Two weeks ago, I unplugged. It wasn’t just zoom fatigue or general email nuisances but just an utter and complete doneness with screens. I also wanted to take stock of the amount of time I was wasting on social media too and the best way to break it is cold turkey. I took the social media apps off my phone, I took my email apps off my phone, and I took a week off of work.
So how did my week of living in 1995 go? Splendiferously. It wasn’t this huge boost in productivity that resulted in, say, repainting the house or building a deck, but there were some things that were equally as noticeable. What was the biggest? Dreaming. It sounds funny, but that was the first big notice for me. By Tuesday night I was having more sustained, linear, and memorable dreams. I have been able to Lucid Dream for decades and for most of the 90s it wasn’t something I tried to do; I don’t think I realized that it wasn’t happening as often as it used to until it started happening again.
One thing that remained activated was the sleeptracker on my fatWatch™ that passive aggressively tries to get me to live a better (Californian?) life. By Tuesday night even though some of my sleep durations hadn’t increased (some actually decreased) my deep sleep registers were longer. I am not just talking about the same percentages of shorter sleeps but actual, measured minutes.
Free Time is Me Time
So, what did I do? I read two books and about a half-dozen long read articles that I have been waiting on my nightstand. Caught up on other magazines that were stacking up and wrote more in my notebook. I also made an effort to start walking. The neighborhood loop around us is almost an exact 30-minute jaunt. This too was done in analog. No headphones for audiobooks or music, just listening to the neighborhood and letting my mind wander. I had hoped to catch at least one walk in the rain with my umbrella and it didn’t happen until Sunday. The great thing about rain on an umbrella is that is muffles or melds with the sound of cars driving by without limiting the higher pitched sounds of birds. It’s also just nice to walk in the rain.
I never did get caught up on the handful of comic titles I’ve been reading since starting graduate school. These short bits made me feel less guilty about reading something that wasn’t research. In the early years when I first started kept me relatively sane. I cleaned and rearranged, read, and walked some more. But mostly I think the greatest benefit was just thinking.
Around 2005 in conjunction with moving again I never did reup my cable subscriptions and pretty much stopped watching broadcast TV. The shows were turning to crap and the news was mostly dressed up gossip columns presented at us and less to us. I still watched movies and if something ran a documentary or miniseries worth checking out, I would find it somehow. It was just easier, or at least quieter. How much worse could it get?
How, indeed. Back then you had to have a .edu email address to sign up for Facebook and no one had ever sent a tweet. The next decade and a half of the snowball sliding to hell has been the mental equivalent of boiling a frog. We’ve all just continued to let its incremental changes dictate what we see, share, and discuss. I don’t know when I started noticing it, but it reached a fever pitch in the last few years. I’ve loved social media for years; I have conversations with friends that literally span the entire North American continent. I regularly have conversations with people I have met who live in the UK, Australia, and Mexico.
The Song that Never Ends
But that’s the thing. It never ends. When my US friends were done for the day my friends from the other hemisphere were just waking up and starting. It’s not fear of missing out as much as it is the desire to know what is going on and learn something. Most people just read a post and go on. I end up looking up some part of the post on another part of the internet. Suddenly I am seven clicks down from the first Wikipedia article and have three new books on my wish list. What I am getting at is know your triggers and where they will take you.
I usually ask myself two questions before I go to sleep: Did I learn something today? And Did I teach someone something today? I have no idea how long I have been doing this. I don’t know why I do it, or how it even matters, but I think about it a lot. My PhD advisor once called me a sharer, and I suppose that is why I live in an exhibits world. Rarely is a time I read or see something I am not taking a photo of it to text to someone or to post it on social media, usually with a specific tag of a person. The phrase I am probably known most for is “Did you know…?” Which probably only slightly beats out “It’s like on cartoons when…”
Bedtime not Techtime
A clear conscience makes a soft pillow but going to sleep without scrolling social media makes some comfortable bedding. I don’t know what the healthy cutoff is. They tell you don’t eat for like three hours before bed, that’s probably a good number. This past week I was back on screen more or less and I wanted to test something myself. Was it the device itself or was it the content that was destroying my sleeping mind? I’d say it’s probably 10/90.
If I did look at my phone before going to sleep instead of reading, I stuck to news apps. I use these for Art and Culture sections and book reviews. These nights I did dream but not as vividly, and sleep was mildly impacted. The two, non-sequential nights I looked at social media (logged in on my mobile browser and not the app, I’ll get to that in a moment) sleep was completely wrecked.
These weren’t necessarily doom scrolling nights. Mostly I think it is death from a thousand cuts or a digital form of Chinese Water Torture. Here you are fed scores of stupid things that stupid people post or, worse, stupid things that smart people post. Turns out going to sleep with the thought that humanity can’t be this $#@%*& dumb impacts rest. Who knew? (I suspected)
The case against apps is one solely based on convenience and muscle memory. Even when I was using my phone for something useful like checking the weather as soon as I closed out that app I had swiped and taped the folder where the facebook app used to be before I even thought about wanting to look at it. That is really what made me decide to be more mindful of how I access it. For the last fortnight I have only been accessing social media via browser mostly on my laptop because mobile browsers are an enormous pain in the ass hence the whole development of apps in the first place.
