercise from above; this might sound silly, but I even notice that the muscles in my face are more relaxed after I do these things :)

Before getting into how to have an intervention, let's look at why:

0) It's totally possible to be super committed and working really hard hard in your startup. It's up to you to realize that a lot of your effort likely isn't getting you a productive return. Do work in batches.

1) Your technology exists to serve you, not the other way around.

2) The world and universe will not stop functioning without you.

3) There are very few problems in life that can't wait 1-2, if not 4 hours.

4) You are not always wired in, you are always distracted. It's why you're tired, unfocused, likely unproductive.

5) Your goal is to learn to get some space so you can see the world with your eyes instead of through a screen. It makes you balanced and produce better software. Life is for living. Keyboard time is rarely living.


1) Turn off everything. Go for a walk. Read a book. Notice that no one is as important as they've hallucinated.

2) Breathe. Anything you miss will be forwarded to you or on your twitter feed anyways.

3) Block everything in your hosts file and only use your smartphone to access it. Every single site that isn't productive. Hacker News should be at the top of it, including Google news or anything else that takes your time.

4) Turn off all notifications. No one is the center of the universe. My phone has no IM, VM, Email, SMS, or APP notifications turned on. I run a consulting business while I'm on call. Nothing has ever imploded. Some might be allowed to make a quiet ticking noise, or use the haptic feedback.

5) The post about meditation is really good. Learn to take many thoughts down to one, and one down to none.

I like the idea of no notifications, this also ties into to having a good routine. Rather than checking and allowing noise to intrude.

It's critical. I don't allow my senses to be bombarded by interruption. Interruption is the enemy of productivity, after all.

I do have regular processes and routines to check those notifications, or obviously check them when I'm expecting an intermittent reply.

The funny thing with being a younger entrepreneur is you put up with all sorts of this BS either leading you to an early burn out, or start figuring out there's a whole world out there to enjoy as much as startups.

I simply stopped looking at workaholics with personal lives in shambles as role-models. I look for the uber successful that are successful in all areas of their lives.

Grow up. No, that's not a pejorative, it's an observation. When I was younger, I suffered from some of the symptoms you outline (although, omnipresence was less of a problem in 1992 when I got started hacking for a living). As you get older, you will notice that along with increased responsibility comes a decreased ability to be spread so thinly, and you'll start picking your battles better.

Until then, I have no useful advice.

I love the internet, so dearly. I understand your point although I think it's less about picking battles and more forcing a cut off point - it's obviously counter productive, but more obsessive behaviour.

Do you have any hobbies where you make things with your hands? In particular, something that would require your full focus and attention to complete (or to simply not lose an appendage).

The activities I do (or have done) that leave me physically exhausted also gave me a welcome mental break from the information addiction. Among those sewing, welding (check your community college), gardening and currently, roller derby and deadlifts. Other things to think about would be private pilot's lessons (or skydiving), and climbing. I know people who code for a living who have also learned to forge and smith metal, build furniture, fly planes, and jump off stuff.

Beyond gardening, a larger landscaping project in the backyard. The sort of thing that lasts a few weekends and leaves you dirty enough that you don't want to traipse mud through the house to get a laptop or even touch your phone.

I've been doing this for a few weekends - going out there in the morning and (besides lunch) not coming back in until it's too dark to continue. Feels so much more rewarding than anything I do in my regular work.

This is very much what I meant to convey -- anyone this intense needs something equally intense as a distraction. I swear it flips some kind of switch in the brain.

Do something that brings you into your body and out of your head. Dance, music, exercise, meditation: all these practices encourage you to take your attention away from explicit verbal thought and focus on your somatic experience. It will be difficult at first: your mind is a muscle, and its currently in the habit of listening to itself talk, but the more you practice rooting your attention in your body and it's experience of the world (which is far, far richer, by the way, than we're usually aware of, thanks to our predisposition to thinking), the better your right hemisphere will be able to inhibit your left, and your mental chatter will begin to quiet, allowing you to be more fully present and focus on rejuvenating activities. (Don't worry -- when you go back to work, you'll be able to pick right back up where you left off, only you'll be more energized and balanced.)

