THIS EPISODE

The power of a digital detox

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INTRO
In the third episode of That Purpose Show we look at the world of digital detoxing. We talk to Hector Hughes about his business Unplugged. Hector tells us the story of Unplugged, which starts with startup burnout and a silent retreat in The Himalayas. We ask him about the value of taking a digital detox and the importance of Purpose, wellness and mental health in both professional and personal life.
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Hector Hughes

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Hector Hughes

PROFILE

Hector Hughes is a cofounder of Unplugged. After a burnout in 2019 whilst working for a tech start-up, Hector spent some time at a silent retreat in the Himalayas. Upon returning he quit his job and launched Unplugged- a start-up providing a digital detox at off-grid cabins an hour from city life.

Transcript

Chris Taylor: Hey everyone. And welcome to That Purpose Show brought to you by The Podcasterists. Drew and I love storytelling and together we help brands tell their story one podcast at a time. I’m Chris Taylor, your show host. Join me as I explore the fascinating world of Purpose. I’ll be talking with everyone from brands and content creators, to voices, with authority to explore what Purpose is, why it’s important and how to communicate it in a relevant and authentic way. We’d love your feedback and you can find out more about us at The Podcasterists.com.

Technology to keep us connected has been indispensable in the last 18 months with so few opportunities to be able to meet family, friends and colleagues. Technology has literally been a lifeline for both our mental and business health. But there is a flip side, a dark side even, who hasn’t become exhausted and disillusioned by endless team or Zoom meetings? Who didn’t feign a headache to avoid that family Zoom quiz?

I’m increasingly wondering if instead of technology being our servant, the relationship has switched and it’s really us that’s the servant jumping to attention every time we receive yet another notification. So I thought I’d do some research leading to my discovery that I believe I suffer from nomophobia.

This is a genuine anxiety disorder caused by separation from a mobile phone. The symptoms include an increased heart rate, feelings of panic and an inability to focus until I’m reunited with my device. Maybe I need a digital detox. My guest, this week knows all about digital detox. In fact, he’s made it his business Hector Hughes is the co-founder of Unplugged, a startup, providing a digital detox at off-grid cabins an hour from city life.

Hi Hector, how are you doing? Welcome to the show.

Hector Hughes: Chris I’m very well. Thank you. Thank you very much for having me.

Chris Taylor: Not at all. Now you mentioned that you suffered a burnout in 2019 and spent some time at a silent retreat in the Himalayas. Can you tell me a little bit about the events that led up to that burnout?

Hector Hughes: Yeah, for sure. So I was working for a tech startup at the time. It was an iPad point of sale startup. So if you go into a cafe or a restaurant and they’re using an iPad for the till and I joined as one of the early employees, we did the whole international expansion, grew to 70 people, opened offices in the US and Australia.
And in 2019, I was running growth at the time and, you know, flying around the world to set up these offices in Melbourne and Austin. And yeah, just had a real, kind of a, I think a growing dissatisfaction. I was becoming very aware of, just, just how frazzled I was with between. I think a lot of it is just spending that time on devices between kind of managing a social life and also managing you know, a busy working life.
You just never really have the chance to switch off. So. That, that kind of dissatisfaction grew again. I was, I was kind of drinking a lot of the times that, you know, kind of the weekends be out to the old hours and then in the week you know, trying to crack on with this startup and the recommendation of friends I went to the silent retreat in the Himalayas.
So when he first suggested it, I laughed it off. You know, I just thought, what would, what would people think? What would the people at work think? The more I thought about it, the more I thought, you know, what, why not give it a go? So September 2019, flew to the Himalayas and went to a 10-day silent retreat and it was incredibly spectacular.
It’s going to a Buddhist temple on top of the mountain. So yeah, really and, you know, turned out to be exactly what I needed.

Chris Taylor: Okay. Well, you sort of preempted my questions cause I, I just had, could you describe the retreat? And I was imagining a sort of very kind and gentle and wise sort of Buddhist monks in orange robes sort of sipping tea from bowls with sort of wind chimes in the background and obviously the world’s most spectacular backdrop.
Was it like that?

