Find a Way to Unplug from Technology, or, How to Escape the Cubicle in Your Pocket.

I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you could have one, too! Everyone’s project will look different, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit. Join in — no need to catch up, just jump in right now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.

When I talk to people about happiness, one issue comes up over and over: managing technology. I’m a huge believer in the ability of the internet, Facebook, Twitter, email, texting, talking on the phone, and all the rest to add to happiness – when used properly. (For example, here are Ten reasons why using Twitter will boost your happiness and a discussion of Why Facebook can make you happier.)

However, technology is a good servant but a bad master.

Because of technology, some people feel distracted – they can’t focus, that they can’t pay attention to what’s in front of them because their minds keep jumping around. They aren’t getting their work done; they’re not paying attention to their kids.

Others feel hunted – they can’t escape from the office, they have a cubicle in their pocket that demands their attention 24/7. They can’t relax; they can’t disconnect without feeling anxious. “Ten years ago, my co-workers didn’t call me on the weekends, so why are we emailing back and forth at 10:00 pm on Saturday nights?” one person asked.

As one of my interview subjects, the wonderful Manisha Thakor, memorably put it, “The Internet is both my lifeline and the plastic bag over my head.”

So how do people manage to unplug, when they need to do so? Many people block out times. I know someone who doesn’t look at email or the internet for the first two hours of the day; another person takes off 2:00-6:00; another person has declared 6:00-9:00 family time, and won’t look then.

In fact, March 20 has been declared the National Day of Unplugging. Dan Rollman and others are trying to get people to observe a Sabbath Manifesto, a very interesting initiative with ten core principles meant to help people slow down their lives once a week. The first principle is to “Avoid Technology.” (Other principles: Connect with loved ones; nurture your health; get outside; avoid commerce; light candles; drink wine; eat bread; find silence; give back.)

I know someone who tells everyone that he doesn’t use email on the weekend. “But on Monday morning, how do you face the huge build-up you’ve accumulated?” I asked. “Actually,” he answered, “I do read and answer email – but I don’t send the replies until Monday morning. That way, I enforce the expectation that I won’t be answering email, and I don’t get into back-and-forth exchanges that go over the weekend.”

Other people only allow themselves to look Facebook or Twitter or email or whatever during certain periods of their day.

Some people use technology to master technology. They block their email or their internet, so they can’t be tempted. For example, I know a lot of Apple users who use the program Freedom to disable networking from their computer. That way, they can concentrate on what they need to get done, and can only get online by going through the hassle of rebooting.

A writer friend who was working frantically to meet a deadline used this original strategy. Her automatic reply on email read, “If this is an urgent matter, please contact my husband at _______.” She figured – rightly, I think – that in the case of a a real emergency, people would contact her husband, but that they’d think hard about it before they did.

Here are my two rules:
1. I avoid checking my email or talk on the phone when I’m with my children.
2. I avoid checking my email or talk on the phone when I’m walking someplace, or traveling by bus, taxi, or subway (of course, on the subway, I couldn’t even if I wanted to). I used to feel guilty for not using that time efficiently, but then I realized that many of my most important ideas have come to me during those periods. For example, I got the idea to do a happiness project while I was staring out of the window of the cross-town bus. If I’d been checking my email, the idea would never have occurred to me.

What strategies have you tried to find ways to unplug from technology?

* Great piece on Gimundo about Why a vacation will make you happier than a new car.

* The book The Happiness Project has been bouncing around at the top of the New York Times bestseller list for eleven weeks now! – including hitting #1! You can…
Order your copy!
Read sample chapters!
Watch the one-minute book trailer!
Join the discussion on the Facebook Page!
If you’re inspired to start your own happiness project, join the 2010 Happiness Challenge, to make 2010 a happier year.

Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • I have started encountering this problem in a very real way. The more I get involved with technology and social media, the more addicted to “checking in” I become. Starting my own blog has been wonderful, but the unfortunate side effect is an addiction to checking the comments and page views and reading other blogs and commenting on theirs. And then checking Facebook and Twitter for new blogs to read and on and on until my husband is getting embarassed by me! No blog or social media is worth ruining my relationship over, so I make a very concerted effort to get it done while he is at the gym or out so he doesn’t feel he only has my half-attention when we are having a discussion. Also, I’ve declared Saturdays my day of social media rest. I need one day to remember what life was like way back when…

  • ML

    Hi Gretchen,

    Thanks so much for saying that you do not check e-mail when you are with your children!

    I was in a restaurant once, and at the table next to me were a father and son. The father probably thought he was spending “quality time” with his son, but he was on his Blackberry for the entire meal! I felt so sad for the son. He was at that age when children actually WANT to talk to their parents, and I really felt that his father was losing a precious opportunity to talk to him and find out what was on his mind.

  • Great post! I just wrote about the importance of “unplugging.” I also have a rule to be “technology free” when I’m with my kids. It’s sometimes hard to do but so important… I also have made most evenings as well as most of the weekend technology free.

  • deb

    Hi Gretchen! I’ve been reading your work for a long time but I think this is my first comment! I really appreciate your blog and your content.

    As a fellow blogger, I get sucked into what I call the Blortex. Writing my own posts and reading other peoples’ blogs that lead to yet other blogs…this just keeps going for hours sometimes. While it’s fun and informative, it does get to be frustrating. This happens with facebook, email, twitter. All of it.

    I’ve been trying to Power Down by 9pm. I’m proud of myself when I do it. I have also been seeing an acupuncturist who recommends just sitting quietly when you have a few minutes spare (ie don’t check your iphone). Call it meditation or whatever you want, he says it has huuuuge benefits. >Even 10 minutes is great.



  • This is why I do media fasts. Nothing quite like taking a vacation from technology, no matter how much I normally love it.

  • I made my whole life a cell-phone-free time. It is working for my happiness, big time.
    Top 10 reasons I don’t have a cell phone

  • ejranville

    This post reminded me of a story in Randy Pausch’s book “The Last Lecture” (a good read by the way). I am telling this from memory, so please forgive me if I miss important points.

    His department insisted that he be reachable when he and his wife went on their honeymoon. So, he left a voice mail (and I believe email) message that was something like: “Hi, the is Randy. I am on my honeymoon right now, but if you feel you must speak to me here is the number of my new in-laws. Please explain to them why you feel you should interrupt their daughters honeymoon and they will let you know how to reach me.”

    I loved this idea.

    Personally, I don’t check email over the weekend. I am trying to get my husband to unplug in the evening as well, but it is hard.

    • gretchenrubin

      Fantastic! That’s a hilarious strategy.

  • Bookwoman

    I recently spent some time thinking about the activities that I actually enjoy doing, and e-mailing and using my iPhone aren’t high up there on the list. On the other hand, reading for pleasure, writing real letters and cards, and getting outside to bicycle and hike with my kids are, so I have been making a conscious effort to remember what I like instead of just reflexively choosing. I am considering getting rid of the iPhone because as I assess which tools I own really make my life better, I find that it doesn’t rate, it mostly distracts and costs money that could be better spent elsewhere.

    • gretchenrubin

      Yes, I think a big issue with technology is that we feel like we need to
      respond to it, instead of taking control and making it work for us — to say
      “You’re not the boss of me” as my five-year-old would say.

      By thinking about your real priorities, as you did, you can make sure you’re
      making time for them and not letting other things crowd them out.

  • anne

    There was an article about a year ago in the NYTimes about needing a “virtual break” (written by Mark Bittman). Interesting to hear about the struggle to resist the pull of technology.

    I gave up Facebook for lent. As a college student, it seemed a bit like social suicide — how would I know what was going on? It’s nice, though, and it means that I actually have things to talk about when I see my friends. Plus, I feel like I have a little more privacy. People don’t really need to know what movie I just watched.

  • I have yet to find a way to totally unplug and having an iPhone doesn’t help either. However, I found that turning my ringer off aids in a way. I just return the call, reply to the text message or the email when I see it, not as soon as I get it.

    Thanks for the post and for reminding me to at least try to do it.

    • gretchenrubin

      I do the same thing! Not having to jump every time my phone buzzes or rings
      — or I THINK I hear it buzz or ring — makes me feel much calmer and in
      control of my tech.

  • I love my blackberry. But …
    I do need to unplug a bit.
    The other night I got an e-mail from someone pretty senior at work. He e-mailed me at about 6, and I replied at 9 (after my kids were in bed). I apologized for the delayed response, and explained that I was playing with my kids.
    His response to me was that making a decision to put my kids first in the evening was exactly the right decision.
    If someone really needs me they can call and I’ll pick up.

  • lisahazen

    When I’m at my desk working, I’m always tempted to check email. It is the worst distraction, since it usually leads me into an entirely different direction altogether, breaking my focus.

    I only “allow” myself to check email once an hour. I turn off that application, and then open it again at the top of every hour.

    I also turn off my cell phone unless I’m expecting a call.

