Unplugging in a Constantly Connected World
The other day, I was sitting at my kitchen table, simultaneously checking my email on my laptop and responding to a text message on my cell phone. My 6-year old came up to me and tried to get my attention. He was getting more and more irritated that I wasn’t responding to him. His frustration grew as I tried to explain that I was working and needed to respond to those messages. Eventually, he huffed off and yelled, “Why do you always have to be on your phone and computer?! You can do that at work! Why can’t you just listen to me?!”
His words hurt. A bit taken aback, I snapped, “Excuse me, do not talk to me that way!” But actually, he was right. I had time to respond to those messages earlier in the day. I had time set aside to do work related activities. And it was now supposed to be Family Time, those far too short moments we try to set aside where we reconnect with each other instead of the outside world. No text or email was so crucial or important in those moments that I absolutely HAD to respond. Once I had taken a moment to regain my composure, I turned off the devices, apologized and acknowledged that he was right, and did my best to be present and give him my full attention.
Technology is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, basically anything and everything we could ever need is available at the touch of a button. Need recommendations for a new restaurant? Hop on Yelp and get some ideas (or ask Siri for help, OR, better yet, create a Facebook poll). Need directions to said restaurant? There’s a GPS app for that. Forgot to grab diapers at the store? Amazon Prime to the rescue! Don’t have time to get groceries? Shipt or Instacart saves the day! Delivered right to your door. You don’t even have to change out of your PJs to leave the house.
But as amazing and wonderful as technology is, it can have negative impacts on our lives as well. With constant accessibility comes the feeling that one needs to be constantly connected (FOMO, anyone?). Research shows that having the possibility to be always connected can cause an increase in anxiety and stress. Interestingly, 84% of cell phone users report that they could not go a single day without their device. Increased connection to social media use has been connected to rise in depressive symptoms among teens. And this article published by Bentley University in 2015 acknowledges many other “psychological byproducts” of the increased presence of technology in our lives, including low attention span, decreased patience, and skewed reality.
I recently read an interesting book called The Tech-Wise Family by Andy Crouch. The gist of the book is that technology is wonderful, useful, and necessary…as long as it’s put in its place. There were many great takeaways from the book, but a few of his points resonated with me. I’ve been trying to incorporate them into my personal life and encouraging clients to do the same.
Honor the Natural Rhythm of Work and Rest
As humans, we have a well-defined internal clock that shapes our energy level throughout the day. This natural, hard-wired ebb and flow is called circadian rhythm. This is why you tend to be most productive at certain times of the day, more tired at others, and these times tend to be fairly consistent day to day. We work, and then we rest. But when we are constantly connected, we work at odd hours. Often, I feel the need to respond to a text/email as soon as I see it, regardless of the time. When we are constantly connected, we don’t get a break. And we can mess up our own internal clock. When our circadian rhythm gets interrupted, our sleep gets off, and when we are sleep deprived, we are more likely to be irritable, anxious, impatient, and overwhelmed.
In order to restore the work/rest balance, strive to be intentional about setting boundaries around your availability and connectedness to technology. I’ve recently implemented a “no work after leaving the office” boundary. That means no email or texting after my office hours. It’s not always easy, but it gets easier with every passing day. Be intentional about setting time without a screen nearby. In Tech-Wise Family, Crouch recommends 1, 1, 1: practice disconnecting for 1 hour a day, 1 day a week, 1 week a year. In doing this, we have more time to connect to ourselves and to our loved ones, and more time to be fully present in the moment.
Likewise, disconnect from screens before bedtime. Screens go to bed before we do, and wake up after we do. Interestingly, blue lights from screens suppress melatonin and keep our brains alert. The overall result is restless sleep, which as we’ve already discussed can impact mood and stress levels. Keeping phones and screens in a different room can help with the urge to check them one last time before bed. Similarly, it will keep you from checking your phone and “plugging back in” as soon as you wake up.
Keep Technology on the Periphery
When we are in close proximity to our technological devices, we are all too tempted to engage. Just in writing this article, I’ve glanced at my phone and/or email and checked various apps and websites approximately 87 times…because it’s there. My computer is open, my phone beside me. My smart watch isn’t helping the matter by buzzing with every text message that comes my way. Without fail, my mind wanders, “Ooh, let me find that recipe I wanted to make for dinner. That’s an interesting news article that just popped up in my email. Wonder what’s happening in Facebook world? Anyone like my recent post??” And off I go…down the rabbit hole.
If we want to live a life where we can more easily unplug and disconnect, we need to create an environment where electronics and technology are on the periphery. In his book, Couch describes his home as a space where his family intentionally keeps their main living areas free of screens. In our house, we have a bin by the door that says, “Family Time, Electronics Go Here”. (Full disclosure, we are all very inconsistent about putting electronics in the bin, but we’re working on it.) Our goal is to disconnect from the world and reconnect with each other. To use our time together creatively, writing stories or coloring pictures, playing outside or going on walks. Physical presence does not equal being emotionally and mentally present. In keeping screens and technology on the periphery, we are better able to be fully present with each other.
Plug Into Relationships
Andy Crouch notes in his book that when kids are asked what they wish was different in their relationships with their parents, they overwhelmingly answered, “I wish my parents would get off their screens and talk to me.” Certainly, screens and technology have their place in being able to connect with friends and family. But nothing is better than in-person, face-to-face interaction. We may be physically present with our children when we are all together. But, if we are connected to a device, we are not emotionally or mentally connecting with them in the way that is best for all of us.
Human beings are by nature social creatures. Wewere designed to live in community, to be connected to others. While technology can help with that, it often limits the amount of genuine, quality in-person interactions we have. When we forego the technology and the screens—when we have coffee with a friend rather than catching up over text; when we pay attention and watch the soccer game instead of trying to catch the best play on video; when we spend quality, mindful, connected time with our friends and family—we find ourselves feeling less stressed and overall more satisfied. These relationships are self-care and intentionally plugging into them is filling our buckets.
I recognize that it’s hard to fully disconnect from the world and reconnect purposefully in our relationships. Where can you be intentional about setting aside time to meet a friend for coffee or dinner? When would be a good time to set aside everything else and play with your child or have a date night with your partner? Carving it out and setting boundaries with these times makes it easier to be fully present in the moment, without the distraction of screens.
Technology is not an easy subject to tackle. And it is, in the current state of affairs, a necessary part of our lives. With this in mind, it’s important to recognize how you would like technology to be a part of your life. I encourage you to ask yourself where and when you might be able to intentionally disconnect from technology and reconnect with the immediate world around you.