Don’t blame technology for our unhealthy relationship with it.
Grazing the magazine newsstand on my flight to NYC last week, I was thrilled to see that the latest edition of Fast Company was on sale. I was even more excited to see Baratunde Thurston on the cover. Most people knew Thurston as the director of digital for The Onion. He then moved on to become a bestselling author (How To Be Black), a well recognized speaker, a a regular contributor at Fast Company and much more. In short, he was riding the wave of his digital connectedness upriver into global success, while developing a personal brand to be reckon with (over 140,000 followers on Twitter, multiple appearances in mainstream media and more). My heart sunk when I saw the name of the cover story: #Unplug – My Life Was So Crazy, I Disconnected For 25 Days. You Should Too. Next up: the siren-ringing sounds of your life as it comes crashing to a halt. There is a simple truth here that people don’t want to admit: it’s not the technology and all of this inter-connectedness that is the problem… it’s us.
Unplugging may make your misery worse.
How many notifications do you have set up in your life? Think about your smartphone. When does it notify you of anything? A voice call? A text message? A voicemail message? An update from Facebook? A direct message from Twitter? When you have a scheduled appointment? When someone would like to set-up an appointment? A notification that a meeting is about to happen? A warning that your flight may be delayed? What about your computer? A new email? An incoming Skype chat? A request to connect via Google Hangouts? A reminder that your favorite blogger on Huffington Post has just published a new piece? A special price for that hotel you were hoping to stay at? The lists, pings rings, beeps, buzzers and more could go on and on. Lately, Thurston isn’t the only one talking about a more regimented social media and technology diet. The enthusiasm that many people are expressing to create these digital bankruptcies shore up to a bigger problem: finding a healthy balance in our lives.
Don’t blame the potato chips.
Thurston and others who have recently talked about their inability to keep up with the influx of digital inputs (Chris Brogan and Seth Godin have frequently discussed these issues) could be missing the bigger point: this is the inevitable outcome of success. If you do everything right in terms of building a platform or something that people want to pay attention to, you will never be prepared or able to deal with that success. The same is often the case for brands who are looking to hit viral gold. More often than not, they are not prepared and flounder when it actually works. It is very hard to scale a personality. In short, we become victims of our success. No one is going to cry for Thurston, Godin, Brogan, me or you. Let our biggest problems in life be that we can’t keep up with all of the people who want to consume our media and connect with us. Let our email become one big, unwinnable, game of Tetris where all we’re doing is moving those messages from the inbox to a folder while attempting to respond, only to have that inbox continually increase at a faster and faster click, until: game over.
How to take your life back (without unplugging).
People are often shocked when they spend any amount of time with me in my protein form. My smartphone, laptop and tablet have zero notifications. Zero. There is only one notification set and that is a customized vibration tone on my iPhone for when my spouse calls and/or texts me. That’s it. Otherwise, I look at my devices when I have a moment. Seems simple enough? It is. Over time (and I have been using these technology from very nascent stages), those who connect with me no longer have expectations of an immediate response. The goal is simple: never put yourself in Thurston’s position so that your life requires a moment to unplug. Instead of letting the technology and their notifications manage you, start managing your technology and notifications.
The results will stun you.
You won’t find me thumbing the iPhone while pushing my kids on the swing at the park, because there is nothing notifying me of any sort of message. So, unless I take a break on the park bench and decide to pick up the device on my own accord, I don’t have to play life judge and figure out if an email is more important than the swing-set. This is key: notifications are ambiguous. They no longer tell you what’s important, they simply inform you that there is something new to look at. Like the Pavlovian creatures that we are, we just can’t help but take a peek at what the message could mean. Over time, this conditioning has jaded our judgment and confused the importance of our work. Many people attack the last message that came in rather than the important ones. Many people attack the messages that are quick to respond to and wait for more time in their day to attack to the ones that require more work. All of this isn’t technology’s fault. All of this is our fault, because we’re allowing the technology to manage us, instead of the other way around.
Take a break.
Instead of taking a break for any period of time, start deactivating your notifications. Block off specific moments in the day when you will check your social feeds (Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, etc…). Decide how much time you’re going to allocate to responding to email messages. A lot of the email back and forth can be solved with a thirty-second phone call, but we’ve conditioned ourselves to engage in a week-long email chain that looks more like a game of badminton than resolving a work-related issue. Agree that before you make a grab for any device, you will proactively define if what you’re doing in the here-and-now is more substantive than what may be on the digital screen in your pocket. See, if you unplug, you will eventually plug back in. What you’re plugging back into isn’t technology. You’re plugging back into bad habits. These habits were facilitated by how technology works, but they don’t have to be that way. The next time that you’re thinking about unplugging from it all, take a step back and ask yourself what, exactly, you’re unplugging from and how you can best manage the process? The vast majority of us will never have as much attention as Baratunde Thurston. The vast majority of us aren’t as gainfully engaged with all of these digital channels and social networks as Baratunde Thurston. Still, all of us can do a much better job at turning off the beeps, blips, lights, vibrations and ringers in our lives.
That act alone has nothing to to with unplugging, but everything to do with plugging into what is most important in our lives.
The above posting is my twice-monthly column for The Huffington Post. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original version online here: