Many years ago, my digital life was simple. Video games were my introduction to the world of interactive media and when email came along, I thought it was a great. Logging on involved screeching modems and just getting online was an event. Once I finally logged in, my inbox was mostly empty and most of the emails were directly for me from people I knew.
Today, our inboxes are stuffed to overload, and they follow us everywhere on our smartphones. We have the ability to be connected wherever we go, but research suggests that we are less happy and becoming addicted to it. We used to desire being connected to the Internet at all times. Internet cafes and clustered Wi-Fi hotspots make us feel that being plugged in is essential to being part of the flow of the world. But that flow has become a tidal wave, overwhelming many of us with too much information, too many emails, too many status updates and texts to respond to.
Time for a digital intervention
A few years ago, I was having lunch with my buddy Jeff Turner at one of our favorite local restaurants. For years we’ve found time in our busy schedules to talk family, social media and technology. That day, I was sharing my struggles with information overload and he told me about a breakthrough he’d just experienced by completely unplugging from the technologies that dominate our personal and professional lives. He also recommended a book called “You Are Here: Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment” by Thich Nhat Hanh. I read it shortly after, during my first trip to meet with the Marketing and Communications team for the National Associations of REALTORS® in Chicago – my real estate equivalent to a pilgrimage to Jerusalem or Mecca.
The book had a profound effect on me. I realized how much of my life I’d been wasting staring at my phone. When I got home I made a simple, but deeply worthwhile change. I vowed that when I leave work each night I don’t get back online until after my daughter goes to sleep. Spending that time with her every day is important for her, and it’s important for me too. I’ve realized that the online world can wait.
Being present in the moment
When I was at SXSW Interactive last March, I immediately noticed that most of the attendees were spending an unusual amount of their time staring at their phones. Great new potential real-life connections walked right by them as they instead satisfied their need for interaction by tweeting and checking-in on Instagram and Foursquare. It’s the same thing I’ve seen at concerts, where people end up watching much of the show through their view screens, recording what they see in fuzzy photos and videos rather than just putting away the phone and enjoying the experience of sharing great music with hundreds or thousands of like-minded people. It happens at restaurants and parties, too. People are too busy posting pictures of what they’re eating to savor the food or enjoy the company right in front of them. The video below, “I Forgot My Phone” does a great job capturing the shift happening in our culture today:
The emerging trend is analog
Fitbit, Pebble and other wearable tech are driving the “Quantified Self” movement, which reinforces the idea that being connected at all times is the bleeding edge of cool. However, I’d argue that the opposite is true. The real trend is in the virtues of stepping away from tech and understanding the importance of being present in the moment. Being disconnected encourages you to leverage the power of analog to build relationships and help you reconnect with your creativity.
Online fatigue is common and Pew research released in February showed that 61% of Facebook users have recently taken a break from the service for several weeks or more. Some hotels now offer a service where they’ll store your phone in their safe for a day to help you fully relax more. There are also cutting-edge programs like Digital Detox, which helps people truly get away from the online world and rediscover themselves. Apps such as Freedom help you block out endless online distractions so you can get your work done with more focus and attention.
Social media and email aren’t going away anytime soon, nor should they. They’re a vital part of how we live in the world today. I’m not going to be giving away my iPhone anytime soon and you’ll find me on Instagram and Twitter pretty often. But I’ve learned to strive toward greater balance. I communicate in the digital world, but live in the real one.
Does the volume of information you’re processing these days overwhelm you? Are you taking planned time during the week, or the year to go completely offline or “off the grid?” Have you attended a Digital Detox? What’s working for you to achieve balance? I want to hear about it in the comments.
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