Essays on Technology and Culture

Mindful Tech, Part 9: Beyond Disconnection

Being overwhelmed by our technological lives is inevitable. How we deal with it is another matter. It’s never a bad idea to step away when things get crazy, but that doesn’t necessarily mean cutting the cord. There’s been a number of people experimenting with disconnection, digital sabbaticals, and other binary ways of taking time away from technology. If these work for you, great, but temporary abstention is not an effective way of dealing with the core problem. I should know, having taken my share of Social Media Sabbaticals.

The problem with plain old disconnection is that it doesn’t actually help you confront the underlying problem of being overwhelmed. As soon as you turn that switch back on, it’s incredibly easy to slip into old habits and undo any benefits of your experiment. Total abstention only works when you try to make a permanent thing. Ask anyone who’s been in Alcoholics Anonymous. If you only want to moderate your behavior, however, disconnection is a bit like dealing with nail biting by wrapping your fingertips in Band-Aids.

Disconnection can be the right thing, as long as you understand what you’re doing, and why. For example, if you’re taking a vacation, you’re fully disconnecting from your digital life. This means not checking work email, not keeping with the streams, and just taking photos for yourself. If the goal of your disconnection is to focus entirely on the experience of your trip, that’s a win. Just don’t expect it to impact your habits in any meaningful way once you get back.

So, what can you do when the inevitable technological overload happens?

You can scale back. If a particular social network, app, or service is demanding more of you than you feel up to, drop it for a while. Overwhelmed by the volume of your feeds? Unfollow, unsubscribe, unfriend, and filter, mercilessly if necessary. You can always add things back later, if you need—keep a list of what you’ve purged and why, just in case. And, on social media, be prepared with a decent excuse when someone comes by demanding a reason why you unfriended them. (I prefer to unfollow people on Facebook for this reason.)

When you’re overwhelmed by the complexity of your systems, try simplifying things, even as a temporary measure. Identify the bare minimum you need to still get things done, and pare back. You can even try going analog, at least for those things that don’t have to be 100% digital. The mode switching is good for the brain, and it’s a lot harder to overwhelm yourself with the general linearity of paper and ink or pencil.

If you’re good at self-control, you can try to establish rules for yourself. No Twitter during working hours, or check Facebook only on Friday. Set a deliberate time at which you’ll disconnect for the day. There’s a number of tools to help you do this, from hardcore apps that’ll completely disable your computer’s Internet connection, to ones that’ll gently remind you how much time you’ve wasted on your iPhone.

For those of us with multiple devices in our lives, consider making a specific device your “communication” device. Configure all your messaging and other apps to only alert your specific communication device, and manage it all from there. And if things get hairy, you can stuff it in a drawer and ignore it while you focus on the important things—whatever those may be for you. There’s so much power in our tools, to both enable us and distract us, that it behooves us to use it well. Being able to route all that distraction to one place is powerful, though also dangerous.

And yes, don’t be afraid to just unplug the cable from your router if that’s what you really need. Don’t be afraid of Airplane Mode if it’ll get you through a tough spot. Just make sure you understand that it’s a temporary fix, not something that’ll change your relationship to all the gizmos that connect to it. Disconnection works, but it’s one tool of many in our arsenal. Use it wisely.