  • Hi Gretchen.

    Blocking out time is something I haven’t tried, or have rarely done. I will give it a go.

    I have tried setting up a block of time for something, but not setting a block of time for not doing something, which seems like it will work well.

    We don’t know what a break is until we take a real one, and then we understand the value of a break. Half or quarter-breaks don’t provide much rest value.

    Good call about managing the technology that we are supposed to be in control of.

  • Alicia N.

    I’ve never honestly had much trouble stepping away from technology. I work at a desk for 8 hours a day, staring at a computer. When I get home, the last thing I want to do is get back on a computer for more email or facebook, or whatever else. I’ve never had to force myself to do this – I just don’t want to be online when I’m at home. I’m only ever online or using a computer at work or when it’s necessary at home (recently I was online doing my taxes at home, but that was about two months ago). I’m more inclined to do something else on the weekends. I barely ever talk on my cell phone or text people.

    I wish I could get my husband to follow this strategy. He is seriously addicted to technology, and I’ve mentioned to him several times that I would like to smash his laptop with a hammer just so he would put it down and talk to me instead of checking his work email, working in his off-time (of which he gets very little to begin with), or going on wikipedia or youtube treks. It seriously annoys me that he spends so much time on the computer. I would like it very much if he would stay off of it when I get home from work so we can spend time together, and I’ve told him this, but he doesn’t seem to think that he is constantly attached to his computer, even though he is. Of course, I can’t change him, but what could I possibly do to make him realize how annoying it is that he’d rather spend his time on a computer than going for a walk or having a conversation with me?

  • jonfarrar


    I’m half way through your book. I’m really enjoying it. It must have taken courage to go on your Happiness Project.

    I would have wondered if a Happiness Project was admiting my “failure” to be happy.

    I really like your combination of no-nonsense resolution-setting strategies, along with a very conscious “stop and smell the roses” enjoyment of life. I often don’t see the pragmatic mixed with happiness projects.

    I wanted to let you know what you’re doing and writing is touching others–even in the Second City, Chicago. 🙂

    Kudos. Best wishes.

    Best wishes.

    • gretchenrubin

      Wonderful! Thanks for letting me know you’re enjoying it.

  • I love all my gadgets but they often take over my life. I’ve been thinking more about the idea of observing a Sabbath so that I can reconnect with what’s really important to me. I always feel much better when I take a break from my laptop & turn off the TV and go outdoors or read a good book.

  • nielmalan

    One of my resolutions is not to take my laptop with me when I go to bed. It’s very tempting to just finish the blog entry, but then one thing leads to another, often producing a non-happy sequence of events.

  • flossattrocbrocandrecup

    Remarkable – I’ve just scheduled a post for tomorrow where I’ve linked to you and made a point about ‘finding the computer off switch, both on the machine and in my head’! Now I’ve popped over here and find you’re talking about the same thing! Thanks very much for your excellent blog – you are helping me to clarify my thoughts.

  • pamwalter

    I think blocking out a period of time to take a technology break is a great idea.

  • DavidL31

    I have profiles on what amounts to zero social newtorking sites, but otherwise I really needed this post.

    I haven’t realized it until reading this, but as most things in my house are wired, so I end up wired, and not for the good.

    I’m going to give these tips a try.

  • Great post! And I love the headline… when I read the headline I said to myself…. “Oh yeh, this one’s gonna be good!” and I read on. You make a great point and I couldn’t wait to put my 2 cents in. This is so true and it resonates with me.

    Now-a-days with technology being so advance, ya know we’ve got Facebook and Twitter on our phones, Email on our phones, it’s like everything is on the go, our phones represent the cubicle that’s in our pocket. Therefore it’s like we are enslaved to it. (not against our will though)

    We have this need to constantly check what’s going on, in email, Twitter, and Facebook. You make a great point because we should take time to look on the inside and make sure we are taking care of ourselves just as much giving into technology!

    Great post!

  • For myself I strive to “take five” minutes each day to do something that is unrelated to anything on my to-do list or checking my email and making phone calls. I think it’s incredibly important to remember to give yourself a break and disconnect from all things tech-related for a few minutes each day to ensure you have the peace of mind and calm you need to stay grounded. Find my post at:

  • grandmahenke

    I definitely found I enjoyed the Internet more once I set some time boundaries for myself. It is a little funny how we tend to let technology and machines dictate to us and the power we can feel when we assert ourselves with those machines and refuse to answer. It’s like staring down the bully the first couple of times it happens.

