Hail the reviving power of summer | Elizabeth Day

Getting away from your daily routine can give your whole life a new twist

Preparing for a holiday brings with it a series of small but intense pleasures. In many respects, the anticipation of going away is almost better than the act.

There is the delightfully carefree sensation of turning down work requests and party invitations and children’s play-dates for the following week without guilt or fear of giving offence. There is the smugness that comes from buying three-for-two bottles of sun cream rather than the usual dutiful array of multivitamins. There is the sensation that everything will be possible when you return, that those empty slots in your diary will last forever and will be filled with self-improving life choices (starting yoga; planting vegetables; learning Spanish) rather than empty socialising.

And then, of course, there is the setting of the automated out-of-office email. In these hyper-connected times, the out-of-office email feels like a delicious abnegation of responsibility, a wilful “up yours” to authority. It is the modern equivalent of the “Gone Fishing” sign early 20th-century American shopkeepers used to hang on their windows to let their customers know they’d popped round the corner to engage in the pressing business of landing a salmon.

For a glorious summer fortnight, you are allowed to ignore it all – the hastily scheduled work meetings requiring the immediate clicking of a Google calendar, the entreaties for money to be wired to Miss Eunice Improbabolio with extreme urgency or the persistent requests for sponsorship from a man you once sat next to at a wedding who is now embarking on a foolhardy hot-air-ballooning venture from Land’s End to John O’Groats. You realise that none of it really matters.

At least, that’s the idea. In reality, now that most of us are cursed with mobile devices that enable constant connectivity, there is a lingering guilt about admitting to the world you’ve taken a holiday. On the beach, when you’re meant to be immersed in the latest Booker longlist or paying enthralled attention to your child’s sand castle, you’re frantically squinting at your smartphone screen through the sunlight to see whether you’ve missed anything.

And because everyone else is doing the same, the automated out-of-office email is losing its value. Your inbox is continually updated with Twitter feeds and LinkedIn notifications. The work requests keep coming. In the current economic climate, when jobs are as precious and scarce as mined iridium, you feel obliged to get back to the office in case your bosses forget about you or – worse – replace you with someone else who is actually available.

You know that if you don’t reply while you’re away, there’ll be a bulging inbox lurking when you get back, demanding your attention in much the same way as the un-emptied bin you forgot to take out that has started to smell of rotting fish.

Instead of relaxing, you begin to feel embarrassed and anxious about taking time off and having been stupid enough to admit it by changing your email settings to include the word “holiday”. A friend of mine recently pointed out that the current vogue is for people to claim to be on “annual leave” in out-of-office emails. The term imbues trivial holiday plans with a loftier purpose, as though the person in question is carrying out some serious and necessary moral obligation rather than simply getting their bikini line waxed and monitoring sunshine levels in Ibiza via the Met Office weather app.

In Germany, a charity fundraiser called Joana Breidenbach has come up with a novel way of evading the constant assault of information. For the last three years, she has used her out-of-office settings to notify correspondents that she is on “email sabbatical” and that, over her holiday period, all emails will be automatically deleted. Breidenbach took the decision to avoid feeling “overwhelmed” on holiday.

“I find that it is a tremendous help to focus on different things,” she told the BBC. “Some of the best ideas I have come out of this free space.”

I think Breidenbach is onto something. I’ve just come back from a lovely break in Cornwall, where mobile phone reception was as scanty as David Cameron’s beach towel. The sudden realisation that I had no bars of reception on my phone and that the 3G had dwindled to no-G-whatsoever caused an initial fizz of panic, a few seconds of contemptuous disbelief, and then a gradual slide into zen-like acceptance of my own powerlessness.

With no updates from the outside world and no claims on my day other than the need to eat scones, my mind was free to wander uninterrupted for longer periods. I read novels rather than digesting gobbets of news. I watched films rather than YouTube clips. I drank cups of tea staring out to sea. I actually saw what I was looking at rather than being dogged by the persistent need to take a photo, apply a flattering filter to make it seem sunnier than it was and then upload it onto social networks in order to prove I was Having A Good Time (subtext: a slightly better time than you).

I listened more intently to conversations knowing that, if someone couldn’t remember an interesting fact, we would be unable to Google the answer. I slept better. Like Breidenbach, I felt liberated. It was, as she said, “free space”. Admittedly, going through the unanswered emails when I returned was a bit of a slog. But it was worth it for the few days of complete cyberspatial silence. And it strikes me now, having been back at work for a week, that our notion of wellbeing remains narrow.

Our main area of concern over the last few decades has been exercise and healthy eating – we are repeatedly being encouraged to try fitness fads and diets in order to tone up, live lean and lose weight. The latest trend is for the 5:2 diet, where you fast two days a week and eat whatever you want for the rest of it. But what if our problem is information overload rather than binge-eating? And what if we cut out email instead of food groups, abstaining from perpetual connectedness for just two days a week?

It might make us all a little bit saner. At least it will give me more time to start yoga, plant vegetables and learn Spanish. If you email and don’t hear back, I’m probably on “weekly leave”.

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