Like so many out there in the great wide world of higher education, the fever pitch of new student orientation has arrived. I’m rarely in my office, I’m speaking in front of crowds more than even I would like, and I’ve resigned myself to a kind of organized chaos for the next two weeks as new students weave in and out of campus.
But as much as we would love to ignore it, real life is still going on in the meantime. It comes in phone messages and emails, Twitter notifications and text messages. All of this going on at one time is enough to give me a nosebleed. I’m the first to admit, I am notoriously bad with interruptions. So what’s a girl to do when her precious few quiet moments are at odds with the constant din of the rest of the world?
FastCompany has had a series of pieces this week about the art and science of “unplugging”, led by a feature story from Baratunde Thurston about his 25 day sabbatical from the Internet. Reactions to this are ranging from “that sounds impossible/crazy” to “that sounds amazing/necessary”. After giving the issue a lot of thought, I stand with one foot firmly planted in each camp.
As someone with a blog and who loves the relationships that the Internet has allowed me to build, I would hate to trade any of that away. I have been very lucky to make initial contact with some wonderful people who I now count as important members of my social circle in the real world, away from a screen. And in the absence of this unpredictable and hard to understand beast we call the World Wide Web (well, I don’t, but you get my meaning), it would have been a lot harder to identify and cultivate these kindred spirit connections.
But beyond those deep connections, what do we have?
The more we take from our daily lives and transmit with the help of ones and zeroes, the more noise we create. A recent Pew study found that teens are moving away from Facebook and toward other social media sites to escape (1) drama, and (2) their parents. While both of these things are prevalent, my biggest problem with Facebook at present is noise. I love my friends and want to be involved in and informed about their lives. But spending forty five minutes scrolling through inspirational quotes, George Takei-curated puns, and squinting Fry memes isn’t how I want to do that. Twitter offers a reprieve from some of those concerns, but ultimately can present some of the same issues. The same goes for Instagram, the same goes for Vine, the same can be said about all of it.
What’s more, the constant flitting about from one platform to another is noticeably affecting my ability to concentrate. I can see it in myself. Halfway through an article, a post, a book, I find myself itching to do something else. I read an article on Slate about how long it takes people to abandon what they’re reading in favor of something shorter and easier. I finished it, mostly because I felt I was being dared not to, but it was far more difficult than I ever imagined.
Maybe it’s all of this introversion research I’m doing that’s helping me to voice how much I detest small talk, but too much of the Internet has become small talk you have to read. A letter in the mail trumps that glazed over feeling that hours on a screen gives me, and this technologically connected girl wants that back. But I think we’re too far gone to move back in the other direction.
So what do we do?
I’m not one to say “here’s what you should do”, but I can tell you what I’ve done. Rather, I’ll let Garth Algar tell you what I’m trying to do (and includes a quote that I shout at people fiddling on their phones often):
Thought Catalog said it best in the piece “Stop Taking Pictures of Things”,
So stop taking photographs of your food and just eat it. Stop dressing up so that someone will take your picture and just get dressed. At some point, we need to put the camera down and look at things with our own eyes.
Some steps that I’ve taken to allow myself to stop trying to catch up with life and just live it include:
Notifications, down. No mobile notifications. No pushing of email*, no Twitter messages flashing, no incoming communication but those designed to be pushed to a phone- text messages and phone calls. I’ll Tweet from my phone, but responses will wait until I check them. So those of you waiting on me to play in Words with Friends…sit tight, sweethearts.
*I feel I should also mention here that my notifications for email on my work computer are disabled. That is to say, when a work email comes in, i have no flashing boxes, noises, or other indications that they have arrived. I check roughly once every ninety minutes, and that serves me well.
Baratunde talked about the lure of a red number in the corner of an app. Yes, you can avoid checking it, but I don’t know of a person who doesn’t itch to make that number go away. We use that lure to our advantage when we advocate for text message systems to reach our students. But that itch to connect comes at the expense of true calm. I don’t relax, can’t relax, when I expect a message to come in. So my solution is to force myself to go to that message.
Soar with your feet on the ground. I’ve embraced Airplane Mode as a reprieve from the demands of a digital world. Because I use my phone as a watch and sometimes as an alarm, I favor this option over a hard “off” switch. In meetings, during student presentations, or even while reading, I set my phone to airplane mode. I also strongly advocate for this status for students, who are far more nervous than many of us to completely power off their phones. It gives a sense of connection without a threat of interruption. I suggest this as a baby step for those who sleep with their phones and don’t want to.
Take a “power down day”. I’ve embraced Sundays as a power down day. Those are days for books, movies, friends, sleep…and lots of things that aren’t digitally based. One day a week is mine. My social networking comes from chatting with my roommate, having brunch with friends, or catching up with the characters in a book. It might seem like a day doesn’t make a difference, but it really does. However, this approach should come with a caveat- let people know you have an off day. I took a full weekend to power down once, and my parents sent my sister to check my social media history after I didn’t answer my (powered off) phone. Proverbial radio silence terrified them more than a little. Can’t have that.
Speak like I want to be spoken to. I mentioned earlier that I like to get mail and letters. So what do I do? I write mail and letters. I send along remnants of myself to friends and family, and delight when they send things back. It feeds an expensive stationary habit too, but the reward trumps the cost, without question. It might not be instant, but it’s more than worth the wait. And if you read this and would like mail, send me your address and consider it done 🙂
Have I perfected this process? Not remotely. Is it for you? Maybe, maybe not. Each of us places a different level of trust in our livelihood on the Internet. But for me, the quiet is necessary and welcome. It keeps me from complaining atop Mount Crumpet, it keeps me rejuvenated, it keeps me human.