Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
June 25, 201311:36 AM

Don't #Unplug From Technology

Don't blame technology for our unhealthy relationship with it.

Grazing the magazine newsstand on my flight to NYC last week, I was thrilled to see that the latest edition of Fast Company was on sale. I was even more excited to see Baratunde Thurston on the cover. Most people knew Thurston as the director of digital for The Onion. He then moved on to become a bestselling author (How To Be Black), a well recognized speaker, a a regular contributor at Fast Company and much more. In short, he was riding the wave of his digital connectedness upriver into global success, while developing a personal brand to be reckon with (over 140,000 followers on Twitter, multiple appearances in mainstream media and more). My heart sunk when I saw the name of the cover story: #Unplug - My Life Was So Crazy, I Disconnected For 25 Days. You Should Too. Next up: the siren-ringing sounds of your life as it comes crashing to a halt. There is a simple truth here that people don't want to admit: it's not the technology and all of this inter-connectedness that is the problem... it's us.

Unplugging may make your misery worse.

How many notifications do you have set up in your life? Think about your smartphone. When does it notify you of anything? A voice call? A text message? A voicemail message? An update from Facebook? A direct message from Twitter? When you have a scheduled appointment? When someone would like to set-up an appointment? A notification that a meeting is about to happen? A warning that your flight may be delayed? What about your computer? A new email? An incoming Skype chat? A request to connect via Google Hangouts? A reminder that your favorite blogger on Huffington Post has just published a new piece? A special price for that hotel you were hoping to stay at? The lists, pings rings, beeps, buzzers and more could go on and on. Lately, Thurston isn't the only one talking about a more regimented social media and technology diet. The enthusiasm that many people are expressing to create these digital bankruptcies shore up to a bigger problem: finding a healthy balance in our lives.

Don't blame the potato chips. 

Thurston and others who have recently talked about their inability to keep up with the influx of digital inputs (Chris Brogan and Seth Godin have frequently discussed these issues) could be missing the bigger point: this is the inevitable outcome of success. If you do everything right in terms of building a platform or something that people want to pay attention to, you will never be prepared or able to deal with that success. The same is often the case for brands who are looking to hit viral gold. More often than not, they are not prepared and flounder when it actually works. It is very hard to scale a personality. In short, we become victims of our success. No one is going to cry for Thurston, Godin, Brogan, me or you. Let our biggest problems in life be that we can't keep up with all of the people who want to consume our media and connect with us. Let our email become one big, unwinnable, game of Tetris where all we're doing is moving those messages from the inbox to a folder while attempting to respond, only to have that inbox continually increase at a faster and faster click, until: game over.

How to take your life back (without unplugging).

People are often shocked when they spend any amount of time with me in my protein form. My smartphone, laptop and tablet have zero notifications. Zero. There is only one notification set and that is a customized vibration tone on my iPhone for when my spouse calls and/or texts me. That's it. Otherwise, I look at my devices when I have a moment. Seems simple enough? It is. Over time (and I have been using these technology from very nascent stages), those who connect with me no longer have expectations of an immediate response. The goal is simple: never put yourself in Thurston's position so that your life requires a moment to unplug. Instead of letting the technology and their notifications manage you, start managing your technology and notifications.

The results will stun you.

You won't find me thumbing the iPhone while pushing my kids on the swing at the park, because there is nothing notifying me of any sort of message. So, unless I take a break on the park bench and decide to pick up the device on my own accord, I don't have to play life judge and figure out if an email is more important than the swing-set. This is key: notifications are ambiguous. They no longer tell you what's important, they simply inform you that there is something new to look at. Like the Pavlovian creatures that we are, we just can't help but take a peek at what the message could mean. Over time, this conditioning has jaded our judgment and confused the importance of our work. Many people attack the last message that came in rather than the important ones. Many people attack the messages that are quick to respond to and wait for more time in their day to attack to the ones that require more work. All of this isn't technology's fault. All of this is our fault, because we're allowing the technology to manage us, instead of the other way around.

Take a break.

