Unplug!

Today’s world is a digital world, a world powered by technology.  Use of personal home computers, once a far-off dream, is now commonplace. Much of life is now conducted online via the Internet.  Your computer crashing can have a huge impact on both your home life and work.  Add to that I-pads, Smartphones, Blackberries, instant messages, texts, and we need never be out of touch.  And if you’re not online, in today’s society, it seems you can’t possibly be in touch.

Technology has opened up a completely new world over the last fifteen years or so.  I remember having a conversation with someone around the millennium who told me he planned never to be online, and felt that to give in would be to give away his right not to participate in the Internet age and, as he put it, “being forced to use computers.”  I sometimes think about that conversation and wonder if he finally caved in.   It would be hard, just from a practical standpoint, not to.  The Internet has opened new channels of information, communication and convenience that can’t be denied.   It’s interesting to me, however, that when I talk to people about what is going on with them, many report they are busier and have less free time than ever. A recurring theme seems to be managing technology.  For many, it ends up being a struggle and it seem hard to disconnect.  A recent article in Newsweek magazine (July 2012) cites a survey that fully one-third of smartphone users go online before getting out of bed.  It makes me wonder:  What is that important?  That same article goes on to discuss how the newly revised DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) will, for the first time, include Internet Addiction Disorder when it is released in 2013.  In some countries, notably China and Korea, internet addiction is now being treated as a serious public health crisis.

Another recent article in The Atlantic (May 2012), asks “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?”  It goes on to discuss how, despite the prevalence of opportunities for connection via social media, over 25 percent of Americans surveyed  in 2004 reported having no one with whom to discuss important matters in their life.  It talks about an “epidemic” of loneliness in our culture.  It seems that, despite so much opportunity for connection, people are feeling more disconnected than ever.

It seems that we often don’t feel a sense of control over the time we spend in front of our computers. And I think that is important – knowing that we have a choice in how we manage technology instead of feeling managed by it.  I believe that is key in this new world – making sure we deal with technology in a way that works for us, not the other way around.  So how can we do that?

Here are some ideas:

  • Time spent dealing with email consistently tops the list of time-wasting activities.  Each time that you stop to check email creates a pattern of distraction which then prompts the need to re-focus on the initial task.  What ends up happening is constant interruption to the task at hand.  Most emails are not urgent and unless you are expecting an important one, schedule your time to check email.  A suggestion would be three times daily – morning, after lunch, and before the end of the day.  Apply the same idea to your cell phone – voicemail and texts..
  • If you have a home office, do your morning routine first, then check email.  This means you wake up, go for a run or stretch, shower, and have breakfast, then check email when you are ready to start your day.  Again, it’s about distractions.  You check your email,  send off a response or two, then you see an interesting article, might as well check Facebook……you get the idea.
  • Don’t read and send work emails after work hours, or on weekends.  If you must read and respond to some of business emails at these times, schedule delivery for the next business day.  This accomplishes two things:  you enforce your guideline that you are not available after hours, and you avoid back-and-forth exchanges after hours.
  • Observe National Unplug Day (March 20) or create your own day once a week  – unplug, get outdoors, hang with your family, read under a tree.  Connect with yourself and what you value.
  • For families with children, make the dinner table a No-Phone (and no computer game) Zone.  (Attention Mom and Dad:  This applies to you, too.)  Have rules about how much video game time is allowed , and stick to them.
  • Be sure to make time for in-person connections with those you value.   One of the drawbacks to connecting through social media over time is a lack of intimacy with others.  A computer is, in the end, only a machine.  Nothing can replace a real person. .
  • Some people establish clear boundaries for themselves, rules if you will.  An example would be not checking email during times with your spouse or children, or after 8:00 p.m.  Be mindful of what works for you.  Pay attention if you find yourself feeling stressed about the amount of time you have been at your computer, and take breaks. Turn your cellphone off when you are working on a project, so that you aren’t distracted by calls or texts.
  • If some forms of communication aren’t your cup of tea, don’t engage in them.   You don’t have to text if you don’t like texting. (You can actually say, “I don’t text.”  Really. )  If you would rather hear someone’s voice, pick up the phone and call them instead of emailing.  You have choices about how much you engage with technology.  Again, decide what works for you and stick to that.

I think that last point is important.  Technology is not going away, and we have to find a way to deal with it so that it works for us.  It’s a great tool when we are in charge.  I think part of this is stepping back and reminding ourselves:  Technology is here for our convenience.  If the way you engage with technology is enhancing your life and well-being, great. Keep doing what you’re doing.  If it isn’t, take a look and see what changes you might need to make.  Establish some guidelines that work for you, and stay with them.  And remember who’s in charge of your time.

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