Truth or Hype: Are Electronics Really Screwing Up Our Brains?
Today, March 3rd, is the National Day of Unplugging. If you live on planet Earth in 2017, I don’t need to tell you that we have our faces glued to our screens most of them time. There has been a lot of talk about the negative consequences this has on our productivity and happiness, but is there any truth behind these claims, or is it just hype?
Last year, something happened in my life that had never happened before: I started suffering from depression. Every time I checked my Facebook newsfeed, I saw my friends fighting over politics and our society as a whole getting more divided into isolated groups who hated each other. I’m very sensitive to these kinds of things and all the negativity around me started to really get to me, so I decided to take a break from social media for a week.
I removed Facebook from my phone and I installed this chrome extension that hides the newsfeed from Facebook. This allowed me to continue messaging my friends and be notified of events I’m interested in, all without having to suffer through all the negativity.
The following week I started feeling a lot better, so I decided to extend my experiment for another week. And then another one. This was four months ago and I haven’t gone back to Facebook since then.
The first few days were really hard. I found myself picking up my phone every time I was anxious or bored, just to realize that I no longer had Facebook on it. I became aware of this automatic trigger I had created: my go-to response to boredom or anxiety was to find refuge in Facebook to avoid dealing with my feelings.
I know I’m not the only one. We can’t stand being bored. We need to find something to do. I realized that the more we escape boredom, the stronger this monster becomes in our heads. After I decided to be okay with being bored, I noticed that it’s not really a big deal. When a thought appears, “I’m bored! I want to do something!”, I watch it appear and go away. Where’s the harm? The more I did this, the easier it became.
The same happened with anxiety. I noticed that being around a lot of people I didn’t know made me uncomfortable, so I’d check my phone to find some relief from these situations. When I removed Facebook from my phone, this was no longer an option, so I had to sit there with my anxiety. It became evident to me that, once confronted, my anxiety had no option but to dissolve. This was very counterintuitive to me: escaping the anxiety actually made the problem worse, whereas facing it made it disappear. And it got easier every time.
Why You Need to Get Out of Town
When I was 20, I sold my first software company and spent seven years traveling the world. During this time, I was doing consulting for tech companies to keep my brain engaged. I went through periods of working really hard on projects and then taking time off to explore the 76 countries I visited during this period.
I remember noticing a really interesting pattern: when I was stuck on a project, stepping away from it and taking some time off was the best way to come up with a solution. Sometimes, we’re too close to our work, and stepping away is the best way to gain perspective and see the situation from a fresh angle.
I noticed that we’re addicted to consuming information. We’re always reading blogs, following thought leaders and learning from other people’s experiences. It became evident to me that the reason we’re not as successful or happy as we could be isn’t a lack of information, but too much information pulling us in too many different directions.
When we’re constantly consuming other people’s ideas, we’re not generating our own.
Get out of town. Disconnect for a few days. Don’t consume any content. Don’t learn anything from other people for a few days. Just be with your thoughts and see what happens.
How Electronics Were Stealing 25% of My Money
Let me be very clear about something: I love my gadgets. I have a relationship with my Macbook Pro that often makes my fiance jealous. The question is, how can we control our electronics so they don’t control us?
In this Ted talk, Jason Fried, co-founder of Basecamp, used the analogy of sleep to refer to interruptions at work. When we’re in deep sleep and something like an alarm wakes us up, it takes us a few minutes to go back into a state of deep sleep. The same happens with electronics: when we’re “in the zone” creating something amazing and we’re interrupted by emails or phone notifications, it takes us a few minutes to get back into the zone.
Over the course of a day, these productivity losses add up very quickly. If alarms go off every half-an-hour while we’re sleeping, chances are we’ll wake up pretty tired the next day.
Five years ago I was working on growing Digital Aptitude, the advertising agency that I sold in 2015, and I was answering emails and notifications in real-time, from my computer or my phone, at the office, at home or in the car. I was always online because I was afraid that if I didn’t reply to people right away, we’d lose clients.
On the other hand, I hated how other people were controlling my time. I was always reactive to what other people wanted, instead of proactively deciding how to best use my time to serve our clients better. I realized that I was addicted to being busy, always on top of whatever was put in front of me, whether or not it was a priority.
I knew something had to change but the fear of losing clients was too big, so I decided to do what I always do in these situations: a one-week experiment.
The experiment was highly successful. I got more done that week than any other week before, and I enjoyed my work much more because I was in control of how I spent my time. Only one client asked me why I took so long to get back to her and I explained that I was only checking my email twice a day to have more time to serve my clients better. She said it was a great idea and she was going to try it too.
Because the experiment was so successful, I decided to extend it indefinitely, and never looked back again. I didn’t lose a single client and even if I had, the benefits of taking control of my time were so valuable that it would’ve been a good decision anyway. Why? Because the quality of my work improved significantly, 90% of my stress melted away and I freed up about 10 hours a week that I either turned into billable time, or spent them growing our agency.
At 40 work hours a week, 10 hours represented 25% of my billable time. That’s a lot of money I got back when I decided to take control of my time!
5 Additional Benefits of Unplugging
- People will appreciate you more. It breaks my heart when I’m at a restaurant and all around me people are looking at their phones instead of the people in front of them. When I’m spending time with someone, I set my phone to “do not disturb” so I can give them my full attention.
- FOMO won’t ruin your life. Fear or missing out (FOMO) is an instant happiness killer. When you’re hanging out with friends and see on Facebook what other people are doing, you immediately start weighing your options. Should you stay where you are or go somewhere more fun? And, when you get there, will there be something even more fun going on? How can we be present and content if we’re always feeling there’s something better out there?
- You’ll recharge more effectively. A study conducted by Kansas State University shows that unplugging for a few hours after each work day is a very effective way to avoid burnout and increase our quality of life.
- You’ll sleep better. Very few things have as much impact on our day as the quality of our sleep the night before. The human circadian rhythm depends on darkness to prepare for sleep, which can be disrupted by light-emitting devices, so make sure that you stay screen-free for at least one hour before going to bed.
- You’ll be less likely to die! Did you know that 1 out of 4 car accidents in the United States is caused by texting and driving? We all think it’s never going to happen to us, but there are a lot of really bad drivers out there, and all it takes is to be distracted for a second to get into an accident. Be smart: that email you just got can wait 10 minutes. Nothing bad is going to happen.
"How Do I Start?"
Change can create a lot of anxiety, so I have two suggestions for you: start small and do a limited-time experiment at first. Unplugging doesn’t mean you’ll quit electronics forever. You could, for example, block off two hours to work on a creative project. Find a distraction-free spot, turn off notifications on your phone and computer, and enjoy two hours of uninterrupted creative flow.
Additionally, try unplugging outside work. Set your phone to “do not disturb” when you’re hanging out with friends, and consider turning off social media and email notifications one day a week.
I found it very useful to tell my fiance or my friends what I’m doing and why. Communicating my goals to others forces me to stick to them.
Happy Unplugging Day!