Since before there were plugs, innovative thinkers have advocated for unplugging. “Men have become the tools of their tools,” Henry David Thoreau wrote in the middle of the 19th century, while meditating on the simple life in the woods by Walden Pond. More than a hundred years later, media critic Marshall McLuhan echoed the warning, writing the famous aphorism, “We shape our tools and thereafter they shape us.”
As the co-founder and CEO of a tech startup, I rely on email, Slack, and SMS to communicate instantaneously. I also see the wisdom in advice that has been repeated for hundreds of years—that these constant pings shape the way I think, and that I could be doing more if I didn’t devote the majority of the day to staring at a screen.
So soon after launching our in-home hospitality platform, Hello Alfred, my co-founder and I decided it was necessary to pause operations every Wednesday. As counterintuitive as that may seem for a new service operations and tech company, the midweek pause allowed us to take stock, learn, iterate faster and avoid end-of-the-week burnout. We figured we might grow out of it as we scaled, but it turned out to be a critical part of what made us us.
The day is now a time when our employees break from routine and try other approaches (like good ol’ pen and paper) to catalyze different ways of thinking.
It means Slack messages go unanswered and emails go unread until the end of the day. It’s a chance for people to meet, talk, and think through things together—or find a quiet spot in the office to dig in alone.
By encouraging employees to take a regular, collective break from using certain kinds of tech, we’ve become a more productive tech company.
We now call Wednesdays “tech-light” days. And we want to invite other tech companies to participate.
The most important part of making a tech-light day successful is not to mandate it, but to practice it yourself. You have to lead by example and resist the craving to “just shoot a couple of emails out.” By doing this, you can clearly observe—and avoid—the pitfalls and distractions you routinely fall into on every other tech-heavy day.
As more people actively choose to join “tech light” day every week, they will provide collective encouragement to those who may be hesitant. And by removing the social pressure to maintain constant instant communications, people realize they have permission to not be on Slack or not respond to emails—to not be plugged in.
Of course, that may work just fine for you and your recruiting or creative team, but how can it apply to the engineers at work building your product? Once again, the idea seems counterintuitive, but our product engineering team saw it as an opportunity to break from routines in productive ways.
A senior software engineer on our team already had in mind to propose a “no-Slack” week to “see how the team would adjust.” He approaches tech-light day as either “a heads-down coding day, on the computer the whole time without interruption,” or a chance to “stay off the computer and use it as a time to work through hard problems.” (He even used the time to publish a thoughtful piece about being a more conscientious coder.)
It’s still an evolving experiment for the company and something that’ll take practice. But we’re already encouraged by the way a mid-week tech break tends to focus the other days, structuring the week into two sprints that don’t leave us spent on Friday.
After three months, the impact on productivity is promising. In terms of quarterly goals, the completion rate for our first tech-light quarter was 25% higher than the tech-heavier quarter before it. And it certainly hasn’t slowed our growth—we’ve added more clients in the past six months than the previous three years combined.
The notion of changing any kind of habit is daunting, and our collective work culture puts real barriers in front of any effort to untether ourselves from our tools. Many people have asked me how they can hope to change that culture if they’re not the ones “in charge” of the company.
If you manage a team, you can model a tech-light approach and invite your team members to try what they think will work for them. If you need sign-off from your manager to institute a tech-light day, frame it as a well-reasoned strategy for achieving the outcomes you’ve set for your team or just for yourself. Any good manager would encourage an employee who’s proactively designing a plan—and choosing the tools—for success.
Making a “tech-light” day a standard part of work may not be simple, but we can make it possible by reconsidering why we use these tools in the first place: It’s about getting outcomes we want, not about the tools we use to get them.