The Unplugged Challenge: Do More, Pin Less

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We’ve always had rules in our household about technology use. Bedrooms are technology free zones. No checking email from bed, no watching TV when you go to sleep. The table is the same way. Meals are unfettered by technology, please and thank you. But the truth is, we have a problem. More specifically, I have a problem.

The problem is that the lure of connectedness is following me wherever I go, and not allowing technology at the dinner table isn’t helping the situation. Not anymore.

The problem, of course, is dopamine. A recent Life Hacker article on why technology is so addictive explains, “We can develop a dopamine release from many kinds of addictive behavior. Checking email is one in particular. You may not like spending long amounts of time in your inbox, but you probably think about checking it pretty often. When you hear that ding (or vibrate), you know there’s something waiting for you.” An article from The New York Times series Your Brain on Computers explained it this way: “The lower-brain functions alert humans to danger, like a nearby lion, overriding goals like building a hut. In the modern world, the chime of incoming email can override the goal of writing a business plan or playing catch with the children.” In short, I’m increasingly feeling like I’m missing parts of my day-to-day life because I can’t hear it over the hum of technology addiction.

I’ve had something of a slow slide into technology use. I grew up without a single screen in my house, which is a fancy way of saying we didn’t have a TV (personal computers were years away). We weren’t a Waldorf family, we were just something of a lazy, slightly hippy family. My parents didn’t want to have to bother monitoring our TV intake, so they didn’t get a TV. We got a (actually kind of usable) personal computer somewhere around 1994, along with dial up internet. In 1996, I moved beyond AOL chat rooms, to the beginnings of my more modern relationship with internet, in the form of Ani DiFranco fan sites. (The internet has always functioned a bit as portable counterculture for me). My graduation gift in 1998 was my own (huge) computer to take to college, which I mostly used to write my papers, and check email once or twice a day. And then, in about 2003, I got a laptop. That, of course, was the beginning of the end. With a laptop, I checked my email…whenever I was home. I resisted iPhones for quite awhile (much to David’s dismay). I’d tell him, “The last thing I need is more internet. Internet on the bus? No thank you.” But in 2010, I gave in. Since then, things have moved pretty quickly downhill.

My parents, of course, were right. The problem with technology is that when you have it, you have to limit it. And limiting it is really really hard.

Last month I was in the car, listening to an NPR story about the national day of unplugging, digital shabbat, and the slow tech movement.  I kept thinking that I really needed a space for a tech Shabbat in my life, but was unsure if we could pull off unplugging for a day. That, frankly, was embarrassing.

But that isn’t what made me snap. A few weeks later, I was downstairs in our garden on a mid-day break, and had that feeling of seeing double that too much screen time brings. I looked around and had the crushing realization that I had what I wanted, and I was missing it. I had the superficial wish listy things that I’d wanted since I was a little girl: wood floors, vegetable garden, and one recently acquired hammock. But beyond those physical things, I had an awesome partner, a job I loved, a great community of friends, and one hilarious and amazing tiny baby. It had been a long road, and life was still glorious in its imperfections, but I had so much goodness around me.

And I was still pinning things to my Pinterest boards.

Pining and Pinning

I have a great Pinterest board for our garden. It has hammocks and Adirondack chairs and bougainvillea on it. I also now have hammocks and Adirondack chairs and bougainvillea in our garden. But instead of being out there every single sunny moment that we could, far too often I was inside, pinning new ideas. When I was playing with the baby, I was also instagramming with my phone. (He’s really cute, you guys. Such things must be documented.) I was missing out, and I was increasingly aware of it.

The problem, of course, is that so much of our lives are now tied to the computer. There is the mundane stuff: looking up where a restaurant is, emailing for an appointment, shopping for…hammocks. But there is the good stuff too. As I sit and write this, I’m looking at a screen, doing a job I love. My life is filled with real-life friends I’ve made through the internet. The blog-o-sphere has enriched my life for a decade, and I’m so honored to get to give back to it. Tamera of Verhext has called the internet “The fog layer on the real world,” and that’s it. The internet can be an amazing place, but it’s not, in fact, the real 3D physical world.

I’ve found so much good stuff online. I found my people, my style, and half of my best ideas. But the problem is, I wasn’t drawing a line. Since work and play are so intermingled on our screens, I wasn’t demarcating where all of that stopped, and offline life began. And God knows it’s not just me.