It’s a bit more difficult to get media out, but do I really need to post that video or image? I’ve tried to make an effort to send things directly to the people I would have tagged on Facebook via text. If I don’t have their phone numbers I think about whether they want to hear what I have seen that reminded me of them or I thought they might find interesting or funny. Something really has to be worth it to get up, get the laptop, login—I’ve also been logging out of everything when I am done instead of just letting it randomly track wherever I go. This has panicked the ad algorithm. Now it just spits out random things these days which is funny and deeply pleasing to me.
Emails or e-fails?
These apps aren’t the only offenders, email bombardments were just as bad. I’d get reply alls with people’s names I just don’t want to see ever, much less remember they inhabit the planet in close proximity to more useful and pleasant humans. I combined two things that people I have worked for have done:
1.) Turn off your work email when you aren’t at work. I had a boss who turned hers off at 4 and spent the last hour of work recapping the day and getting ready for the next morning. I also know some people who spend the first hour of the day doing all their email and not looking at it again until the next morning. A paleontology colleague of mine would, upon returning from his field season, declare email bankruptcy and send an email out to everyone in his contacts and say if you emailed me over the summer and it is important, please resend I have deleted them all.
I’ve moved it a bit more as to taking it off my phone during the day too. I probably should have mentioned earlier that I only two notifications activated on my phone: messages and slack. This way it doesn’t buzz ever 2.7 minutes with something I didn’t know I didn’t have in my life. We use slack for work and everyone who needs me in an emergency has it and usually my phone number. This keeps me from hitting refresh all day and derailing any semblance of project focus I had fooled myself into thinking I had. My last three phones lived their entire lives silent and I have no idea what my last audible ringtone was.
B.) I moved everything that wasn’t work related to another email. This should be obvious. IT will suggest that you do this so your spam emails don’t infect the company when someone leaches your email address off a public site you signed up for to get 7% off lululemon or something. Wasn’t there a gorilla app or something that we used to use for these that disappeared after 24 hours? Outside of industrial security it makes life so much simpler. You don’t have to open your work email to check the status of your fedex insurance claim for the broken dish that someone shipped you (still unresolved, by the way) and then see another email about something else that is a work stressor. Leave work stress at work, you have enough home stress at home. The corollary of this is also true.
Turning it Off and Back On Again
Maybe it was working from home or living at work that brought all of this on, but I know that the most beneficial thing in the world is having time for you mind to wander. Even if it is wandering over things you need to do for the day. This is essential to creativity. It’s particularly useful for sanity too. I also noticed that week that my reading comprehension went back up as I wasn’t rereading lines to make sense of things. My recall improved, and I wasn’t forgetting what I was doing in the middle of something. Tech people will tell you that you have to shut down your device periodically and let it clean everything and reboot fresh. Just letting it nap with a screensaver on the desktop all the time doesn’t cut it.
It’s also nice to have the ability to restructure your days in order to get things working in the most efficient way they can. Some things are immovable. For us it is getting my son off to his daycare and picking him up in the afternoons. I’ve developed my own system that works, I am suggesting you try. Currently I don’t do anything work (or PhD related) while my son is home and awake. I don’t want his memoires to be of faces behind screens and as fascinating as I find my research area there is nothing in it more important than spending time with him.
What I Do Now
What I do is use the tech we have at our disposal for myself instead of letting it use me. I get up before he does to go through my work email to figure out what, if anything, is triage worthy. This helps me try to get a system planned out. I am working well before my “in office” hours but it balances out. After he is up, dressed, and out the door, I take my morning break and go for a walk. Fresh air (and sometimes rain) gives me a half hour to think about the emails, and any upcoming and ongoing projects. This has made it feel like I have more compartments for things to fit into in my brain.
Once I get dressed for work, out the door myself, and usually in my office before 9:00. I check my work email at work and my gmail at home. I’d like to say that never the twain shall meet. Sometimes the twain have to cross so you can track the status of your order in case you need to intercept a package something. But it does help.
Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics
The stats of the matter are that my screen time on my phone dropped 54% from over 4 hours to just over 2 per day on average. This is skewed by any time I spent messaging, etc while my son naps on Saturday and Sunday. I didn’t write the Great American Novel with all this extra time, but I feel like I was living it more with purpose instead of mindlessly looking at 27 people share the same joke on twitter trying to display their cleverness.
Twitter used to be great for the academic side of things. It has recently evolved into the mixer of every academic conference I have ever attended. Cliques separating off and having insular conversations, especially now as the posters can set who gets to reply. Some of the cliques include me, most do not. The whole benefit to all of this was that things weren’t unidirectional. But, when corporations can see dollar signs (I read that Zuckerberg currently owns 2% of all millennial wealth) the first thing the start tweaking is what made it work.
The bumper sticker is you can use social media, or tech in general, or you can let it use you. I know it isn’t feasible to take a week off work every quarter. I highly recommend unplugging and having a nice, deserted island life at least that regularly. If you start doing it, you’ll find it easier to keep doing it. Maybe one day we can all get back in touch with our own selves. As always, your mileage may vary.
Something interesting to tack on here is this reflection I wrote back in Fall of 2016 as part of a Digital Humanities graduate course called My So-Called Digital Life.