You know that feeling you have when you come back from vacation? I mean a real vacation, not a couple of days off still tethered, where you slip back into your routine as if you were never gone. A real vacation means disconnection, unplugging from the routines and modalities that form the cast iron mold of daily life. When you return from disconnection, if you’ve really achieved it, reconnection is uneasy. All of the routines are familiar but they don’t quite fit. Everything that used to run on autopilot now occupies a thread of attention. For a while at least–maybe just a day, or a week–you’re an observer of the episodes of your own life. What do you see?
The conventional wisdom about vacation is that it provides perspective. By stepping outside daily routines, you can see things differently. And there’s a simple scientific reason for this. Routines are a mechanism that allow living organisms to conserve energy and prioritize attention. The more behaviors we can relegate to autopilot, the more energy and attention we can conserve. Our environment solidifies those routines, providing constant cues to keep the autopilot on track. When you get to the corner, turn right. When you open the front door, keys go on the hook. Have you ever had the experience of driving miles to work and suddenly realizing as you step out of the car that you have no recollection of the trip? That’s autopilot–a critical evolutionary mechanism for living organisms, but also a barrier to change.
Unplugging from routine by taking a vacation breaks the patterns and cues that help your life run on autopilot, providing the familiar and valuable opportunity for perspective. The challenge is, when you come back to ordinary life, the environmental cues and routines are a powerful draw to put you back on autopilot. Which is why so often the epiphany gained on the mountaintop fades away on reentry–and also why I think that fleeting sense of uneasy recalibration when you return to routine is more important than the epiphany of perspective. The most earthshaking insight on vacation is meaningless if it dissolves in the return to an old routine.
So why am I navel-gazing about vacation and breaking routines? Because I’m just coming back from my own vacation from social networking. At some point this spring, in the middle of all the growing hype over all things Twitter, I realized I needed to step back, unplug, and find some perspective. I turned off Twitter, stepped back from Facebook and Friendfeed, and put blogging on the shelf. Since I have social media clients and customers, I was still hearing the noise from the echo chamber, but I dropped all my own routines until I lost the imperative to connect online myself. Instead of dutifully blogging and tweeting, which, as a social marketing professional I’m supposed to do, I spent weeks offline, focusing only on my business and customers. Then I returned only as a consumer, finding new places to connect that really interest me, like Gizmodo and my new favorite site ThereIFixedit, and going on Facebook and Twitter just to connect with friends.
The insights I had on that vacation were useful–I’ll write more about why I think Twitter is going to fade, why SocialCRM is a 4-lane highway to a one-lane dirt road, and why automation will be the catalyst for the next Google–but for the moment, I’m focusing on the return, the uneasy recalibration to old routines. The critical insight for me is to really inhabit that discomfort. Magnify it. Watch routines as a detached observer as long as I can so I can make choices about what routines to drop because, as comforting as they are in easing the expense of energy and attention, they don’t work for me anymore.
One change has already come out of that resistance. I realized this blog wasn’t working for me. I was writing about what I felt I should write, rather than what really motivates me. Actually, Jeremiah Owyang pointed this out to me earlier this year in response to a post I wrote that wasn’t about marketing, but was an observation about life. He said that wasn’t what he read my blog for as a social media professional. He was right, but I realized that made me feel cornered. So I’ve made some structural changes that will take effect this week. From now on my professional social media posts will all originate at MotiveLab, and will appear on this blog as a syndicated excerpt. If all you want is marketing insights, they’ll still be embedded in this feed. On this blog, I’ll be writing about other things that interest me–still from the perspective of a marketer and technologist–but also giving me space to include navel-gazing insights about life, the universe, and everything. If you want to tune that out, just subscribe to the MotiveLab feed.
Photo Credit: Chris Kenton