Technobabble: Can we take a vacation from e-mail?

  • Article by: RANDY A. SALAS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 24, 2008 - 4:43 PM

Leisure travel might not be so leisurely if we are tempted to use our cell phones, laptops and other devices to check in with the office.

The first time I tried to contact Ed Kohler, the Twin Cities tech guru was traveling in Argentina over the winter holidays. My communiqué concerned business matters -- his expertise as the executive producer of Eden Prairie-based TechnologyEvangelist.com -- but he dutifully replied within two days of my e-mailing him to let me know he was on vacation.

Like many Americans, Kohler can't seem to get away from work while he's on vacation. Technology won't let him, not when anyone can be reached by cell phone or when laptop computers can access the Internet from hundreds of thousands of Wi-Fi hot spots worldwide.

According to a 2007 AP-Ipsos poll, 80 percent of vacationers took a cell phone on their most recent getaway and 20 percent took a laptop.

But even that doesn't tell the whole story. About 40 percent of all respondents checked their office e-mail while on vacation, the poll found, and half checked their voice mail or other messages. About 20 percent actually did office-related work, according to the poll.

Those higher figures show that you don't even need your laptop with you to get stuck in a work rut at a time when you're supposed to be on leave from the business world.

Take Kohler, for example. When he replied to my e-mail from Argentina, he was using "a really old PC" at a 40-cents-an-hour Internet cafe in Mendoza. The same thing happened when he went to Croatia for a vacation last spring.

"One of my wife's rules was that we weren't going to bring any laptops or cell phones with us," he said. "We were able to do that, but we still stopped in to some Internet cafes from time to time to check in with people, post photos to our blog and that kind of thing."

He added, "There is no shortage of cyber cafes in tourist destinations these days."

The subject has been on my mind lately because my wife and I are traveling to Europe soon and we've wrestled with whether to bring her laptop. There's still some time to change our minds, but we've decided to bring our cell phones -- mostly to keep in touch with family members in Minnesota -- and leave the laptop behind.

That's easier for me, because the newspaper will come out no matter who's on vacation. It will be harder for my wife, because she's a writer whose work and leisure roles often intermingle, like those of most self-employed people.

One thing that makes forgoing the laptop easier is knowing that just about every hotel and B&B we stay in will have a public computer that's connected to the Web. Or there will be an Internet cafe at some street corner along the way.

So we can go on vacation knowing that work is just a few clicks, a user name and a password away.

Hooray?

There is no doubt that going on vacation at least slows the flow of work-related matters, if not stopping it. Kohler, 34, said he probably looked at his e-mail just three or four times during his 10-day Argentina trip, compared with hourly check-ins while at work in town.

One good result of taking a vacation from work e-mail, he said, is coming back to an in-box filled with hundreds of messages.

"When I step back and take a higher-level look at my e-mail, I find a lot of stuff that I just don't need to be subscribed to," he said. "So when I get back, I usually do a lot of purging from mailing lists that I've ended up on, realizing, 'Hey, why do I read this stuff every day?'"

Is it truly possible to take a vacation without letting technology ruin it with an easy office hookup? Of course it is -- it just takes some willpower.

Check out my accompanying tips for ways to take a vacation from personal technology that keeps you tethered to work, and see if they provide a spark. Here's hoping I can heed my own advice.

Randy A. Salas • 612-673-4542

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