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Karen S. Exkorn Headshot

Put Your Cellphone in the Brown Paper Bag (I'll Keep Mine)

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Before I deliver every one of my corporate seminars, I make a simple request: "Turn off your cellphones and put them in the brown paper lunch bags." I've learned that I have to make this request myself (when I've asked assistants to help out with this rather unpopular task, they look at me in horror). So I station myself by the entrance, hand each participant a bag and a marker, and watch as they write their names on the bags and gently place their beloved cellphones inside. The bags are then set on long banquet tables that are out of reach from their owners. I assure them that they will get to visit their phones during the breaks.

In the beginning, participants didn't always follow the instructions so well. I take the blame for that. They would beg and plead to keep their cellphones on silent mode in their pockets, and I'd relent, only to see them hunched over and texting madly in their laps, while glancing up at me every once and a while to show that they were pretending to listen. Or they'd persuade me to let them keep their iPads with the promise that they'd only use it to take notes, and instead I'd see them emailing or checking their Facebook statuses. (I'd later cite research that shows that "writing by hand engages the brain in learning.")

So now I've became bolder in my no-cellphone zone request. "No cellphones. No exceptions!" Perhaps it's the way I say it -- I coach participants to speak authoritatively when they want to make an important point -- or perhaps it's my body language -- I assume one of Amy Cuddy's "power poses" while making my request. No matter what the reason, in each and every one of my seminars these days, every single person who enters the room puts away their cellphone.

Of course, I list off all of the wonderful benefits of being off the grid for a few hours: You'll be able to focus! You won't feel the pressure to multi-task! No pesky email or text distractions! I quote a New York Times article, "Learning to Let Go: First, Turn Off the Phone." Participants look at me warily at first, but then get so involved in the training session that they actually manage quite well for a few hours at a time without their cellphones.

But could I? Oh sure, I put away my own cellphone while leading the sessions, but did I really buy into the concept of being off the grid for more than a few hours at a time?

Recently, I was put to the test. A friend invited me to join her on a week-long yoga retreat in sunny, beautiful Mexico. Fresh food, beach walks, yoga classes -- it all sounded dreamy. Until I looked carefully at the website and realized that I would not be able to look at this website or any other website while I was on this trip. You see, beneath the idyllic images of sunsets, sand and surf, there was a sentence that read, "We are completely off-the-grid."

Now, admittedly, being off-the-grid might be okay if it's for a few hours during one of my corporate training sessions, but being off-the-grid for one whole week? I quickly called the contact number on the website and politely asked if there were any way that I could be on the grid, at least for an hour a day? I tried to sound casual and nonchalant, but inside I was panicking. The manager said that sometimes people were able to get cell reception, but it was spotty and unreliable. Again, I tried to sound chill as I inquired about the possibility of finding a way to connect (and I didn't mean with my Zen self). He answered that I could rent a car and drive 15 minutes into town to find Wi-Fi and cell service, but that that might defeat the purpose of this relaxation destination.

I hung up and stared at the website with its promise to make me feel "relaxed and refreshed in a tranquil setting." I wanted to be relaxed and refreshed in a tranquil setting! Should I do it? I should do it. Could I do it? I could do it. So I researched flights and put them on hold. Then I "forgot" about them and so they expired. I did this twice more.

Then I got a phone call from NYU. They invited me to lecture the same week of the yoga retreat.

I thought carefully about what I should do and then decided to follow my heart.

So I said yes.

To the lecture.

Because honestly, I just wasn't ready to unplug for an entire week. The thought of not even having the option to make a phone call in my tranquil setting caused me stress. The thought of making that drive into town a few times a day just to make a phone call caused me stress. The fact that I was already experiencing all of this anticipatory anxiety caused me stress. It wasn't until I got that phone call from NYU (on my cellphone!) that I felt relief.

I still ask all of my participants to relinquish their cellphones when they enter my corporate training sessions with the promise that they can visit them during breaks. I still look at that yoga website with its tranquil beaches and promises of relaxation. I've promised myself that one of these days I will take the plunge and unplug for more than a day. Just not today.