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How my Digital Sabbatical Helped me to Revolutionise My Workflow

One of the biggest realisation to come out of my sabbatical was how very addicted I was to checking email and social media.

All. The. Time.

Now, I justified this to myself by saying ‘but I’ve got an online business! I need to be keeping on top of things constantly – I need to be available all the time to get back to potential customers asap’.

Yes. There is some truth in this. Getting back to customers to answer their questions is VERY important. However… I never used to worry about that 8-hour gap when I was asleep. I knew that there was nothing I could do about that gap, so I was relaxed about it.

But the rest of the time… I was that person who checked their email on their phone the moment they woke up.

Of course, I never actually DEALT with any email then, because I hate typing on my phone, and so it didn’t get done until hours later when I was at my computer anyway. If there was some sort of problem or issue that had come up overnight, it just had the result of leaving me stressed out for the rest of my morning. Or, I would drag myself straight to my computer to try to deal with it while still half-asleep, then fret over the response for the rest of the morning.

Not the best way to start a day.

I would also leave my browser open almost constantly throughout the work day with my email on top – and twitter + facebook open in other tabs. I’d compulsively check email and social media in bed – it was likely to be the last thing I looked at before going to sleep. Again, not the most conducive way to head off to sleep – with knowledge of the unanswered emails sitting in my inbox.

During my sabbatical I read the 99U book Manage Your Day-to-Day (as I mentioned on Monday). I thought it was important to consciously work on my approach to work during my break, rather than just switch my brain off completely – and it was the right call. There were so many points while reading this book that I thought “oh, I do that!” or, “oh, THAT’S why I do that!”.

One chapter that really stuck in my head was by Dan Ariely, who referenced a psychological phenomenon known as random reinforcement during his discussion of workflow.

“The psychologist B. F. Skinner came up with the idea of random reinforcement, where you give a rat a lever and every hundred times it presses the lever, it gets a piece of food. For the rat, that is exciting. But if the number is a random number – any number between one and one hundred – it actually ends up being more exciting. And the rat keeps on working much, much more, even if you take the reward away altogether.” {Dan Ariely – 99U Manage Your Day-to-Day}

Can you see the connection here? Yep… we’re all acting just like poor little ratty when it comes to email and social media.

“I think that email and social media are a great example of random reinforcement. Usually, when we pull the lever to check our email, it’s not that interesting. But, from time to time, it’s exciting. And that excitement, which happens at random intervals, keeps us coming back to check our email all the time.” {Dan Ariely – 99U Manage Your Day-to-Day}

Stepping away from it all for a few days gave me space to breathe and relax. To remind myself that the world would not come to an end if I didn’t reply to an email or a tweet immediately. To break the habit of random reinforcement addiction.

Honestly, sharing my feelings and anxiety about all this sounds so ridiculous and self-centred to write down! I mean, really, I am just not that important. No-one is. The stress we feel when we’re NOT constantly checking in and getting a hit of random reinforcement is more an automatic psychological process than real, founded, logical concern that we’re not doing our jobs properly.

Not taking yourself so seriously – while also getting your work done and helping out customers within a regular timeframe – is really an important balance to achieve.

I realised how reactive my workdays had become.

Because I started out with email and social media, I ended up getting sucked into the vortex for an hour or two in the morning, before even getting to any other work. And, of course, by having about 5 things open at once, I didn’t get any of them dealt with properly, because my attention was constantly split, jumping from one thing to the other, rather than just focussing on one thing, getting it done, and moving on.

Again, Dan Ariely spoke on the myth of multitasking (we can’t actually multi-task, what we’re doing is task-switching really quickly, putting strain on our brains), and he continued with this oh-so-true point:

“Perhaps even more insidious is our habit of superficially committing to focused work while leaving our email or social media sites open in the background. All it takes is a whistle from one of these apps offering the thrill of an unexpected communication, and bam, we’re off course.” {Dan Ariely – 99U Manage Your Day-to-Day}

Does any of this sound familiar to you?

Yeah, I thought so.

It sure as heck described me and how I was working (or not) every day.

So, what changes did I decide to make?

Here’s a breakdown of my day – how I structured my work before, and the new model I am experimenting with now.


