I’ve become what I hate. Infested by wires and clicks, whirs and buzzes, chimes and beeps letting me know that (oh my God!) a message has come. What’s that? Did you say something? Sorry, I was just
lost in thought staring at my phone. Or computer. Or something else that isn’t exactly human. It’s obviously more important.
Perhaps I’m not being entirely fair in that description. Being available–immediately–makes me more competitive in my job. When the editors come calling to ask if I could take a quick interview or write an emergency article on a quick turnaround because something fell through, I want to be there to take that call. When a client needs an overnight marathon proofreading session and can pay my rush fee, I want to respond to the e-mail within minutes to let them know I’m on it. Quick rewrites needed? No problem. Armed with my SmartPhone at all times, I can take “emergency” calls with me instead of being glued to my laptop at home, unable to leave for fear of losing work.
There’s more to it than just work, though. Living in a town in which I am fairly isolated has made me crave attention in the form of tiny indescript messages; some from strangers and some from old friends I haven’t seen in a long time. For better or worse, the internet has taken place of fireside chats and coffee table conversations, of intimate gatherings and time spent with friends and neighbors, laughing at the confusing events of our days trying to make sense of the dysfunction around us while attempting to describe our own insecurities and idiosyncracies over tea. The internet will never be able to replace these magical moments, but sometimes it’s all I’ve got.
But then the work creeps in. I would of course be a bit taken aback if a real-life client walked into my dinner party uninvited, and yet being glued to my computer there is no separation between the two. Coupled with the fact that I love my job and live in a place that’s not exactly thriving with activity, work really is one of the few things I enjoy doing. And so I find myself working around the clock. On weekends. At 2AM. ALL the time. This made the concept of unplugging–temporarily– so intriguing.
Jolie Guillebeau, a Portland-based artist who interacts with clients primarily online, credits unplugging for helping her keep her sanity. “It’s really easy for me to get trapped in front of the computer for hours at a time,” Jolie said. Each work day involves painting, answering e-mail and putting together a daily newslettter with a painting.
She began unplugging while teaching in Africa, when she found herself thinking about work constantly. “(I) realized that if I didn’t make time for other things, I was going to become completely one dimensional and I’d burn out fast. So I deliberately made an effort to ignore work for a full day every week,” Jolie explained. “Once we came back to the States, and my life began to revolve around the internet, I decided to reinstitute that policy.” Unplugging from Saturday evening to late Sunday afternoon was difficult at first, but she now looks forward to her unplugged days, and uses the extra time to read or knit. Sunday afternoons involve baking, as she works her way through the alphabet to make 26 different kinds of pies. Describing unplugging as freeing, Jolie has noticed better communication in her relationships and a sense of relaxation. (And I don’t know about you, but real-life alphabet pies are more intriguing to me than anything I can find on a screen.)
Kristi Martin, a consultant at En Root Marketing, a Twin Cities based marketing and communications firm, is constantly plugged in for work. She interacts with clients and professional contacts by phone, Skype, e-mail and Twitter in addition to in-person meetings. She attends events where tweeting is expected. She also helps clients with their e-mail and web strategies and execution. This is in addition to interaction with friends and families in all of these electronic modes of communication, and Facebook to boot.
“Unplugged for me means trying to stay off email, Twitter and phone for work related projects for one full day,” Kristi says. She avoids Facebook on those days as well. Instead of working, Kristi does yard work and other errands, cooks, spends time with friends and family and works out. Movies and television are allowed, and the telephone is not off limits. However, she limits her computer use to researching something fun for the day.
“As a small business owner that offices from home, I became intensely aware that I was never shutting down,” Kristi explained. “Evenings were filled with either work projects or constantly watching/engaging in Twitter and Facebook threads.” Unplugging enables her to get non-work errands done, and leaves her feeling refreshed. “Sometimes it is difficult to get back into the rhythm of it all the next day!” she said.
My friend Psyche Ready wrote an intriguing Facebook status update one day. It read: “Since my home computer left, I’ve finished 3 books. And since I ran out of money, I’ve cooked about 10 meals (not including toast or peanut butter which is basically all I eat) from stuff I already had in my cabinets. As someone who never cooks, and who hardly reads at all anymore, this is making me think about my life and the choices I make.”
I, too, wanted to rethink my choices.
Although taking a full day off of my gadgets seemed impossible, I decided to dip in the shallow end of the pool and take 8 hours off for my non-business day. I started by cleaning out my fridge, which prompted me to make a very fancy salad out of ingredients that would otherwise have gone bad–butterbean lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, avocados, olives, chives, almonds, lemon juice and some leftover sundried tomato tzatziki as a dressing. I boiled some eggs for the week and heated up some leftover chili. I made myself an amazing fruit salad. I watched Music and Lyrics, which I’d had from Netflix for weeks. I cleaned my home office. I cooked dinner for my boyfriend–the aforementioned salad, sirloin steak with a honey/cinnamon glaze and fruit crumble for dessert. We then watched an independent British fight film. I curled up in bed and read a good book.
And when I checked my e-mail, eight hours after I’d started this experiment, I did feel more relaxed and more present. I didn’t lose any jobs. The clients that had e-mailed me probably didn’t even notice I was gone, just like I don’t expect an immediate reply from people I hire. I’d managed to relax in my body for a third of a day and the world kept spinning.
Is this an antidote for over-digitalized anxiety? Perhaps.
I think I just might try it again.