For the last 10 years I have worked and played on a computer for 8+ hours a day, leaving little room for much else while not always accomplishing anything. My cellphone became something I would reach for first thing in the morning, in the middle of the night if I couldn’t sleep, or when I had any idle moment.
I began my year off by spending one week away from these devices that I’ve become so accustomed to using all day, every day.
While my year off is a reboot of my lifestyle, my week off-grid was a reboot of my use of technology. I make a living off of technology, but the always-available nature of the internet allowed me to get into unhealthy usage habits like checking email multiple times a day, reading websites that haven’t changed in the five minutes since I last read them, or taking my phone out of my pocket to fill time that would be better spent interacting with the people around me or reading a book or writing or reflecting on the moment. Backing away from screens would hopefully allow me to be more present and focused.
On the night before I began this week off-grid, I powered off my laptop and my cellphone. For 7 days they sat on my dresser, unused. I also did not watch any TV during this time. Instead I planned to read, write, walk, and be outside. My parents were around for 5 of the 7 days, so I wasn’t in complete isolation, and they were nice enough to not turn on the TV or talk about current events. I also told some close friends about my plans so they knew what I was up to.
As the week unfolded I felt more focused when doing one thing at a time. I spent a lot of time sitting outside and thinking about nothing. It was so refreshing. My head was clear. I stopped reaching for my phone that wasn’t there. I was enjoying being disconnected.
I journaled each night before going to bed. I was at a lake house so I strung up my hammock on the dock for a reading/thinking/napping spot. The background noise of birds chirping, water flowing, boats passing, and the occasional rain storm on the metal roof set a relaxing mood.
When my parents and I went to a friend’s graduation party, I felt much more engaged with those around me. Even when I wasn’t talking to anyone I could sit with my own thoughts and be happy.
It took 4 days until I had a strong urge to get my phone out and look things up. Luckily that day I had some house work to do to keep me active.
As the end of the week neared, I felt like I was getting what I wanted from the experience. I also started to miss my friends! The wonderful thing about the internet is how connected we can be to the people we love no matter how far away they are. It’s no substitute for connecting in-person, but as I travel around I enjoy being able to talk to my family and friends from wherever I am. It makes them seem a little closer even though I’m (currently) an ocean away.
There’s no escaping the fact that I need my computer and the internet to write software and make a living. I love making things - software or blogs or videos or pictures - and my computer is the tool that usually helps me with that. I also enjoy seeing what others have created or learning something new, often on social media or around the internet.
There’s also no denying the utility of a smartphone. I can navigate around a foreign city, pay my credit card bill, transfer money into my checking account when I need to use an ATM, and send my travel partner my half of a dinner bill, all from a device that fits in my pocket. I can also endlessly scroll through Instagram and Twitter, check and re-check the same websites, and feel a compulsion to talk to people through that device instead of enjoying whatever moment I am experiencing.
Hopefully by stripping out all of the excess and unnecessary usage of my phone and computer I can re-learn to use them only for necessary utility and for creating. And when I don’t need to do either I can choose to do something else like read or be active or meet someone new or do nothing.
Am I perfectly cured of my bad technology habits? No. But going off-grid for a week made me more aware of them and one by one I’m working to change them. I’ve removed all social media apps from my phone, in favor of logging into Instagram or Twitter or YouTube on my laptop. This helps me to limit my usage to once a day or less, and I don’t feel the need to take my phone out nearly as much. I’ve been able to keep myself from unnecessarily checking websites throughout the day, and I’m trying to use the web browser only when I really need to look up travel info.
I find that it’s important to learn how to slow down, and to make sure that the things I’m doing are important to me instead of them being habit or “that’s how it’s always been done.” Going off-grid gave me a clear head to see what my priorities are, and in the time since then I’ve been working on clearing out what’s not.
I will absolutely go off-grid again, and likely will do it at least once more during this year off.