  • Wake up around 8-9 sometime. (No alarm). Immediately grope on the bedside table for my phone and blearily check emails and social media (yes, while still laying down).
  • Snooze for a while. Eventually get up to make coffee + tea, or Nick would beat me to it.
  • Stay in bed and read Flipboard, while also compulsively checking email and social media on my tablet every few minutes (or whenever I finished one article).
  • Get up around 9-9:30, feeling stressed that the day is getting away from me. Have breakfast, shower, then go for a walk if I feel I have time. Many days I didn’t feel like I could spare the time because I knew there were emails that needed dealing with.
  • Set up coffee pot and pitcher of water for the day ahead.
  • Sit down at my computer and open Chrome – which had about 20 pinned tabs. Nick joked that I completely killed the internet whenever I opened my browser – he was right.
  • Work my way through email, all social media, my blog stats, my mailchimp stats. Jump from one to the other constantly as I waited for pages to load.
  • Do this for an hour or two, before realising how late it was getting. When I have a lot of jewellery orders, I would do the bare minimum here and get over to the jewellery bench asap – but usually not before 10:30. I often tried to have ‘jewellery days’ and ‘other work days’. So I would work on orders 3 days a week, and the other 2-3 days I’d focus on getting the other work done.
  • Have lunch with Nick, watch an episode of something.  (We’re currently working our way through Supernatural – up to Season 4!) Usually check my email/social media on the phone a few times during the episode.
  • Lay down for a few minutes, feeling tired and drained already. Especially if I haven’t walked that day. I’ve basically not moved more than a few hundred meters (if that – I live and work in 2 rooms, basically) during the day so far, and haven’t taken any quality time for myself.
  • Get back to work. Usually have Chrome open with all the tabs there, email on top. Constantly move between my jewellery bench and my computer desk. Many days I would make progress by using Focus Booster – which I would use to keep me glued to my jewellery bench for 45 minutes until the timer went off, then had 15 minutes to goof off online, take a rest, etc. Make good progress on orders when I do this. Other days, not so much.
  • Stop around 4ish. Some days I’d exercise, some days I’d just collapse on bed with my Kindle and read until dinner time.
  • Shower + Dinner (not at the same time, obviously…)
  • Usually read my kindle, or once or twice a week watch a fave TV program. Pause consistently to check social media + email (how often depended on how engrossing said book/TV show was).
  • Feeling sleepy. Time to do ONE LAST check of email and probably social media. The last thing I did before going to sleep.


You can see how deeply connected (addicted) I was to checking my email and social media all day long – from when I woke up to when I went to sleep. Keep in mind – most of the time I was simply LOOKING at it – not actually performing a useful action. This is the key.



