In Reset: Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burnout Culture I insist that pastors and other knowledge workers (including students) have to block out extensive periods of thinking/studying/writing time when they cannot be contactable.
This is not just to maximize productivity but also to maximize relational, emotional, and mental health. It involves shutting down the Internet, social media, email, phone, and text messages, and it may require “Do Not Disturb” notices on our doors or working in a place where you cannot be contacted.
As Cal Newport argued in Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, it is impossible for anyone to think deeply, analytically, and creatively without extended blocks of uninterruptible time.
I’ve received a number of objections to this idea, with the most common question being “What about emergencies?” Neil Pasricha, now self-employed but previously Director of Leadership Development at Walmart, answers this question in Why You Need an Untouchable Day Every Week.
Busier and Beepier
He opens by observing a basic economic fact: “As our world gets busier and our phones get beepier, the scarcest resource for all of us is becoming attention and creative output. And if you’re not taking time to put something new and beautiful out into the world, then your value is diminishing fast.”
Until recently, his solution to this had been the same as everyone else’s–work longer and harder. But he discovered “that you can only drive in the express lane for so long before the wheels come off.” Now he spends much more time at home with his wife and family and, indeed, says, “I resist insight from anyone who isn’t making space for loved ones.”
So what changed? As productivity slipped more and more, he realized, “What I needed was a practical way to get more work done without taking more time.” The answer? “I finally found a solution that I feel has saved my career, my time, and my sanity. If you’re with me right now, I bet you need this solution too: I call it “Untouchable Days”. These are days when I am literally 100% unreachable in any way…by anyone.”
Untouchable Days have become my secret weapon to getting back on track. They’re how I complete my most creative and rewarding work. To share a rough comparison, on a day when I write between meetings, I’ll produce maybe 500 words a day. On an Untouchable Day, it’s not unusual for me to write 5,000 words. On these days, I’m 10 times more productive.
He blocks out these Untouchable Days in his diary sixteen weeks ahead of time, although for many of us, we won’t need so much advance planning. Here’s how he describes an Untouchable Day.
On the actual Untouchable Day itself, I picture myself sitting in a bulletproof car surrounded by two-inches of thick impenetrable plastic on all sides. Nothing gets in. Nothing gets out. Meetings bounce off the windshield. Texts, alerts, and phone calls, too. My cell phone is in Airplane Mode all day. My laptop has Wi-Fi completely disabled. Not a single thing can bother me… and not a single thing does.
But, what about emergencies, you might be wondering?
The short answer is that there really never are any. The long answer is when my wife asked me about emergencies, she didn’t love my rant about how back in the day, nobody had cell phones, and we were all unreachable at times. As a compromise, I told her that when I started scheduling Untouchable Days, I’d open the door of my bulletproof car for an hour at lunchtime. When I did, I came face to face with the whizzing bullets of seventeen text messages, dozens of urgent-sounding emails, and endless robot-generated alerts and feeds — and precisely zero emergencies from my wife. So after a few months, we stopped doing that and instead I just started telling her where I’d be. That gave her peace of mind that if something horrible happened, she could call the place I was working or simply drive over and find me as a last resort.
I’ve now pulled off Untouchable Days for a year. Nothing horrible has ever happened, and we’ve both grown more comfortable with zero contact throughout the day.
And just in case, you think that you could never sustain a full day or even a few hours of this, Pasricha explains how his Untouchable Days have two main components. The majority of time is spent “in the zone” doing deep creative work on a big project. But there are also “nitros.” He explains:
And then there are the nitros — little blasts of fuel you can use to prime your own pump if you hit a wall. These unproductive moments of frustration happen to all of us, and it’s less important to avoid them than to simply have a mental toolkit you can whip out when they happen. What are my tools? Heading to the gym for a workout. Grabbing a pack of almonds. Getting up and simply running down the street, or going on a nature walk….A ten-minute meditation. Or switching to a new workspace. Or my wonder drug of precariously turning off Airplane Mode for ten minutes (while staying off of email and text) and leaving voicemails for my parents and close friends, telling them I love them. It works every time, and I get back to work quickly because, let’s be honest, nobody ever answers their phone.
And the result?
Before I started using Untouchable Days, I treaded water — I wrote articles, I gave speeches. But something was missing. When I implemented Untouchable Days in 2017, magic happened. I wrote a new 50,000 word memoir, wrote and launched a new 60-minute keynote speech, drafted book proposals for my next three books, and completely planned and began recording my new podcast — all while traveling and giving more speeches than I ever had before.
With a year of Untouchable Days under my belt, do I still go through the exercise of scheduling one Untouchable Day every single week?
The honest answer is no.
Now I schedule two.
The Problem is Volitional
Now, your work or study circumstances may not allow you to schedule a full day or two a week. However, don’t let perfection be the enemy of progress. Everyone can schedule some untouchable time a day (see Kevin DeYoung’s What I learned on my Week-long Digital Fast for some ideas on how to start). If we’re honest, the obstacle is not usually practical or circumstantial, but volitional. It’s a matter of will and desire rather than any external factor.
Why not start with one untouchable hour a day, then try to increase it gradually. You’ll discover that you are not as indispensable as you thought. And you’ll not only accomplish more, you’ll improve your mental health, and free up hours and hours for friendships and family.