Whatever you do, DO NOT think of an elephant right now!
Don’t think about elephants, or big floppy elephant ears, or elephants at circuses, or elephants in the wild.
Now, be honest: you totally just thought of an elephant. Didn’t you?
That’s exactly how I felt all week when I tried to stay away from the internet.
When I opted to spend a week away from the internet and other technological devices, I expected my brief affair with the IRL (“in real life”) world to whisk me away into romantic oblivion.
Sadly, that was not the case.
Instead, I spent a lot of offline time thinking about the technology that I was sorely missing…and about the stress it invites into my life. The constantly-updating Twitter feeds, the myriad Facebook status updates, the crafted-just-for-me streams of news…there’s far more information thrown at us daily than we can possibly consume.
It’s overwhelming, yes, but it’s also sticky and addicting. It’s not easy to step away from. And if you can step away, it’s not easy to stop thinking about it. (And isn’t that a source of stress in itself, too?)
And so, I took plenty of time during my disconnected evenings to think of ways to dull the loud roar of information in our digitally-enhanced lives.
Here’s how I’m going to get started:
1. Open one tab or window at a time. Seriously. See if you can single-task your way into greater productivity. (Or, if productivity isn’t your goal, see if you can single-task your way into a clearer and more focused mind.)
2. Only use one device at a time. If you’re playing with your iPhone, get away from your laptop. If you’re playing on your laptop, get away from the television. Focus on one gadget at a time. After all, there’s a growing body of literature that says multitasking isn’t the bastion of productivity that our 9-to-5 managers think it is.
3. Turn off your push notifications. Here’s a handy tutorial for the iPhone or iPod Touch. Be sure to disable them for both apps and email. This way, you won’t be distracted from the IRL world by any unnecessary beeps or buzzing. Check your email and your favorite apps on your own accord — don’t let your beeping devices (eh, pun intended?) tell you when it’s time to salivate. Er, I mean, time to check your mail.
4. Avoid staring at a screen within an hour of bedtime. And if you really can’t drag yourself away, you can always use a program like F.lux to dim the screen appropriately for the time of day. The less light barging into your retinas at 11 pm, the better you’ll sleep. From Wired:
Once installed, all you have to do is pick your city, the type of lights you have in your house at night, and whether you want a rapid change at sundown or a more gradual change over the course of an hour. You can also choose whether you want it to start automatically at login or not.
The idea is to try and help people sleep. The human body isn’t conditioned to be looking at sunlight at midnight or 3am, so firing up your computer then will fool your body into thinking it’s daytime still, keeping you awake. While that might be useful if you’ve got an essay or report to finish, it’s no good for getting a healthy amount of sleep.
5. Stop playing Farmville. And Diner Dash, or Mafia Wars, or whatever the heck else is popular right now on Facebook. They’re designed to be addicting, notes SUNY graduate student A.J. Patrick Liszkiewicz:
…Farmville is defined by responsibility and routine. Users advance through the game by harvesting crops at scheduled intervals; if you plant a field of pumpkins at noon, for example, you must return to harvest at eight o’clock that evening or risk losing the crop…[w]hy would anyone do this?
Users feel rewarded for their work, the author argues. And that’s the addicting part. We don’t often receive extrinsic rewards for cooking dinner, counting coins, or cleaning the closet. The rewards we receive for those acts are usually intrinsic — and while intrinsic rewards might feel good, external rewards administer an addicting rush. Do you really want to grow addicted to cultivating a farm of digital pixels? What kind of long-term benefit will this experience provide to you? If you can’t answer that last question, then stop.
6. Treat yourself to more real-life social experiences. Connecting with a friend via an offline channel – like, face-to-face over coffee or lunch – might lessen the FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) that arises from tech disconnection. If spending even an hour away from tech makes you feel uncomfortably disconnected, sharing the experience with a friend or two will help to provide a sense of connectedness.
7. Learn to curate. Collect your favorite blog feeds into Google Reader, and even then, don’t try to read everything. There’s simply too much content to wade through. Pick a few articles or blog entries per day that have interesting titles or that are highly recommended by other readers. Or, find someone (with similar tastes as you) who curates content, and follow his or her recommendations.
When I first joined Twitter over two years ago, I tried my best to read every single update by every single user I followed. This is cheerfully idealistic, but completely not scalable once you follow about 50 active users posting 10+ tweets per day. Try T4BP (Twitter for Busy People) instead and review only the most recent tweet from each user.
8. Get comfy with the fact that you’re going to miss something. I won’t even try to re-hash Linda Holmes’s beautifully-written blog post about how our lives are far too short to experience all of the great art, books, and films that the world has to offer. The internet has some great gems too, and we’re going to miss them.
It bears repeating: we are seriously going to miss on a huge percentage of the content that’s generated even by our own social network alone. We’re going to miss important status updates, we’re going to accidentally overlook important emails, and we’re going to miss out on understanding roughly 98% of all internet memes.
And that’s okay. We can only do so much.