  • Wake up at or before 7. I have an alarm set, but I actually tend to wake up a little bit before it.
  • Get up straight away and head outside for a walk (minimum of 1/2 an hour). No music, no internet on my phone (I take it with me because I like to use Runkeeper to track how long/far I’ve gone, and I like the security of having it if something goes wrong – I am out walking in the country and bush here. But I turn the data OFF. Actually, I don’t turn it on because I’ve turned it off the night before…).
  • Come home, make a cup of coffee for me and a cup of tea for Nick. Climb back in bed with my coffee and read blog posts on Flipboard for around 1/2 hour. Block all other social media and email from coming up so I’m not distracted/tempted by them.
  • Get up again around 8:15 and have breakfast, a shower, get dressed for the day (no, I don’t ever work in PJs :)). Set up my coffee pot and pitcher of water for the day. I must do both of these things before I start work!
  • Spend one hour writing content for an upcoming Guide or E-course for Create & Thrive. This is the long-term, REALLY important stuff that I was just not getting done before, because it was something I would ‘get to’.
  • Spend one more hour on proactive work. This might be writing blog posts (like this one, it’s currently 10:36am as I write this), working on new jewellery designs, writing emails that will move my business forward (guest post requests, pitches to bloggers and media). Basically, any proactive work that creates something or moves my business forward in some way.
  • 11am – get online for the first time. YES! Up to this point I have not checked email or done anything on social media except Buffering up any articles I found interesting during my morning reading. If I’m running a course, I will have also hopped into the FB Group to leave the daily lesson prompt. But that’s it.
  • Open Chrome. On which I now have NO pinned tabs. All my important websites are up in the bookmarks bar. Only ever have ONE tab open at a time, unless I’m copying/pasting from one place to the other, or doing research.
  • Open FB and reply to any questions from my students.
  • Open my email. DEAL WITH IT ALL. Do not do anything else until I have finished processing my email. Then – move onto social media.
  • Work through Twitter, FB, Pinterest, G+ and reply to anything, do some tweeting/pinning etc.
  • Once that is done, I CLOSE Chrome and move over to my jewellery bench to get started on the day’s making.
  • Stop for lunch around 12:30. Watch an episode of something with Nick. No phone or tablet within reach.
  • Feeling full and relaxed, it’s time to get back to work – NO EMAIL OR INTERNET. It’s time for jewellery making! Work on orders for the next 2-3 hours. By doing this every work day, rather than having ‘jewellery days’ and ‘other work’ days, I get orders done more quickly.
  • I take a photo or two of what I’m working on throughout the day to share on Instagram.
  • Check and process email/social again around 3:30.
  • Stop work around 4-4:30. Exercise.
  • Shower + Dinner
  • Back to work after dinner. Usually this is around 6:30 or so.
  • A bit more jewellery making if necessary. Process email, check in with social media. Set up + schedule any blog posts or emails to my lists for the next day. Also schedule up a few FB posts.
  • Finish work at 8. Turn off my computer. Turn off the internet on my phone and tablet. NO MORE INTERWEBS. At least, not for work purposes. If I want to read some more on Flipboard, that’s okay.
  • Read (usually a novel on my kindle) and relax before heading to bed around 10.

As I write this, I have been working according to the new daily model for a week.

I cannot tell you how much more calm, relaxed, and in control I feel about my business – and life in general.

Stuff that I was putting off before is getting done – much faster than ever before. I do not ‘check’ email – I process it. Every time I open my inbox, I close it again empty. I feel on-top of everything, and don’t have so many nagging ‘I should be’s’ in the back of my mind.

When I work on something – I work on that only. I don’t ever have more than one tab open unless I’m copy/pasting or researching for a blog post. I open one social media at a time. I close my browser when I move to my jewellery bench.

By focussing on one thing at a time, I’m getting more done – and better quality work, too.

I don’t feel like I’m missing out with social media, because when I dip in there, it’s with a purpose, and I really focus on connecting.

Taking the short break I did – turning everything off and breaking the obsessive checking I was doing – was the best thing I could have done for both my work and my life in general.

Are there still times when I feel the urge to ‘just check’ something? For sure. But it’s much less than it was – and it’s now much easier to leave the phone in my bag (heck, I even switch off the data now when I’m not using it with a purpose!) and be more present in the current moment.

I’m definitely going to be scheduling in a couple of digital sabbaticals throughout the year from now on – having experienced the positive effects of disconnecting for a few days, I am a complete convert.

Have you ever taken a digital sabbatical? If so, I’d love to hear any insights you’ve gained from your period of disconnection!

P.S. The photo in this post is one I took on a trip to Thailand last year. Never seen such gorgeous water…


Van Den has written 319 posts in this blog.

Jess Van Den is the editor of Create & Thrive, and has been a full-time creative entrepreneur since 2010. She makes eco-conscious, contemporary, handmade sterling silver jewellery under the Epheriell label, and blogs about her jewellery and other beautiful things at You can catch her on twitter @JessVanDen.


julie @ tractorgirl

oh Jess! Your day sounded remarkably like mine. Only just recently though I’ve had a rethink and a bit of an overhaul in attitude, thanks to some sage advice from Studio Exsto.

Motivation and focus is never long-lasting though, and it needs constant topping up. Thanks for yet another poke in the mind (it’s all good!) x


You’re absolutely right about motivation and topping up – glad I could help! 🙂

Lynda @HomeleaLass

Thanks for sharing this Jess, it’s really interesting!

