Back online

Friday, February 7th, 2014, 3:14 pm

Today’s the last day of my 15-day electronic communication vacation, and before it comes to an end I wanted to take some time to reflect on this experience while it’s still going on. I’ve done enough traveling in my life to know that once the trip is over the perspective that goes along with it has a tendency to fade; my intention is to carry the lessons I’ve learned here forward in my daily life, but just in case…here goes.

For those of you who didn’t read my last post, the rules of the exercise prevented me from using the Internet in any form or fashion or my phone*—anything else was fair game. At midnight the night of Thursday, January 23rd I powered off and stored my iPhone, unplugged my wifi router, and switched off the wifi antennas on my laptop and my base-model Kindle…and I won’t have turned any of them back on until just after midnight tonight, immediately before I post this.

So what was it like going without modern connectivity tools for 15 days? The one-line answer to that question is that aside from text messages I barely missed any of it, and taking away all of the constant little distractions and mental background processes that email, Facebook, Twitter, and RSS feeds generate meant both that I was much more focused and that everything I did was something I proactively wanted to do; it felt like a real vacation.

What I did do was spend a huge amount of time writing and reading in depth (books, but also the hundreds of long-form articles** I’ve accumulated on my Kindle over the years), two things that I don’t do nearly enough of in my daily life; spend time with friends and go to events and parties just like I always do (including hosting my 34th birthday party here on Tuesday, which was really wonderful); write—and then start to re-write—my first play, thanks to the excellent Adult Playwright Program at ACT; listen to the radio again at home for the first time in a long time; put together my talk for Ignite Seattle 23 on Wednesday, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned as a Car Salesman”; and generally relax in a way that I seldom do even when I actually am on vacation. It was a fantastic experience, and one that I would wholeheartedly recommend to anyone who’s interested in the idea of unplugging—if you can’t do 15 days, try it for a weekend or even just a day and see what you think.

The longer-than-one-line answer about my takeaways would be as follows:

  • Single-tasking is amazing. Going without my phone, especially, meant that I was more present in every area of my life—riding the bus, talking to friends, walking around the city without listening to music, waking up in the morning and thinking about my day and how I wanted to spend it instead of my usual habit of immediately rushing to see what I’d missed in the world while I was asleep…etc. I’d never realized how much mental energy all of the little phone-based mental subroutines took up for me (Did he/she text me back? How many new Facebook notifications do I have? Did anyone retweet or favorite that great thing I just tweeted? Has [x] emailed me back about [y] yet? Am I missing a new article from [a] or [b] that everyone else is going to have read the next time I talk to them? What’s happening on Twitter? What are all my friends up to?) until they were gone. It turns out that when every moment no longer carries with it the possibility for something really interesting/affirming/important/exciting /otherwise distracting to suddenly pop into your life, it’s much easier to focus on what’s immediately in front of you. Go figure :)
  • Insourcing my memory and attention has been wonderful. Just over the course of two weeks, not having the crutch of my phone to rely on on has been really useful in improving my ability to recall facts and figures on my own, and even simple things like not being able to use Siri to set a geofenced reminder to prompt me to do something when I get home or not being able to set a timer on my phone when I’m cooking have meant that I have to remember to check my watch (Basis, technically; it still functions wonderfully even when it’s completely offline) and just remember on my own what I need to do and when instead, both of which sound like small things but actually make a noticeable difference; I like that they keep me much more present and connect me more closely to what I’m doing instead of providing a layer of technological separation. The kitchen timer was the first thing that I noticed, but once I started paying attention to it I was amazed by how much control over my attention I willingly cede to the technology in my life.  
  • Taking away all of my reactive time was incredibly freeing. I’m sure I’m not the only one who sometimes wonders, at the end of the week, why more of the items on my personal to-do list haven’t actually gotten done and where all of my free time’s gone. In many ways the things I’ve been doing without are all of my distraction technologies—the quick little email checks and glances at Facebook and Twitter and all the rest of it that, because they’re spread out over the course of the day and because they carry with them the constant promise of something more interesting or more stimulating than whatever it is that I’m doing, are constantly either directly interrupting my day or tempting me to interrupt it. Email especially, but also social media feeds to a lesser extent, functions, as I once heard it described, as other people’s to-do list for you. Being able to focus solely on my own to-do list, which tends to be comprised of slower-paced, less instantly gratifying projects and pursuits, has been really fulfilling.
  • Out of everything I’ve given up for the last two weeks, being able to quickly and easily communicate with individual people I care about is by far what I’ve missed the most. I had a feeling going in that would be the case—deciding to turn my phone all the way off was the hardest part for me—and I wasn’t wrong. Postcards and waiting to see people in person are well and good, but they’re poor substitutes for the kind of simple, instantaneous, and streamlined communication that text messages, especially, make possible. If I do something like this again—and I assume I will—I’ll most likely keep the phone but switch off cellular data and wifi. I have to say, though, that even though I didn’t really miss my feeds, taken as an aggregate they do represent by far the most highly evolved way to get information about the world around me that currently exists, so I’m not planning on giving them up, just tweaking my relationship to them to maximize their upsides and minimize their downsides.