Hector Hughes: That, that kind of thing. Yeah. Yeah. The the, the Buddhist monks were actually from quite an eclectic mix of places. So we are intros by a very amusing German monk and the monk was running. Yeah, I’m sure that I’m sure there’s something and then yeah an American running of course, but yeah, it was incredibly peaceful.
Actually. The biggest distraction was there was a rather aggressive troop of monkeys that patrolled the surrounding forest. I had a couple of run-ins with them, but apart from that, it was all peaceful and sipping tea, that kind of thing.

Chris Taylor: Okay. So had you resigned from your position then at this point, or were you going back to the day job after this?

Hector Hughes: Yeah. Yeah. I was going back to my day job, with no intention to resign at all. And you know, in many ways it was, it was very exciting. I had to come straight back from the retreat for a quarterly planning meeting, so the leadership taking three days to, to make a plan. So I literally from the retreat, went straight to the airport and flew home.
And again, no intention to quit my job, even, even after a treat. But then two days after I got back, we were halfway through this, Th this quarterly planning meeting and we got the call that we’re trying to raise a 10 million series at the time that fell through so that. Day, we closed the US and Australian office, let go half the company.
So overnight that, that just became, you know, the whole startup trajectory changed. And I was running growth marketing at the time. And so obviously we paused all marketing spend. So I had a week twiddling, my thumbs and my boss went back and forth with With investors and went for a drink with Ben who’s my, now co-founder told him about the retreat and yeah, we cooked up Unplugged.

Chris Taylor: Ah, so that, that was the inspiration for this, obviously, so therefore at that point, you know, a drink with your, as you say, your, your co-founder. You know, the unplugged was born as it were all the idea was conceived.

Hector Hughes: Absolutely. Yeah. So it was a, it was a, it was a bit of a kind of perfect storm because it was obviously, you know, good timing.
I say good with the startup because we were going through some issues. It was also just after this retreat. And I also heard from another friend about these kinds of cabin companies in other countries, there’s quite well established, tiny house startups in the US and Australia. And again, had really been thinking about this kind of digital minimalism piece you know, really throughout 2019 throughout that year.
So, so all of these things were kind of cooking away in the back of. My mind and spoke with Ben. So Ben is not the kind of guy you’d find at a silent retreat anytime soon. And we were talking about how there’s still a stigma around, you know, retreats and meditation. And a lot of the benefits, just getting people offline and into nature.
And so, you know, we’re obviously talking about this, this tiny house movement and thought that would be a fantastic vessel to, to

Chris Taylor: do something. Okay, because when I first sort of looked into this, I sort of, I thought that it might be like one of those detox centers in Utah you know, where these sort of where, where people are taken and it’s, you know, you are met by some of these big burly guys with a tough-love approach and they sort of search your bag for contraband, and then you sort of try and escape and they track you down because of course, you know, there’s 200 miles of desert in every direction or something.
It’s not like that is it. Tell us, paint us a picture, what it’s like.

Hector Hughes: Yeah. So, so we’re kind of taking the opposite approach and, you know, because there’s such high, I think psychological barriers to doing something like that, like you really have to be in a certain place. And most people, you know, just have themselves down as the kind of person who just wouldn’t go and do that kind of thing.
So it’s really, how can we benefit? How can we bring the benefits, but make them accessible? So unplugged the concept is we put cabins an hour from city life. And then when people arrive, they literally padlocked their phones in a box. We give them a map and a Nokia and leave them to it for three nights.

Chris Taylor: So you basically give them one of those sorts of, you know, first-generation mobile phones that, you know, with the green screen and the sort of blocky text, and that’s what they have. If they need to make a telephone call.

Hector Hughes: Exactly. So the intention is that’s to get hold of us. So, so that they’re not calling the restaurant reservations, they’re not calling their boss.
Yeah, exactly. Call the local pub, but it’s got, got a snake on there and everything, so that’s cool.

Chris Taylor: Okay. So you take their phone off them and then that, and do you take any other device off them? If they’ve got sort of iPads and bits and pieces and things like that?