Instead of taking a break for any period of time, start deactivating your notifications. Block off specific moments in the day when you will check your social feeds (Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, etc...). Decide how much time you're going to allocate to responding to email messages. A lot of the email back and forth can be solved with a thirty-second phone call, but we've conditioned ourselves to engage in a week-long email chain that looks more like a game of badminton than resolving a work-related issue. Agree that before you make a grab for any device, you will proactively define if what you're doing in the here-and-now is more substantive than what may be on the digital screen in your pocket. See, if you unplug, you will eventually plug back in. What you're plugging back into isn't technology. You're plugging back into bad habits. These habits were facilitated by how technology works, but they don't have to be that way. The next time that you're thinking about unplugging from it all, take a step back and ask yourself what, exactly, you're unplugging from and how you can best manage the process? The vast majority of us will never have as much attention as Baratunde Thurston. The vast majority of us aren't as gainfully engaged with all of these digital channels and social networks as Baratunde Thurston. Still, all of us can do a much better job at turning off the beeps, blips, lights, vibrations and ringers in our lives.

That act alone has nothing to to with unplugging, but everything to do with plugging into what is most important in our lives.

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for The Huffington Post. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original version online here:

By Mitch Joel


Comments Comments Feed
  • Posted by Joseph Ratliff
    Mitch Joel

    Gotta challenge your thinking a little bit here Mitch.

    I do agree with your approach to technology:

    "Otherwise, I look at my devices when I have a moment. Seems simple enough? It is."

    Because yes, it IS that simple.

    But I think the Fast Co. article's title was worded to get maximum eyeballs... and I think Baratunde was doing his "experiment" for a bit of media attention.

    Here's the main challenge to your thinking...

    You're saying "don't unplug" and "don't blame technology" when it's more complex than that (which I'm sure you know)...

    But there is more than one "plug" at work here, and more importantly, it's like not blaming electricity when you get shocked. Yes, you touched the outlet, but the electricity always shocks you.

    Technology will ALWAYS become a time suck if you don't moderate it somehow, and unfortunately, we've advanced these technologies to the point where there are multiple levels from multiple devices and platforms from which to get "time sucked."

    I hope that came across right.

    So, someone might have to "cut it all off" at the beginning, to rediscover which of the devices and "plugs" which to plug back in. Most people I've observed don't moderate well right from the get go, because they don't take into full account the potential "time suck" something can be.

    But again, it IS that simple... just check it when YOU want to, on the device YOU want to, and only the MOST important gets your attention when you want it to.

    Good post Mitch.

    Reply
    • I think it is simpler. You don't have to fully unplug for a month to understand this. You simply have to manage the notifications and make the tough choices from the get-go. I've been doing this a long time, and the people who need the full-on detox are usually the ones who are letting their technology manage them (and not the other way around) or the ones who build up a substantive audience quickly and aren't prepared for how to deal with it.

      Reply
      • Posted by Joseph Ratliff
        Mitch Joel

        You're stating what some people can do, but would challenge most people cannot moderate from the get go.

        "You simply have to manage the notifications and make the tough choices from the get-go."

        Most people (outside of the "geek" and "tech" circles) don't know what those tough choices are in the first place (for a number of reasons), so they don't make them.

        Remember, we're only a small part of the population. ;)

        Reply
        • I'm with you on this. It is why I am a huge advocate of teaching technology and media literacy at a young age in school and at lunch n' learns and the like at work. It needs to be a top-down approach.

          Reply
          • Posted by Joseph Ratliff
            Mitch Joel

            Yeah, I've been thinking about teaching a "technology literacy 101" class at our local community college... exploring the basics of moderation and these exact choices we're talking about here.

            Maybe it's time to quit thinking about it, LOL. :)

            Reply
  • Posted by Baratunde
    Mitch Joel

    Looks like we're both guilty of exaggerated headlines. I argue for SO many of the things you do. My point wasn't to permanently unplug but to make space. I thought that was clear in the article but maybe not.

    You are essentially calling for unplugging but calling it something else. WHen you silence your notifications (which I argued for) or ignore your devices while walking down the street or playing with a child (things I also recommended).

    I do agree most people don't have the level of attention I do, but we are all headed in my general direction. More interaction. More expectations of responsiveness. More blurring the lines between being "ON' and being "present."

    I am the harbinger of DOOOOOM!

    But exerting control is the common denominator of what we are both saying.

