A quest to tame technology-driven interruptions and distractions in my daily life.

Professionally speaking, I came of age with the mass-adoption of email, instant messaging, e-commerce, and the explosion of the internet. It was around 1997, and my first office job was a dot com—a place with myriad opportunities for a young person with common sense, a modest amount of ambition, and willingness to try their hand at anything that was thrown at them technologically. From that point on, professional communication in my life was like stepping onto a moving sidewalk. I was plodding along, then off I went. I picked up email etiquette, IM’d with co-workers and colleagues, and learned how to generally do business without picking up the phone or having a meeting.

Innovations came quickly and the office culture was simply to keep up. There was no such thing as a reasonable workload. After the dot com implosion, I went to work for the Austin Symphony where my modest hardware and software skills were put to good use. I moved into the PR department where I was suddenly communicating with hundreds of journalists at a time and I was asked to start carrying a company cell phone. I was so vehemently against it and insisted on pulling over to talk on it and powering it off when I clocked out. At the same time, I bought my first laptop for personal use and was having fun learning about its many uses and ways to be productive and creative away from my desk.

At my next job—Austin Museum of Art—cell phones were a must and I was issued a PDA – meant to simplify task management and give order to the chaos of tasks and priorities. Email in the workplace was 10 years on by then. The intensity and expectations surrounding the amount, meaning, and reply-time was gaining serious momentum. I started realizing then that one’s capacity to take on work is like a goldfish and technology was like a pond. The bigger the pond, the bigger the goldfish grows.

Then smart phones and social networks went mainstream about the same time my wife and I started our own company and had a baby. It was a perfect storm for constantly being in touch

I was never really interested in reading and responding to email on a mobile device until the iPhone came along. As a self-professed Apple product fanatic, I felt I had to have one—and as a new business owner, it seemed like a logical investment. It quickly became habit forming to have the internet and email in my pocket and I found myself checking on random musings and interrupting conversations with this new toy. I recognized that it was creeping up on me, but found myself unable to stop the compulsion. We started off working from home and whether the baby was sleeping on my chest or I was pushing the stroller, I began the bad habit of knocking out tasks or getting leisure moments in 30 second to 2 minute increments as I had them.

Cut to present day. Smart phones are everywhere. In meetings, they are placed on the table like revolvers in a saloon. After meetings, people stare into them like crystal balls. They are a futuristic Swiss Army Knife of adaptable goodness: music player, camera, calculator, day planner, and on and on. What a couple of years ago were a luxury have become—at least among my friends and colleagues—a must-have possession, much like a car or computer or refrigerator. Constant use is not only accepted. It is expected.

In recent months, I have started facing up to the growing realization that my iPhone, my laptop, Facebook/Twitter, nighttime email sessions, and stuck-in-traffic news checks and text messages… they are not making me any more connected or productive or informed or synchronized. What I’ve been forced to admit—for me, anyhow—is that these are lies I tell myself in order to keep up and to rationalize what has essentially become a socially acceptable compulsion. All of these intuitive and affordable mechanisms have burrowed their way into my life and become a big never-ending stream of distractions. And it is having a cumulative effect.

Now that I have really stopped to examine it, I see that—slowly but steadily—hundreds of daily interruptions have invaded my thoughts, my conversations, meetings, walks, meals, sleep, quiet moments, 60-second waits in the grocery store, days off, etc. Every offline action seems to have an online connotation—something I feel urgently compelled to post, research, bookmark, or categorize. I find myself thinking in emails or status updates. And I feel anxious and irritated if I go too long without it. It’s madness and I’ve decided that it must stop. I have made a decision to find the off switch and to learn the how to use it.

This has nothing to do with the technology per se. I think innovation is important and I find it fascinating and generally helpful. But to preserve my psyche and the quality of my days, I have made a decision to curb my access to all of it. Here’s how I intend to do begin:

  • I’m selling my iPhone and getting a free “dumbphone” that will call, text, and that’s about it. No data plan. No internet-enabled apps. I would forego texting as well, but we have a child (with type 1 diabetes) and it is a necessity.
  • I’m getting rid of my ever-present laptop. In it’s place, I am switching to a desktop that can stay where a computer belongs: on my desk at the office.
  • I’m vowing to email less and call more and meet face-to-face when possible. We waste a lot of time trying to delegate, get answers, and convey meaning when email is really an ill-suited medium.
  • I’m leaving work at work. That won’t and can’t be absolute, but I have already achieved partial nirvana by turning off work email when I leave the office and not turning it on again until I get back in the morning. I may do a little burst in the evening, but I’m confident I can cut that on most nights.
  • Social networks will continue to be a function of work, but I’m cutting back personally. I’ve realized that it had become a form of channel-surfing. It’s a rabbit hole that I am going to approach with caution.
  • Finally, I’m getting an iPad. This one may seem counter-intuitive. Why get the latest gadget if gadgets are bad? My reasoning is that I want something for home, trips and coffee shops that let’s me “uni-task” simply and quickly. I’m going to limit the apps and will enforce my new rules regarding work emails and am keeping it off an hour before and after bed. The main thing is that I can leave it behind whereas I need the phone on me.

Will it be enough? Will I be able to do it without the shakes? I don’t know. But one thing I’m sure of is that where I was headed before is a place I don’t want to go. I intend to reclaim my mind, my autonomy, and my unoccupied moments. While I don’t plan to become a Quaker or even a luddite, I am going to simplify.

This is not a temporary experiment. It is a way to chronicle and examine my decision to side-step the go go go pace I had created for myself in favor of a manageable pile. Starting now, I am making time for books, albums, friends, nature, and many many unoccupied moments. Thanks for reading!

Note: When mentioning the idea to friends, I have already heard a good bit of skepticism and “wait, but…” which I can understand. I have been a very plugged-in early adopter or and even eager advocate of technology. Also, keeping a blog and doing things like linking that to social media may seem—on the surface—like counterintuitive decisions. Why not just keep a written journal and share it with nobody? My reasoning right now is that as much as I see the pervasiveness of always-on technology, I have to assume that others are feeling the same way as me. In sharing my experience, my hope is that others might help me find a better way and that this might encourage them to consider the merits of paring back as well. My challenge will be automating re-posts and posting within my self-imposed rules. We’ll see.

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Comments on: "Finding the off switch—and using it." (3)

  1. Congrats on the initiative, the new blog site, the new iPad, the new dumb phone, and the well-written and thoughtful initial post. I find that to make progress on significant projects, I have to disable my e-mail. And I’ve resisted the urge to replace my laptop since a thief relieved me of that burden 14 months ago. I am a slave to the old iPhone though (evidenced by my reading of your post after checking the facebook app at 4 this morning when sleep wouldn’t return, and now my posting of this comment after thinking about your decision to turn off.) I’m going to put it down a few times today in your honor. See ya.

  2. Sounds like a great and mighty challenge! I have always loathed texting and never do it, and am convinced that portable technology has severely affected both manners and basic communication skills, perhaps permanently. While the phone holds no appeal for me, I am completely hooked on the computer–facebooking, surfing blogs, checking email constantly. I may try to follow along with your challenge because I think my eyes could use a break too. Just went to the eye doctor this week and I have dry eye syndrome, probably computer related.

  3. I am overcome by the feeling that we should all rally and take on the challenge with you!

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