Hector Hughes: No so, I mean, it’s all, it’s all self-check-in.
So everyone checks themselves in, and what we found is it’s kind of won or lost before people get there. So the first month we were checking people in ourselves and they’d arrive, they’d see a cabin on Instagram, they’d book, they’d arrive. We’d check them in. And we tried to lock away their phones and you know, they’d be like what you’re doing?
Absolutely not. So what we realised is that people weren’t actually taking. Didn’t believe us that the intention was to lock away their phones. So we played around with the messaging and now everyone does, which is, which is great. And the, you know, because you, you, you’ve got to kind of you know, say your goodbyes to the outside world for three days and make sure that everyone knows, you know, X, Y, Z.
So it’s really about solving all the excuses people could have for. You know getting their phone out and just have to check this or do that. So if people really understand that that’s what they’re coming to do, then it liberates them to actually just come and spend three days offline. Yeah.

Chris Taylor: I mean, I genuinely actually do experience a bit of anxiety, you know, if I’m separated from my phone, is that what you commonly see?
Are people a little

Hector Hughes: bit anxious? Yeah, for sure. For sure. Interestingly the the first day, especially the first kind of 24 hours, you are actually a little more anxious than most people are. And you know, cause you kind of feel like you’ve lost a limb, right? Like there’s the kind of real discomfort.
But then the mind starts to settle down. And then you can access this state of calm that we just do not have in our, in our daily lives because you know, within 15 minutes of waking up, most people are on their phone and for the rest of the day, your mind is not the kind of there it’s in, whoever’s emailing you or WhatsApping you all these things.
So you’ve got that initial period of discomfort, but then people can really kind of reset and reach that default state. And it’s really, it’s really something quite remarkable. I mean, I’ve obviously tried the experience as, as has been, like Ben my co-founder and something really interesting is happening.
So we’re actually doing we’ve got a grant to do a research study with a few university teams looking into the. Biological and subjective wellbeing on of the the experience. So yeah, really keen to kind of get into the science and really understand what’s happening so that we can kind of yeah, I guess, take those learnings and apply them elsewhere.

Chris Taylor: Okay. So whilst, whilst you’re staying at the retreat, so your phone is locked away and you would encourage your guests to experience nature or go for a walk or read a book. And I think the cabins are so they’re all pretty well. As, you know, in terms of, you know, if you want to sort of cook, cook your own supper or whatever, you can do all of that.And there are books and magazines and things, and you can really chill out. That’s the experience isn’t it that you want people to be able to really unwind?

Hector Hughes: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. I mean, the beauty of it is if you can get that first bit, right. You know, with the locking away the phone then you know, that’s really job done.
You know, we were, we were worried when we launched, like, are people going to get bored? What are they going to do? All these kind of things. But, you know, three days really flies by and people walk a lot they cook they read. So, you know, really just, just getting people off that phone has an amazing effect.

Chris Taylor: And what’s the experience? What, what, what do your guests tell you at the end of their experience? What do they say? Gosh, you know, I really didn’t, you know, actually, I haven’t missed my telephone at all. Or are they sort of literally biting your hands off to get the phone out of the locked box again? How does that, how does that sort of manifest itself?
Yeah. Yeah.

Hector Hughes: So it’s usually the former, most, most people. Say, wow. I really did not miss my phone and, there was some really interesting feedback we get is, you know, a lot of people going away and saying, oh, we’re definitely gonna try or do an evening a week where we go out and leave our phones at home.
Next time we go on holiday, we can leave our phone in the room, that kind of thing. So, because when we were initially launching this, we got a lot of feedback about, or, you know, Digital detoxing doesn’t work. You can’t change a habit in three days and that’s true, but then, the benefit is not from changing people’s habits.
It’s about changing their perception. And, you know, we get people coming out and saying, one of the big realisations is that the world doesn’t end when you go offline for three days, because, you know, I think all of us especially is. Kind of business owners that I know a lot of people are, of course, parents as well.
And it always feels like it’s just not possible in this day and age. It feels like there’s no way so many people hear about this and say, there’s no way I could go off I’m

Chris Taylor: three days. It’d be interesting to sort of you know you mentioned your undertakings some research projects in terms with a couple of universities to sort of understanding that, you know, the holistic benefits of this approach what do you hope it will reveal.