  • phoenix1920

    In my opinion, technology is a fun gadget, but we should strive to remember that it is only a gadget. It can too often become addictive and there is a nature to it that it seems like you “must” stay in contact–you’ll miss so much if you don’t. But the paradox is that the more we stay connected via technology, the more we actually disconnect to the people surrounding us. I learned this when I became a new mother and connected with a lot of other new moms via the internet–and did not develop as many strong relationships with other new moms who were local. The internet friendships were easier since I worked during the times that most SAHM could meet.

    I have broken free from the techno-need–and prefer it that way. After I leave work, I rarely go on-line. And the sky hasn’t fallen. People don’t often e-mail me over the weekend. But they do call and we visit.

    It’s nice seeing others have likewise limited their on-line time. I wonder what life/technology will be like when my children become teenagers. It’s nice that they can see life without constant techno-interuptions because soon they will be faced with the same choice in deciding how to integrate technology into their lives.

  • Here’s my idea along these lines, it’s a small one, like your suggestion to “make the bed in the morning” (one small step at a time!):

    I turned off that auto notification that pops up on the screen every time I get a new e-mail. I was finding that I then had to read the e-mail, open the attachment etc. and it was distracting me from the task at hand.

    not happy yet, but working on it!

  • Sarah

    When I’m out of town, my cell phone voice mail directs people who need to reach me in an emergency to call my mother 🙂 It works in the way you suggest — people think hard before doing it — but it also works because I trust my mother to know whether something is an emergency or not, and to fend off anyone who thinks that chipped nail polish is a major crisis. (I’m exaggerating, but you know what I mean.)

    As someone whose creative work is largely tied up with the computer, I’m just starting to work on how to manage this, so I appreciate this article extra!

  • Nice post! Brings some concerns up, personally – I like to limit things such as twitter/facebook and e-mail for 2 times a day at 30 minutes a time. But, maybe even 1 hour a day 7 days a week is too much >.<

  • TracyW

    I did a course a few years ago on improving your efficiency at work, and one of the things the instructor advised was turning off every single reminder of new emails, and only checking new emails twice a day. I don’t stick to the second part, but I definitely do to the first.

    As for the rest of life, I remember that if the phone rang while my husband and I were enjoying some intimiate time, my husband used to groan and make like if he was going to answer it. It took a few sessions of me whispering in his ear that “We’re out, we went for a walk, we didn’t hear the phone ring…” for him to accept that he could ignore a ringing phone.

  • kbparker

    As one of my happiness resolutions is to read more books, I’ve been working on not using the internet as much. To find the time for reading, I needed to stop aimlessly searching the internet. I do like the internet, but I really really like the relaxation and stimulation of a greator even ordinary novel.

    PS. I have to confesss to not having an iphone (work pays for my phone and I’m not senior enough to have one) and I’m not sure I really miss one.

    • gretchenrubin

      In my book, one of the themes of an entire MONTH was how to read more, and
      to read better! I absolutely agree, there’s something about the pull of the
      internet that can suck you in…but for me, too, reading a book is much more

  • Malik

    About a month ago I canceled my phone service. As a result, I have entered the most creative and least stressed out period of my life. Much of my anxiety has vanished due to the eradication of the shear volume of non-stop calls from business associates and unimportant calls from family members. I now find myself able to day dream, sleep longer and enjoy silence, life and my own thoughts. Furthermore, my ability to accomplish and complete tasks and projects with very little stress has increased to an astonishing rate, what once took me weeks to complete now takes me hours, simply because I no longer have the outrageous distractions from the cellphone. Even though I still receive calls to my work phone (at work), and I still email, the emails I receive are more concise and direct because everyone understands that there is no other possible way to communicate with me, so they had better say everything as well as they can in their email or on my voice mail at work. Lastly, my happiness and meditations have blossomed into very intense wonderful experiences because I no longer have to waist time meditating on the distractions caused by unnecessary cellphone conversations. Thus, my advice to anyone who totally wants to experience life as humans always had pre-cellphones, is to simply due away with it, there is life after cellphones, just as there was life before cellphones.
    – malik crumpler (music producer, bookstore supervisor, writer)

    • I love this idea!! I’ve become so dependent on my iPhone that some days it feels like the world has 24/7 access to my brain. Obviously I can choose not to post online, but it feels like a drug at times. Instant gratification/feedback, etc. I miss the days of doing everything in the real world.

  • alex romero

    Loved your article. Hope you can check this out and show some support!
    Sign the Declaration of Independence from Technology!

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