If you're into it, here's an (hour-long) intro to mindfulness by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a well-known name in Western meditation circles (he basically rebranded meditation as mindfulness to bring it into Western medicine): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3nwwKbM_vJc

Plan a half or full day at a nearby park. Bonus points if you can hike or canoe there. Pack a few lunches, grab a few friends, go hiking, canoeing, ultimate frisbeeing, or just enjoy nature in good company. Have a picnic and continue having a great time, or depending on where you are perhaps stroll on down to a museum or other interesting spot.

2 rules -

1) for the duration of the excursion, nobody involved in allowed to bring technology. Not even mobile phones. If you can't spend more than 4 hours without your phone, then don't go out for more than 4 hours. You'll enjoy it more than 6 hours out with your phone.

2) avoid talking about work, tech, startups, etc... if you have nothing left to talk about, make a note to do something that will give you something to talk about next time ('cause you're going to do this more than once, right?) Read a book, follow non-tech news, see a great film, go to a museum, etc...

Also, no tech 1 hour before bed will do wonders for your productivity. You'll fall asleep faster and sleep deeper without bright lights in your face just as your body is trying to wind down.

I had the same issues for a long time. Here are some things that worked for me: - Young children! They will tire you out to the point that you will actually sleep. - Doing what you like for a day job. Makes a big difference. - No screens for an hour or even two hours before you go to bed. Consider not watching TV. I haven't seriously watched TV for years and am much happier for it. - Get obsessed with something outlandish or random. I am building telescopes and gaze in to the depths of space. Gives me some perspective on life on the small blue marble we're on.

For me, the best cure is take a weekend off somewhere - doesn't matter where, whether friends, family or a weekend holiday - leave the laptop at home, turn off data roaming on my phone, take a good book or two, and ignore the rest of the world.

Come Monday, I'm usually pretty refreshed and looking forward to getting back into things again.

Note: I do need to take a few "proper" holidays in the year, even if only a week or so long, but without doing so I find I burn out until I become thoroughly unproductive ;)

I know you've probably read that meditation helps, but you should really try it. The key to meditation is observing your thought patterns, trying to slow them down and eventually completely stop them on demand. This can be very refreshing to your mood and motivation.

The practice eventually helps bring balance to your daily routine by training your brain to turn off noisy/irrelevant thoughts when they become distracting.

Seconded. I would suggest, however, that deliberately trying to stop thinking is likely to backfire, much like the instruction "Don't think of an elephant" backfires.

I like to describe the key to meditation as acceptance: whatever you become aware of, be it a thought, a sound, or an itch, simply be aware of it without judging it (or yourself), and then take your attention back to the object of meditation, often the breath. If you do this patiently and diligently, your thoughts will slow down of their accord, and you'll find yourself sinking deeper and deeper into a state of quietude that we information workers are nearly doomed to miss out on if we don't make a point of cultivating it.

Throw out your smartphone. Buy a real phone, one you can only call people and receive calls with, as well as SMS.

It could change your life, believe me.

Go to a park and bring a book that you wouldn't mind reading but not so good that you'll sit there and read it all the time - just people watch and observe your breathing. Oh and bring a phone - but the kicker here is have so little juice on your phone (e.g. yellow low battery) that you can't just sit there and 3G away your time

Are you doing the thing that's in the back of your mind, the thing that you're always thinking about, or are you doing something else?

I had the same problem until I decided to act on the idea and thereby created an outlet for it. Then I could sleep/relax without obsessing on it.

Karate and exercise. Twice a week I help teach the kids class and attend the adults class at my local dojo. Its all of 2km from my house, real easy. Friday nights, if I am not burned out from an intense day at work, I'll do the weapons class. Sat/Sun will be hitting the gym, with a decommissioned iphone, acting as an ipod, with it in airplane mode. Other weeknights, its an hour on the stationary bike, with an ipad usually watching a movie ... though sometimes its Netflix.

