My recent newsletter, “Time to Unplug?,” struck a chord with many of you who are searching for a balance between being connected and taking much-needed breaks.
I asked Gordon Shippey, MA, LPC, a licensed professional counselor who specializes in online addictions, to share his advice for controlling technology.
Which of these “11 Wise Ways to Unplug” will you put into practice?
1. Monitor Your Connection (with Your Phone)
Most technology use is habitual, mindless and unconscious. Reverse this trend by attending fully to how your use your phone. Keep a count of how many times it comes out of your pocket. Android users can check the “screen-on time” to see how long the screen has been glowing since the last charge (and therefore how long you’ve had your nose in the phone during the day.) It’s not uncommon to find that number as high as two hours or more every day. Where did that time go? Be a detective and find out.
2. Beware the Poor Substitute of Online Engagement
Our smartphones are amazing chameleons, imitating and then replacing many older single-tasking devices including telephones, personal computers, radios, clocks and televisions. What’s not so fantastic is that the mobile, online world can also provide a pale substitute for some of our dearest needs: the need to relate to others, the need to achieve, and the need to rest and recover. If we’re Facebooking instead of dating, surfing instead of working, or gaming instead of sleeping, it may not be immediately apparent what we’ve lost, but we may overlook the consequences of these “junk food” alternatives to numb ourselves, or to meet our needs at a very low level.
3. Get Your Phone out of the Bedroom!
Phones like to masquerade as other devices and slowly take over. The bedroom clock radio is well on its way to obsolescence as phones make excellent clocks, alarms and audio players. We also like to keep our phone nearby when we sleep for fear of missing out on important calls, texts, or emails. As valid as these reasons may be, a phone in the bedroom frequently becomes the center of attention: an endless fountain of distraction and diversion from which we sip when we should be sleeping or paying attention to our partner. The simplest if most brutal way to respond is to ban phones (and tablets, and laptops, and even TVs) from the bedroom. Move the charging station to another room and the bedroom phone habit can be broken almost effortlessly.
4. Cancel “Red Alert”
Phones now manage not only our calls, but our texts, our emails and our social networks. Even if you resist the impulse to look at your phone, each bleep and vibration chips away at your time and energy. Any one interruption may seem minor yet they add up quickly.Every time your phone alerts, make note of the responsible app. Before long you’ll have identified the bothersome apps in need of attitude adjustments. Presuming you don’t want to delete the apps outright, dig through each app’s “settings” or “options” menu to find the switches that manage alerts. Silence them and consider taking it to the next level by disabling alert icons in the status bar or home screen. Everyone is different, but I find that only calls and some texts need absolute immediate attention. Everything else can (and usually should) wait.
5. Declare a Digital Sabbath
There was downtime for humans long before there was downtime for computers. Lately our devices have become so reliable that they hardly need downtime. But we do. A “digital sabbath” doesn’t have to be a day of the week, but it could be. You could also have digital curfews or digital tea-times — times during each day when the phone stays off, the laptop stays closed, and we can take a break from the relentless nature of online life.
6. Take Your Vacation Offline
More people feel pressured to take their phones with them on vacation and now that work happens mostly online, they might as well have brought the whole office with them, plus any family drama that might be going on at home. Cruises used to have the advantage of no mobile network while at sea. Unfortunately this has changed. But just because you can vacation online doesn’t mean you must. Summon the courage to make a vacation a real vacation without calls, texts or emails getting in the way. Not only will you need to abandon or power down your devices, but you’ll also need to inform your colleagues, friends and family that you’ll be truly out of touch.
7. Make Your Phone a Gatekeeper
Like any tool, our phones can be used for or against our better interests. What a delight that telemarketing is becoming a distant memory. I remember disconnecting my landline mostly for the reason that it would stop the telemarketers. Now the telemarketers are back, not just with calls but emails and texts as well. Learning to selectively block numbers and email addresses can save a lot of lost time and energy. So can getting a spam filter that really works (I get about one spam email message per quarter). Swiping an incoming call to voicemail is not a heinous act. In fact it’s becoming protocol to prefer texts to calls because the recipient can read and respond on their own timetable.
8. Night Time is Not the Right Time
Since smartphones became ubiquitous, many of us face the same dilemma at night: get some sleep or surf a little longer on our phones. We all know the right answer but so often choose the wrong one. So no one is surprised that we’re sleep deprived, but there is a more subtle mechanism at work. Screens of all types emit blue light. Our bodies are sensitive to blue light as a way to set our body clocks. So looking at a screen says to our bodies “It’s daytime! Be active!” If you value your sleep and your circadian rhythm, consider giving your screens a bedtime an hour or two before your own.
9. Mind Your Table Manners
Phones have both literally and figuratively come between us at the dinner table. I’m guilty of this too. But meals have always been avenues for connection and if we’re tweeting when we’re eating, we’re missing out on the real live people right in front of us. New devices call for new manners. It’s time to talk with our friends and our families about how to handle devices at the table, or whether we should handle devices at the table at all.
10, Email in Batches
Some things are done better in batches: laundry, dishes, and bills to name a few. Email can be added to this list. But if you have the habit of glancing at your email in the same way that people used to glance at their watches, you can lose most of the day just on email. Make sure people know that you’re only checking your email once or twice a day and then hold fast to that schedule. Develop this habit and you’ll be surprised how much time you unleash.
11. Trash the Junk Apps
Apps are the new junk mail. It seems that every website, every business, and every sort of task has its own app. They install quickly and painlessly but what’s not so apparent is that every app has the capability to make your phone beep at you and grab your attention. It doesn’t take many apps (especially games) to completely shred your concentration. The cleanest way to defeat bad apps is to delete them with extreme prejudice. Try deleting all apps you don’t both use daily and love to use. I’m betting you’ll never miss the rest of them.