The Three Levels of Disconnect

Not a bad office, eh?

Greetings from some random farmhouse outside Yangshou, China.

You could probably consider Yangshou itself the outskirts of the middle of nowhere, the place where my buddy Nick and I are currently hanging out? Truly, the middle of freaking nowhere.

The last week has been a complete whirlwind.  Meetings in Shenzhen, scoping out every product imaginable at the Canton Fair, and now hiking, biking, and floating in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.

In our time out here in Yangshou, Nick and I have done a lot of talking and one of the topics that’s repeatedly brought up is the idea of disconnect.

As sad as it may be, this is really the first time since I created my Facebook account in 2004, that I’ve been without any form of social media for an extended period of time.  It wasn’t until today that I actually logged into a VPN and got access to Facebook.

This combined with completely removing ourselves from the online world the last few days, has made disconnect a pretty hot topic.

In a world where connectivity is everywhere it’s becoming increasingly hard to get away from it all and truly be on your own.  There’s always the rogue iPhone to check, or if you’re me, you’re laptop is never more than a few feet away.

Because of this, it’s pretty easy to convince yourself that you’re disconnected, even when you’re not.

The Three Phases of Disconnect

There are three different levels of disconnect that you can achieve, and each has very distinct characteristics, as well as pros and cons.

The first:

Level One: Total Disconnect

In my opinion, total disconnect isn’t a feasible, or responsible option for most people in this age.  Whether you’re a blogger, entrepreneur, or simply a corporate business-person it’s nearly impossible to be totally disconnected.

It’s a nice thought, but if you spend a week or even just a few days with complete disregard for every aspect of your online life, you’re neglecting a lot of responsibilities that you’ve brought on yourself.

For instance, say I take off to Yangshou for 4 days with no computer or way of accessing my email. You decide to buy Location Rebel and for some reason the forwarding to the registration page doesn’t work quite right.  If you’ve just paid me $300, don’t have access to your purchase, and don’t hear from me for 4 days, you’ll probably be pretty pissed.

As a business owner, that’s the last thing I could want.

What if I get a phone call from the BBC and they want to run an article featuring me tomorrow, and I have no way to access the request.  I’d be missing out on a huge potential source of exposure.

Is it the end of the world if any of these things happen? Of course not.  But is there any need to be totally disconnected? These days, for a burgeoning entrepreneur? I don’t think so.

Level 2: Psuedo-Disconnect 

I’m willing to bet at some point you’ve experienced this one. You know, it’s the vacation where you’re hanging out on the beach or chairlift, and still have your Blackberry glued to your ear.  You may be outside the office, but you definitely aren’t disconnected.

At this point you’re hurting both your business and your personal life.  You aren’t fully engaged in the business, and you’re neglecting your personal responsibility to enjoy life and the people that are important in your life.

Just because you feel like you’re disconnected, if you’re constantly doing business and not focused on leisure at times, you’re going to end up being even more burnt out after your vacation than you were before you left.

Phase 3: Balanced Disconnect

For most people, this is the holy grail. If you can find the perfect balance of disconnecting and being responsible, you’re in business.

What does this look like?

For me personally, on the days where I’m going to “disconnect”, I give myself no more than an hour in the morning to answer emails, and deal with any other business matters that need to be addressed for the day.  I then spend the majority of the day fully engaged in what I’m doing and the people I’m with.  From there perhaps another hour before or after dinner to make sure nothing has blown up.

It’s balanced. It gives me the piece of mind of knowing that the things that need to be taken care of are addressed, but still allows me to truly disconnect and not think about business during my time of fun.

I’m interested to hear your thoughts.  I have a feeling some of you will disagree with some aspects of this post, and I’d love to hear your perspective.  Is it ever possible or necessary to achieve total disconnect? How do you work to achieve balanced disconnect?

Note: I’ll have a video posted about this in the next few days. Unfortunately the internet connection in the middle of nowhere leaves a lot to be desired…

Socorro Benz April 26, 2012 at 2:13 pm

Your post caught my attention… I am a subscriber and a diligent follower, and this concept is something I can relate to.

