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Don’t let devices rule downtime

By Glenn Burkins
Glenn Burkins is editor and publisher of, an online news site targeting Charlotte’s African American community. He is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and Charlotte Observer business editor.

I must have looked silly standing on the side of that North Carolina mountain, cell phone held aloft in desperate plea for reception.

One bar – just one lousy bar – was all I needed to place a call and close a deal.

With the stresses of work and too many long hours bearing down on me, I had reluctantly agreed to go with my wife and daughter to the Nantahala region for some leaf watching, whitewater rafting and much-needed rest. But before we left, I packed every electronic device and gizmo I’d need to continue doing business. Internet access, I had told my wife, was my one pre-condition for going.

Sounds familiar?

Like most people working to build a small business, I struggle every day with setting boundaries. Why stop work after 16 hours when so much more needs doing? And when it comes to technology, my smartphone and my laptop are now my ever-present companions.

Slowly, I’m learning to do better. Not because of some feel-good article I read about work-life balance. My reasons are much more related to business itself: I finally figured out that I function at a higher level for a longer period of time when my body and mind are rested.

The cycle of exhaustion

Dr. Hayes Woollen, medical director of Novant’s executive health program, said he sees it all the time – people who suffer physically and mentally because of the daily stresses related to their demanding jobs.

“In this world of connectivity, it seems everyone stays connected a hundred percent of the time, and we never set boundaries for ourselves,” he said. “With the executives we see, a lot of them have problems sleeping because they never are able to completely shut off their phones.”

For me, work-related stress resulted in a cycle of boom and bust: I’d go all out for as long as I could then collapse mentally and physically into a state where I could hardly accomplish anything. This cycle would repeat itself after my exhausted body had finally forced me to get sufficient rest.

In 2014, I’ll be looking to do a much better job of pacing myself, although I know it will often mean ending the day with work undone.

Executive therapy

Woollen said executives who enter the Novant program typically get a half-day of physical examinations and counseling sessions. They undergo everything from cardiovascular stress tests to exercise and nutrition counseling.

The executives are advised to find “true vacation time” so that they can “get off the grid” and re-establish sleep patterns. They also are advised to get at least seven to eight hours of sleep each night and 45 minutes of exercise at least five times a week.

“They have to find some time to have some down time and break away from the constant texting and emails and phone calls,” he said. “It’s very hard, in today’s world, to totally disconnect yourself from work and the stresses…just finding enough down time where your body can regroup.”

As for stress, Woollen said the effects can be cumulative … and extremely dangerous.

“It can build up in the body and has been directly linked to significant health problems, like cardiovascular disease. Even certain cancers can be stress induced,” he said.

I wish I could say I had found some magic formula that would ease the withdrawal of disconnecting, but I haven’t. People who advise business people say it’s simply a matter of determination. But they also assure me that setting limits gets easier the more one does it.

As for my trip to Nantahala, I did close the deal that day, but only after abandoning my wife and daughter in the cabin while I zipped down the mountain in our car, stopping at every overlook along the way to check for reception, which I eventually found halfway down.

So when vacation time rolls around next year, I’m determined to do it right. I’ll make the reservation myself, thus guaranteeing that our mountainous retreat has Internet service.

Just kidding. (Well, kinda.)

Glenn Burkins is editor and publisher of, a news site for Charlotte’s African-American community. He is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and Observer business editor.
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