    Reply
    • I agree. We are more likely in "violent agreement" than anything else. The main crux for me is that a simple #unplug won't solve any problems, but could exacerbate the issue. Understanding that we have to better manage our technologies and notifications (which most people don't) seems like a simpler solution. Like I said, unplugging and plugging back in is only going to make the bad habits come rushing back. I also agree that not everyone is you. You've managed to do what most of us could only dream of. I'm not sure I could even begin to fathom the amount of digital connectedness you're dealing with as I struggle with my own (at a much smaller scale) each and every day. At some point, I'm sure you want to move beyond the pings and tweets and actually get some cool stuff done. :)

      Reply
    • Mitch Joel

      Read a few "unplug is how you reconnect w/ 'real' life" memes over the years. The idea is to not let the tech tail wag the robot dog. Notifications are a part of that and I agree, it's not exactly the same as cutting the cord. An alert about a late flight change is a helpful life/work hack. When you're very in demand, a beep every time someone tweets at you.. not so much.

      We live in a digital age, technology is supposed to make things easier for us, better. I've been planning my vacation, booked online, have it organized via iPhone apps. Unplugging or disconnecting won't help me have a better trip; logging into FB a couple times won't diminish the experience. I've set it up so that the technology helps, makes more time for me so I can enjoy my trip w/ less worry. For me, it's kinda halfway between what you and Mitch are discussing - setting boundaries, which will vary for us all. FWIW.

      Reply
  • Posted by Dan Gorgone
    Mitch Joel

    Great advice... and people should not feel intimidated about managing these notifications either. Changing the settings on even one of the worst offenders - e.g. Facebook - can do wonders to quiet your mobile device and calm your notification nerves. :)

    Reply
    • ...and this is why I don't believe/feel the need to unplug. I don't have the pressures of the ringing, vibrations and pinging. I can understand how overwhelming it can be, I just won't have any of it :)

      Reply
  • Mitch,
    I'm really with you on the habit management.. writing about this right now. We can't run in fear, we have to manage with wisdom. @judymartin8

    Reply
  • I've already counted myself a lost cause, BUT I don't blame the medium itself, and I am trying to apply many of the tactics mentioned here to make all this less intrusive. My take is that we are the generation(s) that are developing and learning how to interact with this level of media input... guinea pigs.

    I'm far more concerned with my 5 yo son. His media "spigot" will be Niagara Falls compared to my Mississippi... He's already displaying an interesting ability to "get bored" and move onto the outside... My responsibility is to make sure that this is nurtured AND that it does not morph into a "get bored and move on to the next flickering image" mentality.

    My father, as most of the last 2 or three generations weren't all that clear as to what was coming when they plunked us in front of the TV all those years ago; I would hope we have a bit better insight on this (better not perfect)... Oddly enough, in the process of guiding my son through all this... I'll likely have less time to keep up with all my own... alerts.

    Here's hoping, wish us luck. :)

    Reply
  • Posted by Peter Pallotta
    Mitch Joel

    Technology is like food you need it to sustain yourself so I don't see myself taking a break unless the power goes out!

    Reply
  • Posted by Mark Spratley
    Mitch Joel

    Like with anything its about finding a healthy balance. Technology has become entangled in our everyday lives and it's almost impossible to detach from it. That being said as soon as I purchase a new iPhone or install a new browser, email etc. I take the time to ensure that the technology of notifications, pop-ups and other equally distracting devices don't interrupt me to often and only on my own terms. Technology can become a "habit" as bad as any smoker when it comes to time wasting overall. It's their for convenience and shouldn't be a way of life.

    Reply
  • Posted by Ali Davies
    Mitch Joel

    Like you, I have zero notifications and set times when I deal with email, social media etc. I think it is all about the combination of having self discipline, srong boundaries and a clear focus on what is MOSt important at a given time. Things that a lot of people seem to have lost touch with as they allow gadgets to call the shots.

    Reply
  • Posted by Warren Whitlock
    Mitch Joel

    I went looking for this to expand what you said on my radio show.

    YES! I so totally agree.

    I love the freedom of having my technology with me wherever I go, and the power to use it how I see fit.

    Reply
  • Hello, i read your blog occasionally and i own a similar one and
    i was just curious if you get a lot of spam
    remarks? If so how do you stop it, any plugin or anything you can recommend?
    I get so much lately it's driving me crazy so any help is very
    much appreciated.

    Reply
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    Mitch Joel

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    Reply
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    Mitch Joel

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