Having been in the tech sector since its early days (I learnt assembly code at university and was proud owner of one of the early Hotmail email accounts in the mid 90s), I’ve developed some good boundaries with technology. I never do emails on holiday, on the weekend or after 7pm in the evening. I never bring my phone out at the dinner table. Every single notification on the phone and laptop is turned off.
So what had me sign up for a weekend disconnecting from tech with the team from Unplug? (As the company’s name suggests, they create spaces for individuals, corporates and kids to explore and understand their relationship with technology.)
Even with all my self-awareness around tech, I’ve had this niggling feeling for several months now that even my tech boundaries are being breached. I noticed I was using Facebook/Linkedin/personal email as a distraction during the workday. When I was bored or distracted, I turn to the great amusement park that is the Internet. I confess to binging on Netflix for an entire Saturday. I’m not against a good binge every now and then, but in recent months, I’ve been spending a lot more time on Netflix than reading or talking to friends. I know that this doesn’t serve me.
So this last weekend saw me in Ireland with the Unplug team and a dozen others interested in this conversation. I went along to learn more about my own relationship with technology, and to hear other people’s stories.
What I learnt surprised me.
I thought I had a handle on my tech – I was wrong.
Despite data points suggesting otherwise, I had convinced myself that I had the tech boundaries sorted. When we were invited to hand in our phones on the Friday night, I was surprised at how big an edge it felt to cross. It had been off for several hours at that point but I felt like I was hang over some lifeline! Over the course of the weekend, I felt this urge to check messages and Watsapp. Everyone knew where I was. There was little chance I would miss anything. The truth is I have developed a habit to soothe myself by checking my phone at many points during the weekend. I’m kidding myself to say that’s about ‘staying connected’. It’s fun and amusing – but its not the real connection I want. To truly be connected in a way that matters to me means to pick up the phone or meet in person. (Thanks to Rich for helping me see that). My weekend itches to check the phone hide what I believe is the beginnings of something more problematic for me.
I use my tech to numb my boredom!
If I am being honest with myself, my Netflix binge habit is a distraction from the boredom of a Saturday afternoon and somehow less demanding than reading a book. Being with ‘bored’ is hard. It’s hard to admit this as a coach who works with people to be with their emotions. Boredom can be a mask for other emotions. I should have this sorted right? Wrong. What I realize is just how easy it is to amuse yourself having only seconds before hand felt bored. Podcasts? New playlist? Number of steps walked? Facebook news? It’s all there like a sweetie shop. Why be bored for even a millisecond with the alternative to hand. A study by the University of Virginia found18 of the 42 students they studied chose to give themselves electric shocks than sit in solitude for 15 minutes. Being bored isn’t something that needs to be fixed. In periods of busy work I long to be bored! My new challenge is to be awake to the moments of boredom, aware how I soothe / numb them, and be look gently at what my real emotional experience is at that moment.
Our devices are designed to ensure we develop deep habits
The Unplug team shared the neuroscience of how we develop habits, and how applications are designed. We repeat behaviors that give us dopamine hits. Applications reward us on intermittent variable intervals. You don’t know if you will have an email/watsapp/Tindr waiting for you and you’ve been trained to know that you will eventually something will be there. That little reward. So you keep looking. And we all know eyeballs mean money.
Among the list of tech rules, lives compassion for self
With all rules, there needs to be some flexibility. My friend and I had bravely agreed to switch off our phones as we left Dublin airport in order to start our unplug time early. Shortly out of the city, we hit the e-toll which requires payment online by 8pm the next day. My friend had to get on line to pay. Our return trip was similarly challenged. With our Sunday return flight cancelled, we used the phone to find accommodation at short notice. The good news is the ease with which the phones made this possible. It was also a reminder that the world does not care about your tech boundaries or rules. There will be times when good intentions must be set aside and that’s ok.
The Unplug weekend gave me a real appreciation for the information overload we all face, and the adrenalin that daily life now creates for us. The average knowledge worker is exposed to 174 newspapers’ worth of information per day. We really are being bombarded and it’s no wonder we feel on the back foot in dealing with life.
As the Unplug team says, I am not anti-tech. I am pro-conversation. Let’s be part of a new conversation about how we get to be in charge of the tech we love – not the other way around.
With huge thanks to the gracious team from Unplug – Chris, Emer, and Aiden and the generous hosts Paddy and Claire at Grouse Lodge. @suitedyogi @unplugHQ @grouselodge