Unplugging: The Toll Technology Takes and The Importance of Taking a Break

Unplugging from TechnologyLet’s face facts. You’re addicted to your devices. You use these email and social media umbilical cords every day from the earliest hours of the morning to the wee hours of the night.

Can you honestly think of the last time you went one hour without checking your email or social media? Was it two hours? A day? It’s probably been a while.

In fact, a poll conducted by TIME found that 84% of its readers said they couldn’t go a day without their smartphone, with a full 25% admitting that they checked their phones every 30 minutes–and I’m guessing that people are under-reporting. Checking our devices is such a compulsion that the Pew Research Center found that 67% of smartphone owners check their devices even when they’re not ringing, beeping, or buzzing. All told, a 2014 study found that on average we spend about three hours a day interacting with our devices. Add it all up and that’s 21 hours a week, or basically a part-time job.

Rounding up all these statistics might make you feel a little guilty. And it’s true—our devices, with their instant access to friends, family, social media, email and news, are a guilty pleasure. The funny thing is that we may actually be getting less pleasure than we think. For this reason, I highly recommend ditching your smartphone and computer for set periods each week. Of course, I could just tell you that this will do marvels for your psyche, but I encourage you to check out some of these more specific benefits:

Reduce stress levels

Multitasking and smartphones go hand in hand. If you’re talking on the phone, you’re likely also checking your email, Facebook, and Instagram accounts, too. And how many of you check your phones while you watch TV? I’m definitely guilty.

Multitasking increases stress. So does the constant anticipation and feelings of obligation to answer messages immediately. A 2012 study found that cutting people off from checking their work email actually reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol, meaning that there are measurable physiological benefits to ditching email from time to time.

There’s also stress in the constant decision making associated with the instantaneous communication inherent to our connected world. Should you answer this email, text, or instant message right now? Can it wait? Will the person be upset? This all leads to decision fatigue over the course of the day. Plus, we can’t distinguish between urgent and nonurgent issues. A couple of decades ago, a phone call was decidedly more urgent than a piece of mail. Now we can’t easily distinguish what is most important, so by default, every message becomes most important as we scramble for our phones every time they buzz. Escape this endless cycle by turning off your phone occasionally. And if you can’t bear that, at least try putting it in airplane mode for blocks of time so your brain has a chance to rest.

Avoid the scourge of Facebook envy

Facebook is pretty addictive. It’s so chock full of images, videos, and gossip, that it’s become our go-to place to kill time or procrastinate. One of our favorite activities is to check on friends, family, frenemies, old-coworkers, past flames, etc. to see how they’re doing—and, inevitably, compare ourselves to them.

The thing is, Facebook is a distorted version of reality. It’s basically a highlight reel of someone’s life. For this reason, it’s very easy to understand why a German study found that one in three people actually feel worse after checking Facebook. This occurrence is pervasive enough that it has garnered its own name: Facebook envy. This is especially concerning in the wake of Facebook’s infamous emotional manipulation experiment, wherein they attempted to effect mood changes in users by surfacing more negative or positive posts. As Mark Twain famously said, “Comparison is the death of joy.” The moment you find yourself going down the comparison rabbit hole, it’s time to get off Facebook.

Get a quality night’s sleep

Apparently we love our devices so much that 44% of us have slept with our phone next to our bed to ensure that we don’t miss any important calls or messages, according to the Pew Internet Project. The inherent anticipation this creates is in obvious conflict with the calm mind that one needs to easily fall asleep.

Another issue is the type of light being emitted from our devices. The particular frequency of light referred to as blue light, disrupts our body’s production of melatonin, which is the hormone that causes us to get drowsy at night. This, in turn, throws off our circadian rhythms or sleep cycles. It’s suggested that we avoid being in front of device screens for at least 30 minutes prior to bed, if not longer. Keep these negative effects in mind the next time you find yourself checking emails or reading articles on your phone prior to sleeping.

If you can’t bring yourself to kick the habit, I suggest getting an app to reduce the amount of blue light coming from your screens. Flux is a free app for your PC or Mac, and there are a number of options in the Android and iOS marketplace for your phones. I use both methods for reducing my exposure to blue light prior to sleep time.

Prevent information overload and start concentrating better

We’re creating more content than ever. Crazy as it may seem, social media users are being exposed to 285 pieces of content every day, or roughly 54,000 words contained within 1000 clickable links. This is not to mention the other media we’re exposed to, like images and video, with video adding up to 443 minutes worth.

The thing is, we’re not mentally equipped to deal with this information deluge, despite the allure. According to Max Blumberg, a research psychologist from the University of London, “Our brains will always be seduced by the high stimuli [of constant connectivity] because of the dopamine that it provides,” Blumberg explained in another interview. “It’s really similar to having ADHD.” With the amount of Ritalin being subscribed these days, we realize how difficult functioning with ADHD can be, so it’s concerning to see that we’re training our brains to be more like those of people suffering from the disorder.

For other animals, constant awareness and distraction by outside stimuli is beneficial, because they’re permanently on the lookout for predators or prey. We humans, however, developed the largest cortex in the animal kingdom to help us determine what stimuli is most worthy of our attention. If a particular stimulus is not worth our focus (i.e., a new Game of Thrones meme), then we can continue focusing on the most important task at hand (i.e., our budget report). This provides us the deep concentration levels that have made us the preeminent thinking species on the planet—our evolutionary advantage. The proliferation of more internet-enabled devices and constant access to digital stimuli may be circumventing this critical ability to think deeply. So if you want to regain some of your creativity, flip the switch on your devices at specific times throughout the day. Or go for a walk around the block and actually leave your phone at home or in the office.

Going for a digital detox

Just like any habit, breaking our connection to our devices will take some time. Start with baby steps, though. Try putting your phone away in a drawer for a half hour, or logging out of your email account for a while. Also, try dedicating set times to check social media and email – say at 10 am and 4 pm, avoiding the urge between those times. Perhaps you could even build up to a full day without phone or computer access, or even a super fun and recharging digital detox retreat (of course, we could also plan a corporate retreat for you, sans smartphones). And don’t worry, I promise that all those juicy updates, emails, texts, tweets, posts, pics, and vids will all be there when you get back.

Doug Ramsay

Doug handles the marketing and web presence for Adventure Associates. If he's not geeking-out with the latest, greatest web marketing tools, then you'll find him swirling and sipping his way through wine country.

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