Each day, the average American spends 8 to 9 hours staring at a screen or listening to a voice piped through a bundle of copper wires.
One Sunday, after just having learned about the benefits of replacing a critical spirit with humility at church, I stepped up to the urinal. Midstream, I took my right hand and dug into my jacket pocket… for my phone. As I pressed my thumb on the fingerprint reader, I realized I was done doing my business.
I also realized that I might have a problem.
You see I wasn’t even aware of what I was doing. Pulling out my phone was as natural as scratching an itch on my nose. It was as if my phone had become more of an extension of my body and mind rather than a separate entity—a sign that something needed to change.
Our devices of course, aren’t all bad. They are tools.
For example, I’m using my laptop to write this article and a pair of noise-cancelling headphones so that I hear nothing but jazz as I translate my thoughts into keystrokes. But what do we do when they become distractions or replacements for authentic experiences?
For example, last month there were a few times when Robin Sharma was talking in my ears while I kissed my wife before heading to work. Weird right? I’ve also had an embarrassing moment during a meeting when I asked a question about a topic that had been discussed in length, just ten minutes before. At the end of the day, I’ve also been feeling spent. I would like to say that it’s because I used up all my mental fuel to solve the world’s problems—but let’s be real, part of the reason why I’ve been feeling this way is because I’ve been filling in the transitions between the major events of my day with low value tasks like checking my email or thumbing through my news feed.
I know I’m not alone in this.
How many people have eaten lunch in a group where no more than five words were said because people were playing Words With (their digital) Friends? Personally, I’ve been called out for eating lunch with earplugs on so that I could tune out the café’s distractions while working on my computer. One of my co-workers even gave me a friendly ribbing when he noticed that I was eating lunch while standing up and pacing.
How many people feel like they don’t get anything important done in the day because of the barrage of notifications from Twitter, Facebook, IM, email, and seemingly urgent text messages? They’re usually the same people who check their phone every time they hear one ring in their vicinity even though it’s not even their ring tone. And if your job is anything like mine, it doesn’t stop when you leave the building. Can you remember a time when your phone was blowing up, distracting you from the show you turned on that was supposed to distract you from being pissed off for not having gotten anything important done with your day because of all the distractions?
Why do we allow these distractions?
I think it’s because we love the instant feedback—it’s like a treat. I like to compare it to junk food. When we’re feeling down, junk food can be a really good friend by giving us instant happy feelings. But like junk food, the immediate pick-me-up we get from these pings can come with long-term negative consequences.
Anyway, I knew that if I wanted to make a change, I first needed to understand my current situation. So, I logged my day to see how it compared to the average person’s.
From 4-6am, I listen to a podcast or audiobook while I work out, make breakfast, and get ready for work. The only silence I have is while I’m showering.
From 6-9am, there’s a 90% chance I’ll be using my laptop or phone for work. For the rest of my work day, the chances drop to 30%. All in all, it’s an average of 5.5 hours of electronic device use while I’m at work.
Last, from the time I leave work and go to bed is another 3-3.5 hours of time of either active or passive laptop, phone, or iPad use.
In total, that’s about 11 hours each day.
Even though I might be able to argue that most of my device use is for a “good” reason, allowing myself to become tethered to my laptop and phone has hurt not only my presence and effectiveness but most likely, it’s hurt the relationships I have with some people too—even though they might not say so.
Last weekend, I wanted to do a test.
What would happen if I completely shut off the fire hydrant? If I prove that I could unplug for a while, could I change the way I used my devices?
The setting was a tent-only campsite in Northeast Iowa near the Mississippi River.
There was only one rule: No electronic devices except for a fitness tracker (I wanted to log data on my sleep and level of physical activity). I even went as far as bringing a film camera in place of my digital one to eliminate all artificial lighting. And for those of you that know me, you know it was a big sacrifice to go without a GPS. I got lost, but it was worth it.
So off I went on my motorcycle equipped only with the essentials for camping. The three days I spent in the woods gave me the space to write, hike in nature, talk to people, read, and reflect on a few things I knew I needed to change.
Stay tuned for my next post where I’ll talk about this digital detoxification and why I believe that I came back a little bit better.
Until then, ask yourself this one question:
Are you looking into a screen more than into the eyes of the people around you?
Thanks for reading,
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