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.
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:
- I avoid checking my email or talk on the phone when I’m with my children.
- 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?
From 2006 through 2014, as she wrote The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, Gretchen chronicled her thoughts, observations, and discoveries on The Happiness Project Blog.