Digital Shabbat

Two weeks ago, I finally hit a wall. It was Friday afternoon, it was beautiful out, and I was about to go get the baby. I’d had a great, super productive week at work. And I looked at the screen, and realized I wanted out. At five pm, without any advance warning, I pulled the plug. And the second I did, I realized that if I wanted to break this addictive behavior pattern, even for a few days, I had to give into the fact that I couldn’t be trusted. I couldn’t go online to look up our bank balance, because I would then quickly check email, and Google+, and the blog, and it would all be over. For me to pull the plug, I had to pull the plug completely. No internet for two days.

The first twenty-four hours were hard. I’d think, “I just need to check…no.” “I just need to sit down at my desk…no.” I’d compose tweets in my head, but not write them. I’d take pictures on my phone, but not instagram them. I felt jumpy.

Troublingly, this is our new normal. Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco told The New York Times, “We are exposing our brains to an environment and asking them to do things we weren’t necessarily evolved to do. We know already there are consequences.” The New York Times further pointed out, “While many people say multitasking makes them more productive, research shows otherwise. Heavy multitaskers actually have more trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information, scientists say, and they experience more stress. And scientists are discovering that even after the multitasking ends, fractured thinking and lack of focus persist. In other words, this is also your brain off computers.”

My problem wasn’t so much working in front of computers all day. My problem was the way my brain was reacting off of computers. My old, less jumpy brain was what I was missing. I missed that unspooling reel of thought. I missed writing longhand and not wondering if an email had come in while I was doing it. I missed staring up at the leaves on a tree and thinking about nothing in particular. And these days, I had new things to miss. Cuddling the baby without a thought for anything but his wriggly little self. Long conversations with the kiddo where I focused on his new little sounds (the new B sound is pretty adorable, with its tiny spit bubbles). I missed time with David, where our undivided attention was on the moment.

In the instant classic New York Times article “The ‘Busy’ Trap,” Tim Kreider posits, “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.” And even as I watch myself, and those around me, cramming our days with messages to check, alerts to read, and Pinterest boards to fill, I know those actions are not really our goal. We’re reading blogs because we crave smart conversation and connection. We’re pinning things to remind us of what our lives could be. We’re finding places online that we fit, to remind us of who we are. But at some point you have to stop pinning, and start doing. Sure, those pinboards of party ideas are great, but what’s really excellent is lying around the deck with your friends eating cake, not thinking about doing it.

When I unplugged, I picked up my needlepoint for the first time since the baby was born, because I needed to keep my hands busy. We finally got that hammock. I cleaned out our basement. We spent hours and hours in the garden, weeding with a pitchfork all slathered up in sunscreen. We threw a party. But mostly I just focused on what was right in front of me: my partner, my kid, my friends. After all that work I’d done to shape a life I wanted, I let myself live in it. I climbed in the hammock, instead of looking at a picture of one.

That first weekend seemed three times longer, possibly because I had to think about each moment, instead of just mindlessly filling the empty ones with web surfing. On Sunday night, I realized that I felt like I’d been on vacation. The second weekend was even better. And the third weekend, unplugging finally started to feel normal. My brain was jumpy for an hour after I pulled the plug, and then reading a novel in the hammock, or doing needlepoint while the baby kicked next to me, seemed to pretty clearly be the way to go.

Or as the author of “The ‘Busy’ Trap” says, “I’ve always understood that the best investment of my limited time on earth was to spend it with people I love. I suppose it’s possible I’ll lie on my deathbed regretting that I didn’t work harder and say everything I had to say, but I think what I’ll really wish is that I could have one more beer with Chris, another long talk with Megan, one last good hard laugh with Boyd. Life is too short to be busy.”

Screw it. Let’s do it.

So here I go. I’m going to publicly commit to spending every weekend unplugged for a whole month. I know that habits take time to create, so I need to sign on and hold myself accountable. (I want to unplug every night as well, but I’m taking this one step at a time.)

As embarrassing as I find my technology addiction, I at least know I’m not alone. So many of us have been blindsided by the lure of that email ding, and we are not sure how to shake the habit. So this is where I ask you to join me. I’d love for some of you to commit to spending the next month unplugged on the weekends. The exact rules are yours to craft, because you know where your dopamine traps lie. I let myself text, but not touch the internet or web-surf. I sometimes Instagram a picture, but don’t let myself catch up on my Instagram feed. Your rules for yourself will be different. For those of you that join me, I’d love for you to notice how unplugging affects your relationships. Notice, and report back next month.

And then there is one other thing. Those Pinterest boards? I dare you to take one idea you pinned, and actually follow through with it. Maybe you’ll love it, maybe you’ll hate it, but at least you’ll have bitten the bullet, taken action in the real world. Because that’s what those Pins are there for, right? To remind us to change our lives, not to catalogue the things we don’t have.

Who’s with me?

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