Hector Hughes: Yeah, it’s, it’s interesting. So I. I hope we can, what I really hope is, it tells us what is happening. So that’s kind of quantifiable because at the moment, we know like something’s clearly happening, but we don’t know exactly

Chris Taylor: what it is. Yeah.

Hector Hughes: Like, like yeah, like biologically, you know so what I hope is.
From that research. We, you know, get that so that we can then pass that onto people because I think so much of making these changes in your life is that self-awareness piece. And I think the more we can educate people as to what’s happening, the more they can kind of take that knowledge back to their, to their daily lives.
And then yeah, understand how they can kind of benefit going forward.

Chris Taylor: Okay. And do you think employers have a responsibility in terms of their you know, their workforce to actually say to people, look, you do need to, you know, you need to switch off, you don’t need to look at your phone for an email every five minutes.
You know, once the working day is finished, really, unless it’s an emergency, we’re not going to get hold of you and you don’t need to check anything. Do you think that message is a bit louder and clearer these days? Or do you think we still got an awfully long way to go?

Hector Hughes: Well, I mean, I’m, I’m genuinely, I’m generally very optimistic about most things.
I think that too, you know, again, you’re hearing about lots of places where it’s broken in all the stuff about Goldman Sachs recently

Chris Taylor: and all these things I was going to mention. Yeah. Quite

Hector Hughes: yet, but the fact that we’re hearing about that and that’s really being flagged. I mean, again, you know, I obviously have mixed thoughts on social media, but it does do a lot of good.
And I think what it really does is it kind of you know, it gives people a platform to really talk about these things. And so I think as a whole, it really, you know, celebrates in a kind of righteous or celebrates kind of the good and penalizes, the bad and society. So it really is a good mechanism for driving change.
And so in terms of employers, I think that, well look certainly, you know mental health and mental wellbeing is it is, is really kind of everything. I mean, even from a company point of view and the success of the company. I mean, surely employees can, can now see how the benefit of looking after their employees, mental wellbeing.
They’re only shooting themselves in the foot by running, these kinds of cultures of overwork and burnout and all these things that are horribly inefficient. So, you know, I hope that yeah, I’m sure this, this trend will continue and, you know, people are talking about these things and, you know, the people aren’t standing for any more as well, you know, before one of the benefits of the pandemic is it’s really made people take stock.
And think about, you know, how they want to live their life, who they want to work for, how they want to spend their time. And so people are a lot less tolerant of these cultures. So there is still a long way to go. Especially in the UK, you look at the services sector, the law firms, the banks, you know, that there still is that culture overwork, but I’m very optimistic about the direction that it’s going.

Chris Taylor: Okay. And what message would you give HR leaders and directors who are tasked with employee wellbeing and putting that high on the corporate agenda? What would you say to them?

Hector Hughes: I’d say it, it really is simple. Well, I think it gets massively over-complicated employee wellbeing and, you know, it turns into a bit of a box-ticking exercise.
You know, we have to do this and this and this and this, and it really is just about, you know, keeping pets. It’s just about happiness, you know, it’s about keeping people happy. I’m a big believer that that’s what we’re all striving for. So, you know, you can really simplify the task of. Driving employee wellbeing, but by just focusing on how can we make our employees happier and often that’s removing.
The unhappiness, right? Like a lot of the time, it’s easier to figure out what’s making people unhappy than, to keep. Cause I think that’s a real focus is, is like, you know, we always think, you know, more, you know, that that’s ad perks and all these kinds of things when the root of the problem might be you know, that culture of overwork or, or, you know, one of these things that really comes from the top.
And so it’s really just being self-aware and understanding. Where that unhappiness, suffering, burnout is coming from in the company. and doing something about that now. It has to come from the top.

Chris Taylor: Hmm. And where next for Unplugged? I mean, can you, do you see that? I mean, obviously, you have an overarching purpose here for the organization, which I think is very clear.
Do you think that you could use the work that you’ve done in other areas of people’s lives in terms of. this sort of detox and a rather holistic approach to, how they interact with their various different devices.