So what, specifically will I be taking away from this experience when I turn my phone on and hop back online in the morning? Several things:

  • Right off the bat I’ll be taking a lesson from the success of my Xbox policy (I only let myself play for 30 minutes per day) and keeping my external inputs in check by intentionally drawing a box around them, and then adjusting the size and shape of that box as necessary. My current plan is to give myself a total allowance of 30 minutes per day for Facebook, Twitter, RSS, and email combined, spendable in either one 30-minute chunk or two 15-minute chunks, with special dispensation one day out of the week to catch up fully on email. I’m sure I’ll have to go through multiple iterations of that plan before I arrive at one that I’m happy with, but it’s an exercise that I’m looking forward to.
  • Something else I’ll be trying out is leaving my phone either at home or off of my immediate person by default instead of carrying it on me compulsively wherever I go, and possibly even leaving it turned off outside of set periods. My phone is primarily responsible for the fact that literally every moment of my waking day holds the potential for something new and exciting and interesting and distracting to enter my life from the great wide electronic world, or for me to share something with that world in return, so it’ll be a fun experiment to see how much I can realistically scale back its use until it starts to have a clear negative impact on my quality of life.
  • Out of necessity, I’ll be further streamlining my current system of information consumption to focus even more tightly on low-volume, high-value content creators and curators who consistently provide me with information that I actually want to read—in other words, I’ll be more heavily prioritizing signal-to-noise ratio, rather than accepting a relatively high amount of noise in exchange for occasionally getting a really good bit of signal, which is what I do now. In the same spirit, going forward I’ll try to fit my future social media habits into that same mold by posting less often and being more intentional about the content of my posts. My goal will be to be able to completely process my Facebook, Twitter, and RSS feeds (and save any articles I want to read to Instapaper, which then get pushed to my Kindle) in 15 minutes per day, with the other 15 minutes reserved for email triage.

I hope you’ve had fun following along from home, and that you’ve found something of value in my experience that resonates for you in your life. If you’re at all interested in trying a similar experiment, streamlining your own relationship to technology, or starting to create more and consume less online, drop me a line; I’d love to help you in any way that I can. I might not get back to you right away, though :)


*I did, however, buy an AT&T pre-paid SIM card for one of my old feature phones, which I used as both a theoretical emergency phone—I gave the number to precisely three people, but no emergencies arose—and a repository for an IFTTT trigger that was set up to text me if I received an email back from the one outstanding job application that I had out when I started the vacation but that wasn’t triggered.

**For those of you who enjoy a good trip into the weeds occasionally, my rule of thumb is that if I can read an article in less than 10 minutes I save it to Instapaper, and all of my unread Instapaper articles get sent to my base-model Kindle as a bundle at 5 am every day, similar in structure to the New York Times Kindle edition and other publications; I tend to read those within 48 hours. If it’s a longer article, though (a lot of mine come from Longreads, Longform, and other similar Twitter accounts and weekly emails), I use Instapaper’s “Send to Kindle” bookmarklet to skip my Instapaper queue and send it directly to my Kindle…where it then generally languishes in perpetuity. 15 days ago I had 230 such articles on my Kindle, some dating back to the end of 2011 and each of which takes anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour to read; from a combination of triaging and reading, I’m now down to 81.

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