This month, I challenged myself to a “technology cleanse” to reduce the amount of time spent using personal technologies – devices like TVs, computers, tablets and smart phones. Rather than dropping these devices cold-turkey, however, I decided a more realistic strategy would be to gradually build up week by week towards a complete technology hiatus.
To start, the first week of the month I cut out television. According to a 2008 study from the Council for Research Excellence, traditional television accounts for two-thirds of our total screen time on average (this includes live TV, DVD/VCR, DVR playback and console video games). Given the pervasiveness of the telly, it makes sense to tackle this technology first.
I was surprised to learn that, according to the same study, people watch television for an average of 5.5 hours per day. Personally, television is not a serious vice of mine. I don’t follow any TV shows regularly, and while I like to watch the odd film on Netflix, I’d be hard pressed to watch television for 5.5 hours all week, let alone in one day.
Given my predisposition towards television, the first week of my cleanse turned out to be a breeze. I didn’t really notice any big effects – positive or negative – from keeping the television off all week. It just wasn’t that different from my regular routine.
To kick it up a notch, in the second week I cut out all web surfing. This means no Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or any other web viewing for the rest of the month (with the exception of posting to this blog). Staying off the web proved much more challenging than turning off the TV. For me, the Internet is my TV, at least as a means of mindless entertainment and procrastination. Sure, the fact that I actively read content online makes web viewing more mentally stimulating than vegging out in front of the tube, but (no offense) my friends’ Facebook updates and the lightweight fodder served up by Yahoo! News are not exactly Dostoyevsky.
I wasn’t terribly worried I would miss out on anything important by giving up the web, but still I didn’t anticipate how conditioned I had become in my clicking habits. Despite a Post-it note stuck next to my laptop with a reminder to stay off the net, I caught myself on more than a few occasions unconsciously directing my mouse towards the blue Internet Explorer “e” icon at the bottom of my screen. I was on auto-pilot, conditioned like one of Pavlov’s dogs to the “big flashy lighty thing” called the World Wide Web. I needed to deprogram myself, so I removed all web-related shortcuts from my desktop and mobile phone. Thankfully, my conditioning faded quickly and by the third day the impulse to click was gone.
Speaking of Dostoyevsky, one of the immediate benefits of cutting back on screen time is I’ve been reading more in hard copy. I’ve always been an avid reader, and typically read something in print every day, but this month I’ve been devouring the pages (so far, four books and counting). The quality of literature I typically read in print – this month, books ranging from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale to Paul Hendrickson’s Hemingway’s Boat – tends to be much more complex and thought-provoking than the mind candy I consume online. So, while I may not be reading significantly more content in total, the quality of content is vastly richer.
Reducing the amount of time spent online also means more time in the real world. Without the distraction of the web, I’ve been spending more time with friends, more time outdoors, and more time enjoying live music, art and culture. The benefits to mind and body are clear. Replacing screen time with more real-life activities can work wonders for your physical health and mental well-being.
Eliminating the web is not all roses, though. It means giving up convenience when doing many routine tasks, such as searching for a business, getting directions or looking up the bus schedule. One day this month, for example, I had to do a banking transaction that would have taken less than a minute online. Instead, I had to hoof it to the bank, wait in a (short) lineup and then complete the transaction in person – a round-trip of about half an hour. Giving up the convenience of the web can be a nuisance, though in this case it forced me to get outside and go for a brisk walk, and I ended up having an enjoyable conversation with the teller. Unplugging from the net may slow you down, but it can give you a boost in other ways.
In the third week of the month, I said goodbye to texting and personal email. This didn’t prove to be a major inconvenience. I only text with a small group of close friends, and it was easy enough to ask them not to text me for the rest of the month. For the few errant texts I received in the days that followed, I simply ignored the message or got back to the sender by phone if it was important. For email, I set up an auto-reply message to explain my whereabouts and ask people to contact me by phone if necessary.
Now that all my communications were done by phone or in person, the cost of connecting had gone up. No longer could I send a quick 30 second text or email; I would have to phone or visit the recipient to deliver my message. Immediately, this forced me to re-evaluate the importance of my interactions. Are all those messages I send by email or text really that important, or that funny, as they seem in the moment? Mostly, not.
Giving up text and email not only reduces the amount of white noise in your interactions, it also improves the quality and depth of communication that does take place. Telephone and in-person conversations foster more meaningful dialogue, better social etiquette and deeper empathy than the terse and sometimes tactless exchanges over text or email. As with the Internet, however, giving up text and email does sacrifice a degree of convenience. Using the phone to coordinate logistics or to deliver information to a friend can be difficult, and sometimes not worth the effort. Still, if it’s truly important you will find a way to connect, and the relationship-building benefits of a real conversation can more than make up for any loss of convenience.
Read my next post where I reflect on the final leg of my technology cleanse: a complete hiatus from televisions, computers, tablets and mobile phones. See you on the flip side.