I agree with your third option, especially in the entrepreneurial world. On-demand communication is fortunately available to us, and exercising restraint for a balanced disconnect is a great idea.

In reality, I think it is an ideal method for entrepreneurs to avoid burnout while remaining connected.


Darlene April 27, 2012 at 9:52 am

Hi Sean, I have to laugh. When I read the headline in my inbox I read it as “levels of discontent”, LOL. Totally different subject!

I can relate to all 3 actually. I’ve had trips where I do #1 and totally disconnect, but I don’t have the model you have (yet) and no one is going to miss anything if I don’t email them back asap. I was in Hawaii for 2 weeks in March and 7 days was on a cruise ship where the internet was 75 cents a minute so I said “screw that” for $45/hr I do NOT need to facebook. And using data isn’t an option for me as a Canadian they ding me even more. Data roaming charges are ridiculous, I paid $80 for 2 minutes in Spain to use my map feature when I was lost in Barcelona. Never again!

I did pick up wifi at a few coffee shops on shore a few times but for the most part I didn’t even think about it. I did download and spend a day going over email after the cruise back in Honolulu but for the week I did #1.

I agree #2 is not a good option, and #3 can be hard to achieve. If you’re traveling and in a place you want to go see, the last thing you want to do is email first thing in the morning. When I was on my 6 month RV trip around the US I took the strategy of every third day or so off to get online and do whatever I needed to do. I find that works better than morning or splitting my day up but that’s just me.

Oh hey Sean, did you mean Yangshuo? I tried to map it and can’t see that on the map of China – can you show us where that is exactly?


Jeffrey Trull April 28, 2012 at 3:08 pm

I definitely crave the total disconnect, but it’s pretty hard to do with an internet business. I can live with the balanced disconnect and feel satisfied. I think the key is just to limit how much time you spend on the computer and an hour seems like a good balance. If I could do that in the morning and have the rest of the day free, that would be pretty much as good to me as totally disconnecting.


Chas April 29, 2012 at 4:54 pm

I guess it’s a matter of perspective. You grew-up with the internet and laptops. I grew-up in a time when the Mac was just a glimmer in Steve Jobs’ eyes and Bill Gates was racing Bulldozers into the side of his friend’s car, which he had borrowed. Living in the jungle, being totally disconnected from the outside world, with the exception of an occasional fly-over from a helicopter, isn’t hard for me to imagine, as I have done it. Having an On-line business that you are obligated to does pretty much nix the idea of cutting the cord completely in this day and age, however.


Jason Martin April 30, 2012 at 12:47 pm

Hey Sean, great post.

I agree, it is impossible to be disconnected all the time.

Although, I must admit, it is very healthy to occasionally have periodic bouts of #1, total disconnect. Creating space to untether for a bit — a sabbatical away camping in nature, or immersing yourself completely in the world for a couple of days or a week can do wonders for renewal, regeneration, and clarity.


Joanne Munro April 30, 2012 at 2:30 pm

The third option works for me when I go away. Often freelancers find it hard to actually take breaks so they end up working all year round and never taking time off in case it hurts their business. But Balanced Disconnect solves that problem.

I’m a VA with a Portfolio Career & one of my roles is as the Bars Admin Officer for the Green Man Festival each year in Wales. Last year I went to France for 5 days a week before I was due to leave for the event – I checked my emails first thing and again before dinner and dealt with anything that warranted my attention. The rest of the time I spent reading by the pool, exploring the area, drinking wine, and basically relaxing.

I was easily able to fully enjoy my holiday as well as fulfil all my responsibilities for my client without doing either half-heartedly. I’m not sure I’ve experienced Total Disconnect for quite some time as my Android has has free roaming and doubles up as a wi-fi hotspot. I shudder to consider it actually!


Gene Jennings May 1, 2012 at 4:18 am

Good post, Sean. When I am away on vacation or in a remote village on a mission trip, I always set my autoresponse on my gmail account explaining where I am and when I will be back. Same with voicemail on my iPhone. I think people understand when they know what you’re up to.

If I ordered something from you and there was a “hiccup” in the order like you mentioned in your illustration, I would be frustrated. But if I knew you were in the middle of nowhere in China, I would understand and try to be patient until the problem was resolved.


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