Who reigns over whom? Are we the kings and queens of the web or its slaves? Does digital distraction dominate our attention? A digital detox threw up some interesting answers.
One screen flickered with incoming emails. The other screen showed five lists of different things to do. Bing, bing, bing: the phone on the desk demanded attention. My attention. My sore eyes were open, but the mind behind them was closed for business. I felt dulled.
It was two days before Christmas and I had reached digital saturation point: I couldn’t digest any more information. I was done.
Digital overload and digital distraction are problems for many of us. For me, as the head of digital for a global organisation, it is an occupational hazard. It is not just me. This is what renowned professor Gloria Mark said about email and stress.
It was time to unplug. This would give me some welcome relief from the web, would help my brain re-set and would refresh my enthusiasm from work. This was the challenge: not to go online for 10 days. I wasn’t the only one: Lawrence Ampofo, founder of Digital Mindfulness, was going to do something similar.
This felt like we were entering new territory – the great unplugged world. What would happen? How would we feel?
Shaky and Jumpy
I noticed the impulse to go online, but I didn’t act on it. The impulse to pick up the phone, or look at emails, was triggered by certain things: tiredness, habit and even hunger. I was surprised at the draw of the screen.
The hours passed and there was a welcome sense of distance between me and the machines.
Peace of Mind
After the sense of distance came a noticeable feeling of peace and stability. I could feel myself becoming refreshed.
The web makes our lives easier in lots of ways. After a while, I needed to make some compromises: booking flights online, reserving cinema tickets, contacting friends. But all of this was done in a deliberate way, focusing on the task and resisting the urge for distraction.
Life Slows Down
Life became slower and sweeter. Constant distraction doesn’t allow us to savour the moment. With that constant digital distraction gone, the present moment was longer and more enjoyable.
Return of the King
When I returned to work I felt like a king, reigning over the web. I was in charge of when and how I looked at it. I had a more deliberate and balanced approach with regular periods of time away from the screen throughout the day.
It may not always be possible to unplug for long periods of time. But there are things we can do now to bring more balance and happiness to our hyper-connected world.
Fresh air: Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, said fresh air was essential to good health. So, let’s get up and get out in the fresh air regularly throughout the day.
Move: walk, run, dance, skip, whatever we like: but move. We have evolved over millions of years to walk upright and now many of us spend more time sitting down looking at screens. Movement is medicine.
Create: put the phone away and spend time creating something: draw, paint, write, play with Lego. There is great satisfaction in creating something from your imagination. It doesn’t need to be a masterpiece. We may never show it to anyone. But, take time to do what humans are best at – creation.
Real people: we are social animals and we need real contact with real people. Don’t write that text message, instead go and talk to the person you care about. Spend time with the people we love, people who interest us and people we enjoy being around. Keep the phone on silent: be present with these people.
Give email a rest: turn off notifications, decide when and how much time we want to spend on emails and let’s get out of our inboxes. This is a subject that deserves a series of blog posts: don’t worry, they are on the way.
Emails are still coming in on the first screen. The to-do lists are still on my second screen. But the phone is silent and I still feel like I’m King of the Internet. My plan is to try to keep this balance for as long as possible. But, if it falters that’s okay because I can simply unplug again.