I've come to really appreciate these down times.

Yeah, customers call, emails come in. But being able to put it aside and not think about it allows my mind to clear up. And I am more productive for doing so.

Of course, right now, its Monday morning at 1am EDT, so ...

Get it out of your system. It's only going to last for a short while. Get everything out that you can. Your mind is going for some reason, so why stop it?

A lot of people here are going to argue it's unhealthy to be like that, but after me and my wife split, I started filling an amazing amount of time with work, and it honestly became very therapeutic. When I sat down in front of my computer, I felt like I was going into my woodshop, creating, making beautiful things.

It boosted my self esteem and gave me confidence I didn't have for a long time. That's just one instance where it's not unhealthy to unleash and give into that drive.

I just went parasailing the other day, but I kept thinking "If I had brought my laptop and tethered my phone I could push code from up here..."

I find the most relaxation comes from doing something that ties all my senses up in a way I'm not used to. Like swimming, a really hot sauna/steam room/cold pool, hitting the weights, going to a museum, taking a girl on a date, cooking (I don't do it often so it's fairly immersive).

I tend to obsess about work so I find I need to take an active role in giving myself these types of "breaks", otherwise I become unhappy.

+1 on hobbies. I'll leave my phone and go for a bike ride, while planning to meet up with friends afterwards. It's funny how when you say that you will meet them somewhere, and also tell them that you won't have your phone on them, you can make people commit to meeting you somewhere at a certain time.

I definitely recommend taking at least one full day off per week. You'll feel so refreshed.

Recouping is about changing your mental context. Disconnect by turning off your phone and computer, then go outside and do something you haven't done before. Try doing this for two or more days in a row. Anything with real face-to-face human interaction where you don't discuss topics having to do with work is a major bonus.

The challenge is switch off completely takes a few days and I can rarely do it in a few hours. So for a few hours of downtime, the best hack I found is to talk to other folks about something totally different. On a recent trip I had no phone, no computer etc. and felt totally relaxed after the 3rd day.

I've learned that switching off (for me) is more stressful than staying connected. So on my time off/after hours, I just do whatever I think is fun. That always includes checking my analytics, and usually twitter, facebook and HN.

Maybe you're not feeling relaxed because you're switching off too much?


It occupies my hands, my eyes, and my imagination.

I keep a bunch of police and robber sets on my desk so I can simulate the bankers stealing from people's deposits in the bank and the regulators (in my fantasy) hauling them to jail ... (referencing PFG Best, MF Global, and a slew of similar circumstances)

Riding my motor bike is the only way I was truly being able to 'switch off'. It requires all you attention, there's no way you can pick up your cell, send a message or 'check-in'. It's just the road, your bike and you. Absolute blast for me!!

Force yourself into it. Go somewhere and don't take your phone with you.

Seriously, leave your phone at home, don't take a backpack, and jump on the subway. Go to the mall, or a park, or just walk around town.

For me, the best way to switch off, and the most rewarding, is to go cycling. Not only is it great for my health, but it is impossible to stay connected.

During work: when you notice you're stressed, relax your shoulders and breathing for a minute or two.

After work: have a joint with some friends.

Cruises. Go on a cruise ship with a kindle filled with fiction. Eat too much. Dance. Watch Shows. Be unable to be connected.

Take art classes. Your brain switches sides and lets the analytical part rest.

go get a job you dont care about & get drunk in the evenings instead of thinking about customers/metrics/analytics.

or take a trip/pilgrimage to somewhere spiritual for guidance.. preferably in the next 7 days.

Rock climbing.

I second rock climbing. One thing that's great, specially at the beginning, is that it plays with your survival instincts (everyone's afraid to fall and die), so you really don't have time to think about work or whatever. Just give it a try a couple of times, and then make your own judgement about it.

But you may also want to invest on something that cultivates your discipline. If you have enough discipline, you can easily force yourself to cut off from the internet, work or whatever so IMHO this is a fundamental step.


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