Digital Detox: Of Badges, Micro-Moments and Soap Operas

A central premise of Love Not Fear is that if we don’t shape the media that surrounds us, it will shape our thoughts and feelings toward fear. One of the biggest takeaways from that premise is that most of us could use to step away from the screens from time to time, though that may be easier said than done. Having just put myself through a two-week “digital detox”, I wanted to share what I found.

Like many of you, my job requires me to be attentive to the online world – especially email, but also social media like Facebook and Twitter, both of which I also use for personal reasons as well. Recently I had a two-week vacation and decided to use it to step away from virtually all of those media. Specifically, I posted “out of office” messages on my work email, Twitter and Facebook accounts. I didn’t go completely offline – I texted and persona messaged with friends and family, I monitored one email address I manage in a volunteer role (that rarely gets used), and I visited websites through browsers – but I abandoned more “social” media as well as the email addresses I use for work and personal use for two weeks. I won’t lie – I cheated, about three days into this 14-day experiment, in the process of finding a phone number for a family member that was buried in my work email. But other than that infraction, I held to this digital fast.

What made this possible, without being torturous, was turning off all the notifications on my devices for these channels, especially the “badges”. Those are the little red circles on each of your apps with the number of unviewed messages or alerts, and they torment me when I have them on. Even though, in their absence, I still knew that I had unread messages or other alerts, not having the visible reminder of that number in the red circle made it much easier for me to disconnect.

Because I was on vacation, I really did disconnect. With the exception of checking on the major-league baseball trade deadline via my local paper’s website and a trade rumors website, I was, for two weeks, what pundits might call “a low information voter.” If something “newsworthy” happened in the last two weeks, I probably missed it. So what did I miss?

First of all, I didn’t miss the feeling that I was falling behind in the eternal race to keep up with breaking news, incoming messages, opportunities to post, or any of that. I knew the work wheels would keep turning, and even though it ended up being a nuisance to wade through more than 1200 messages when I got back to work, the truth is, the majority of them I deleted without reading. Either they were about things that had already been dealt with by my return or, more commonly, they were about things that I really didn’t have to know about. More than 1,000 unread emails can be daunting, but it prompted me to unsubscribe from more than a few lists and adjust my settings on others to keep the next round of “delete before reading” messages from gumming up my inbox to begin with.

I also really didn’t miss avariciously surfing Twitter for the latest scoop. I will admit, Twitter would have been an easier channel for keeping up with the trade deadline news, but that’s a once-a-year thing; the rest of the political patter and breaking “news”, I happily lived without. I’m going to keep Twitter for professional reasons, but will set timers to limit my time in that medium and focus on the lists I’ve made on particular topics of interest.

What I did miss was Facebook, oddly, since everyone else seems to be writing that platform off. But it wasn’t the mindless scrolling through updates, or the notifications about events I didn’t care about (I adjusted those settings, too). It was the real interactions I had with people through their posts and mine that I missed, though really, the individual face-to-face company I had more than made up for that broader virtual connection. I almost cheated, once, to post something on Facebook that I found really fascinating and thought my friends would find interesting. I might post it later. It was OK to wait.

On the news front, it turns out a couple awful things happened while I was gone, but really? Mostly it felt like the experience of stumbling on a soap opera you haven’t seen in a couple years. It turns out the onslaught of breaking news doesn’t yield much change. Conservatives were mostly focused on the same things they were focused on when I took a break. Same for progressives. So the world survived my absence pretty smoothly.

The other thing I missed was how to fill those “micro moments.” When you’re waiting for someone or something and don’t have quite enough to start something “real,” I found myself wanting to check my phone to see what was going on. I didn’t, though I can’t say I came up with a great substitute. Except maybe notice the world around me and the small beauties that make it up.

I haven’t fully returned from the digital detox. I still haven’t changed the notifications to reintroduce the badges, and I’m inclined to leave myself in ignorant bliss of how many unread messages I have. I do think I need to be better plugged into the world than I was, though I don’t want to dive back into the Twitter soap opera. And I am fighting to resist the stomach pit that comes from feeling digitally overwhelmed and falling behind. I don’t regret the pause at all, and would commend it to anyone. As with most things, exerting discipline isn’t easy for me, but it’s worth the strain when I do.

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