Hector Hughes: A hundred percent, a hundred percent. Yeah. I, you know, really excited to see where we go with it right now.
It’s about scaling up, this kind of core cabin concept. And in the future, we’ll look to add you know, experiences to that. So when people come and stay, you know, what can they do when they’re there? Maybe they want to learn to meditate, or, you know, any of these things. So that’s an interesting avenue.
And then yeah, more holistically I think we’re really just looking at the whole kind of you know, I guess this kind of millennial wellbeing kind of space where no one known really quite knows how to put it together. Like you’ve got all these kinds of emerging fields around, you know, retreats and meditation, even though ironically has been around for thousands of years.
And I think that there is still a lot of stigma around it and it’s, it’s quite hard to, it’s quite kind of impenetrable. So I think the more we can that the more we can learn in this space about what really works. Cause I think nowadays we see so many, you know, mental health startups, building platforms and apps and all these things.
And for us fundamentally that doesn’t get to the root of the problem, which is we’re spending all this time in sat on our devices. So yeah, really, really interested to see what we can do in that kind of wider wellbeing space. And really it’s just about getting people off their devices, into the physical world and yeah, driving wellbeing.

Chris Taylor: Well, I think that’s, I think that’s absolutely true. And I think you’ve, you know, you hit the nail on the head that actually, if there is another app that’s developed that does something in terms of tracking this or measuring, you know, whatever mental health It’s another notification.
It’s another thing to fill out. It’s another ping. It’s something else. And therefore that’s slightly self-defeating and rather pointless. So I think that what you’ve done is, is, is actually very exciting. And I think that really is that, you know, it, that would be, I would say is, is a very good approach to the issue.
And lastly, I think I would ask you is. Do you and your co-founder. Do you have issues with separation from your phones today or are you pretty good?

Hector Hughes: Yeah, that’s a good question. It’s interesting. So, you know, Definitely, definitely good and better than, you know, the start of this whole process, but interestingly, because we’re thinking about it all the time you know, it, it feels like you’re worse in a way because you’re kind of more aware of times, spent on screen.
So, I mean, got into some good habits now around, you know, kind of getting off all devices at 6PM. If I’m not doing anything in the evening and kind of leaving them off till 9:00 AM the next morning. So just having these kinds of, you know, just kind of creating space in the evenings and mornings, because, and the more kind of go down that rabbit hole, the more obvious it is when I do come online just how frazzled you get, you know, like when I check my emails in the morning, but my, my thinking is.
So much clearer before checking emails to afterwards. And then once, once I’m in that digital space, you know, my, my quality of thought is just, just kind of gone for the day. So definitely kind of experimenting in, in my life. And then also, you know, again, he kind of came from this more, you know, he, he loves his technology and his apps and all these kinds of things.
And so it’s been really great to see him kind of experiment with this as well. And. And that’s the thing I think, you know, regardless of whether or not people come and stay in our cabins it’s just nice that it’s quite a tangible idea for people to tell their friends about, right? Like, you know, this is a startup that locks your phone in a box and it and gives you a Nokia.
And so what we’re seeing is, you know, people are talking about it. People are reflecting on time, they spend with their own devices and that’s really how change happens. So that’s been incredibly rewarding.

Chris Taylor: Brilliant Hector. Thanks very much. If people want, to go online and have a look at what you do when if they want to drop you an email, how do they get hold of you?

Hector Hughes: Yeah, for sure. So unplugged.rest is the website and also the Instagram handle. I’m on LinkedIn, but sadly not any other social media. And then you can, you can get me at hector@unplugged.rest, always happy to chat with people and excited to hear about people thinking about the same things.

Chris Taylor: Hector Hughes thank you very much.

Hector Hughes: Thank you very much, Chris.

ABOUT

Welcome to That Purpose Show brought to you by The Podcasterists.

We’ll be talking with everyone from brands to content creators to voices with authority to explore what Purpose is, why it’s important and how to communicate it in a relevant and authentic way.

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