Analysis: Arianna Huffington delivers digital detox tips for A-type Auckland crowd

Arianna Huffington has a cocktail party trick.

Whatever country she's in, she pulls out a smartphone (or, in this instance, borrows one from a handy NBR reporter) and types a Google search for "Why am I so ... "

Google inevitably auto-completes with "tired".

And so it was in Auckland last night as she did a series of Q&As for guests gathered around ASB Bank's HQ before speaking to a large, $350-a-head crowd at the Viaduct Events Centre.

Why are we so tired?

People take better care of their smartphones than they do of themselves, the Huffington Post founder says.

Her own epiphany about our 24/7 non-stop-working digital lifestyle came when she collapsed from exhaustion in her LA  office, slamming her head onto her desk then waking up in a pool of her own blood 

That was two years after the Greek immigrant had founded HuffPo.

The pressure was on. Pre-HuffPo, Arianna was best known as a conservative blogger and the wife of Michael Huffington — heir to a billion dollar oil and gas exploration fortune, and briefly a Republican congressman. (They had two children before divorcing in 1997. These days Michael, who came out of the closet, is a gay rights campaigner.)

Arianna's politics had taken a swing to the left since the 2000 presidential election (when she supported George Bush and campaigned against Al Gore). HuffPo had been set up as an antidote to right-wing news aggregation and blog sites like The Drudge Report.

Many were predicting the new site would fail. But after her fainting episode, Huffington says she pulled back. She ditched 18-hour days in favour of getting a good night's sleep and, with it, good ideas. 

New companies need to be disruptive, she told the crowd in Auckland last night. But how to be disruptive without being chaotic? You introduce what she calls "the third metric", making sure staff aren't strung-out with tiredness and overwork, undermining overall productivity.

Unless you've been living under a rock, you'll know that HuffPo went on to become one of the most successful new media sites. Huge traffic brought in ad dollars, which meant the site could evolve beyond opinion and racy summaries of mainstream media stories to employing its own staff, and running original content too. One correspondent, David Wood, won a Pulitzer Prize (America's highest honour for serious journalism) for a 10-part series on the treatment of wounded veterans. (The site — or at least some of its elements — still has critics, though. During a Q&A, Russell Brown tweeted the question, "Huffpo has become a platform for quack doctors + crank theories about autism. What do we do when wisdom of the crowd is bad?" He didn't make it to the top of a lengthy queue.)

In 2011, Arianna (now 64) sold HuffPo to AOL for $US315 million.

She stayed on as editor-in-chief, and she's still practising what she preaches about digital detox, as she details in her new book, Thrive.

She told last night's audience that HuffPo employees are not expected to answer email after leaving the office.

The site is a 24/7 operation, but managed in shifts.

And even when you're on shift, the third metric counts. Huffington said she introduced two nap rooms in the office, then a third.

A first, journalists were dubious, but now the rooms were frequently used for power naps.

"And the other day I saw two people walking out of one of the rooms," she deadpanned. "Whatever it takes to recharge your batteries." (Huffington's humour frequently had the Auckland audience eating out of her had. At one point she said she used to worry about her Greek accent. She made various attempts to try to lose it until she met Henry Kissinger, "who told me in American public life you can never over-estimate the advantages of total incomprehensibility". Later, she added, "My ex-husband gave me the most passive-aggressive gift ever — a dialect coach.")

Huffington also name-checked Boston Consulting, which encourages employees to genuinely unplug when they take a holiday, and another company were smartphone email is automatically disabled between 7pm and 6am.

More names were dropped, though often with tongue firmly in cheek. “Bill Clinton told me he made some of his worst decisions when he was tired”, she quipped. “He didn't say which ones".

There were more tips: Take your smartphone and gently escort it out of your bedroom, she said. Otherwise, research shows most people are tempted to check their mobile when they wake up, often ruining a good night's sleep.

There were more jokes about her digital detox programme. “There are a lot of A-type people in the audience, so I want to remind you not to do all 12 steps at once,” she said.

And, lastly, some more serious words. No funeral eulogy ever included the words "he doubled sales", Arianna said. Stop texting and checking your tweets as you walk down the street. Stop sneaking a look at your smartphone under the table. Look and hear what's around you.

The crowd was genuinely moved by Huffington's words. Yet inevitably — aware of the irony but unable to stop themselves — many whipped out their iPhones to spread the word about unplugging. Vend CEO Vaughan Rowsell tweeted:

Digital detoxing is important for focussing and progressing and… look at me, I’m a hypocrite quoting that #ariannanz

— Vaughan Rowsell (@rowsell) September 12, 2014

Overall, the message about not sacrificing yourself or your staff to the job seemed to resonate. It was a good story. NBR's reporter set his alarm clock in a bid to file it before anyone else.

ckeall@nbr.co.nz

Follow @ChrisKeall


Arianna Huffington was brought to NZ by ASB Bank and Anthem, supported by AUT University and others. Stuff has a full event reply here.