Back in April, I was facilitating a leadership program for a global oil field services company. One of the executives at that company was attending the course, and had just flown into the states from Saudi Arabia for the first time since the U.S. banned laptops on select inbound international flights. He wanted to talk about what it was like to be on business travel without having work staring at him for 10-plus uninterrupted hours.
“It was a bit unnerving, at first. But after 30 minutes without my laptop, I started to enjoy the flight,” he said. “I read a little, took a nap, and then thought about the meeting I was traveling to. I even prepared for it!”
His colleagues and I were hanging on his every word as we listened to his tale. It was as if he had just visited the Promised Land, and was now telling us how much better our lives could be with a little less distraction and a little more independent thought. He didn’t need to push so hard on the sale. We were bought in. Collectively, we marveled at what we’d do with so much unstructured time.
It then dawned on me: I could have an extended period of laptop-free time right now (without having to be crammed into a coach seat, flying over the Atlantic, and sitting next to a stranger). Then I wondered, “Why don’t I give myself permission to do it?” My answer? “I’ve got too many things to do and I need my computer to get them done,” which is a pathetic reality I know I share with many professionals.
While it’s hard to de-politicize the airline laptop ban—which the Trump administration is considering extending—and put a positive spin on it, I will say this: There’s something liberating about being forced to disconnect and rely on your own mind to fill white space. In today’s working world, having “free of task time” is an imperative that too many professionals (myself included) fail to give themselves. We treat this time as a luxury, when it should be a necessity.
Unintentionally, many of us have relinquished control of our lives by developing a dependency on technology, social tools, and constant action. We have bought into the false notion that being busy—regardless of what we’re actually doing—equals productivity and success. Likewise, we’re leading teams that are as over-connected and distracted as we are—and probably less productive than us, too.
We are tethered to devices that drive our agenda, when it should be the other way around. This constant connectivity and need to feel busy stifles our creativity, depletes our energy, and diminishes our ability to think deeply. As professionals, we need to impose self-discipline and put a stop to always being “on.” If we don’t do it, no one will. And the cost can be too high for any organization to bear.
As leaders, we need to prioritize thinking over doing. Sure, the work needs to get done, but not before collaboration, ideation, and healthy intellectual conflict.
You can lead your team to more creativity and innovation, but you have to start with yourself. Here’s how:
Get an alarm clock
Stop relying on your phone to wake you up. If you’re like most people, after you turn off your alarm, you check email. Suddenly you’re responding to things that happened overnight and your intentions for your day get hijacked by a random task.
Respond to emails at set times during the day
If you feel that all you’re doing is answering emails, you might not be focused on the strategic aspects of your work. Mid-morning and late afternoon are perfect times to respond to emails. Once you start showing that you’re not going to provide instant responses, others will get the cue to call you if something’s really important.
Close your laptop
Stop bringing your laptop to meetings; or, if they show up, close them during conversations. Screens have a way of creating a barrier between you and an engaging environment.
Take a break
You’re not a machine. Humans need periods of renewal and reflection to be their best. Don’t wait for an international flight to force you to disconnect. Do this on your own—without apology. And while relaxing, pick up a book. It’s hard to innovate without new perspectives.
Technology was introduced to help us be more efficient, and it can still be. When you take control of your productivity tools, you leave space to sharpen your mind and, ultimately, your contribution to your business.
Angie Morgan is co-founder of Lead Star and author of Spark.