April 19, 2010

Amateur Ethnography: Technology Fast

I am addicted to technology. I think most of us are to some extent, but my addiction has been out of control recently.

I spend all day staring at glowing boxes—televisions, computers, phones. If I had to guess at an average, I'd estimate at least half of my day (12 hours) is spent watching television, looking at a computer screen, or playing with my phone. That's a lot.

It doesn't help that my primary hobby (writing) requires me to stare at a computer screen. While typing this reflection, not only am I using my computer, but a baseball game is playing in the background. Double whammy.

The past few weeks, I have stayed up until three or four o'clock in the morning. The reason? I have been rewatching every episode of Lost in hopes of figuring out the mystery. (For the record, I'm not sure it has helped.) I burned through four seasons in less than a month. I'm also slightly obsessed with Facebook. And, of course, I maintain this blog.

The result is that my sleep habits are all over the place. Going to bed at 4:00 AM and waking up at noon is not a good strategy. I haven't felt well lately—physically or mentally. Last week, I realized I needed a change, so I decided to spend part of this weekend on a 24-hour technology fast. No television, no phone (I turned it off and didn't even carry it with me), no computer. In other words, no glowing boxes.

I'm not kidding ... I think it has changed my life (at least for today).

This is not an exaggeration. At noon on Saturday, I turned everything off. Within ten seconds, I felt free. It was like the weight of the world had been lifted off my shoulders. First, there was nothing I had to do, so my stress level dropped significantly. Normally, I'm always worried about a chapter I need to edit, e-mails I need to send, people I need to check in with. But Saturday, I didn't have the option to do any work, so all of those worries melted away.

Second, I felt motivated to leave my apartment. I'm not a hermit, but I can easily get comfortable sitting around the house being lazy. With nothing to do at home, I walked down the street to a park bench and read a book. Then, I took Liz's dog for a walk. Luckily, I happened to run into a couple of friends who invited me over for dinner and drinks. Other friends showed up, and we all spent most of the day together. I went home Saturday night and read a few more chapters of The Lovely Bones (great book). Finally, I went to bed at ... get this ... 11:30 PM! That is the earliest I have gone to bed in months. And I woke up at 8:30 in the morning feeling wonderful. I felt better Sunday (more refreshed and energized) than I have in a long time.

Another realization ... technology gets people in trouble. Without my television, computer, or phone, there were no temptations. I don't even know how someone would access pornography in 2010 without a computer. Do they still rent porn at video stores? Do they still have video stores?

Don't get me wrong. I like television. And the Internet can be used for good, but I like reading good books too. It just always seems easier to turn on a movie, so I read way less than I would like to.

Time also seemed to move slower. I woke up Sunday morning at 8:30, and the next three and a half hours felt like an eternity. I ate breakfast, read more, exercised, took a shower, walked to the grocery store, cleaned my apartment, and still had thirty minutes left until noon!

I felt more like myself than I have in a very long time. It was amazing.

I plugged back in Sunday at noon. It did feel good to reconnect with the world. It was odd to have no idea if the Reds won Saturday night. I couldn't even think of a way to figure out the score without buying a newspaper. I was also nervous something bad would happen to a friend or family member, and they would have no way of notifying me. It would have been tough to extend the fast beyond twenty-four hours. Almost all of our jobs require checking e-mail at some point. And I do love to write, so I was anxious to get back to the new book Sunday afternoon.

But I have learned some valuable lessons that will lead to a new life structure.

First, I'm turning my off computer over the weekend unless I carve out some time for writing. I can check e-mail and Facebook on my phone without getting sucked into the blue hole (that's my new nickname for Facebook). And I can do quick Google searches on my phone if necessary.

Second, I'm shutting everything down at night. My computer will be off every night by 10:00, the television by 11:00, and I'll be in bed by midnight.

Third, work stays at the office from now on. I'll carve out some time every day to answer work e-mails, grade papers, and work on lesson plans, but if it doesn't get done in that window, then it doesn't get done. There is more to life than work.

Fourth, almost every morning when I wake up, I immediately plug in. I check my phone for overnight messages, flip open my laptop, and turn on the television. From now on, unless it's an emergency, after I check my phone for any urgent messages, I'm going to take the first hour to ease into the day. Reading, praying, listening to music, whatever ... as long as it's relaxing and doesn't involve glowing boxes.

In addition to all of the emotional benefits, unplugging has to be good for my body, right? It must be hell on my eyes to wake up and immediately start staring at a computer screen. It's probably exhausting. Sunday was the most "awake" I have felt in as long as I can remember. It couldn't have been a coincidence.

One final thought. As a communication professor, I have been saying for years that technology will be the downfall of our interpersonal relationships. It is not okay to be sitting in a room filled with actual people and be obsessed with your phone. So, my final rule ... when I am with people, my phone stays in my pocket. I can politely excuse myself and check for messages (maybe during bathroom breaks), but it is incredibly rude and disrespectful to prioritize some random stranger on the phone over a flesh and blood person sitting right next to you.

It can be healthy to hit the reset button from time to time. We get stuck in patterns that lead to unhealthy behaviors. And those habits are hard to break without a shock to your system. My 24-hour technology fast supplied that shock to my system. Now, I hope to build healthy momentum moving forward.