Lately I’ve been having some forced mini digital sabbaticals because I go out of range on the weekends. I find that after the weekend I haven’t missed a thing and that I’m refreshed and ready to take on the world. I find the same applies with my study – if I study during the week and keep the weekends for fun things I’m refreshed after the weekend.



I think the key here is taking a break – no matter what we do or what we’re working on, if we’re always go-go-go we eventually run out of steam 🙂


Been trying to put aside the reactive and be more intentional since I read this a few days ago – thank you so much for sharing your insight. It’s helping me be more present. Still have a long way to go, but it’s a start.


You’re welcome, Jamie! I like your line about ‘being more present’ – I think that’s a big benefit of being more aware of what we’re doing with our time – because when we’re more present we’re more focussed and less stressed worrying about the future or the past.

Miranti Kayess

Such an incredible shift from a relatively short time offline – amazing! I have just finished reading the exact same book and I loved it. It’ll definitely be one I’ll continue to refer back to. Thanks for sharing 🙂


It really was, Miranti! And isn’t it a great book?! So many nuggets of helpful wisdom in there…


Thanks for sharing your before and afters – so interesting to read and glean helpful bits for myself going forward – deb xx


Thanks Deb – good to know it helps! (Rather than being insanely boring ;D)


Fantastic advice Jess! It has made me realise I need to concentrate on the making first – everything else is secondary, not the other way around!

Thank you,

Stella 🙂


I know, right? It’s so easy to get caught up in everything else and then BAM, the day is over, and you’re left wondering what on earth you achieved!


Very well thought out, useful even for someone like me who doesn’t have a biz (just wishful thinking). But, here we are, me typing, you reading. But, anyway, thanks. BTW, like your display and sign. Don’t reply–move on!


Oh I knew this would be good stuff I didn’t really want to hear! I’m well aware that I may be slightly addicted to social media… I’m also trying to be in denial about it… sigh… Must make some changes… soon… after I check FB… ;o)

PS Thanks for the kick – absolutely need it!


*pokes Tonya to get her off Facebook* – seriously though, social media is AWESOME, and so incredibly important… but yeah, we should be in control of how often we use it, for sure 🙂


Great post, Jess, this has given me lots to think about. And I’m with Tonya – I didn’t really want to hear it either! 😉

Your ‘Before’ day sounds SO much like mine. In the back of my mind I’ve noticed how unproductive the constant checking and zillion open tabs makes me, but that never really convinced me to make any big changes. The best I’ve done is to *occasionally* shut my laptop when I really needed to focus on ‘sewing time’….

I Love that your ‘After’ day makes regular time for proactive work. I always feel so much better/productive/businesswoman-y when I finally take the time to chip away at or accomplish those ‘bigger picture’ tasks, and love the idea of scheduling time for them every day.

I’ve been waiting for ‘Manage Your Day-to-Day’ (it’s on order at my local library), and hopefully reading it will make these ideas sink in even more. Thank you for sharing your tips and new schedule as a roadmap of sorts!

I’d love to read a follow-up post in a month or two, just to keep the motivation going!


Kerry – I like the idea of a follow-up post – will be good motivation for me to stay on track and keep the new routine going 🙂 You’ll definitely get some great ideas from the book – it’s one I’d recommend buying if you enjoy it, because it’s definitely one you will want to reference back to in future.

The proactive work time has been a huge – and really important – change – I definitely feel much more in control, like I’m moving forward more intently.


Favorite post yet! I definitely play the ‘multi-tasking’ game as I bounce between two silk painting tables, an easel, the packaging table and the sewing room. Madness! This is very helpful, thank you so much for sharing your experience!


I think we all do it, Emily! I certainly had.. for YEARS 🙂

Paola Beretta

Hi Jess! Right on the dot – I enjoyed reading your article. It resonates a lot with me and I love the debunking of the ‘multi-tasking myth’ – especially relevant for creative women, right? (aren’t we all goddesses of multi-tasking in our lives?).




Thanks for sharing this again in your newsletter Jess – it was like gold to read! Now I’d love to know, almost a year later, how are you going with your approach to your work?


Shell – this really had a long-term impact on me! I still love social media, but I’m a little more able to manage my time and switch off from it… most of the time 🙂

What say you?