Everyone seems obsessed with unplugging lately. And, ironically, you’ll find many of them talking about it online (because where else would you?). There are thousands of “likes” being awarded, digital praise for those declarations of departing the grid. This is how it is now: The only way we can share how social media has exhausted us is via social media. (This article is a case in point.)
But what are the real reasons why we should go offline, if not forever, then from time to time? It’s easy to point outward—at growing work demands and blurring work/home boundaries; at the endless stream of information that gives us more to read than we could ever conceivably do. As with stress, we think the problem is “out there,” when it’s really in here. That’s where it all starts.
A good test case for what happens when you sever your online ties is Baratunde Thurson. In his Fast Company July cover story, #Unplug: Baratunde Thurston Left the Internet for 25 Days, and You Should, Too, Thurston, an author, comedian, and former digital director of The Onion, chronicles his deliciously long digital sabbatical.
And while you can guess at the kinds of things he rediscovers while on his break (reading long books, having real conversations, getting actual restaurant recommendations from people, not online searches), what’s most shocking is how difficult it was for him to unsnarl himself from the digital nest he spends most of his connected life feeding and growing. There isn’t just a single sign-out-of-social-media button, especially when you consider how many sites and services you use your Facebook log in for. Disentangling himself from those networks was proof enough “just how locked in we really are.”
It’s enough to induce the kind of claustrophic panic you feel when you can’t get a piece of jewelry off or a door open. It’s only when you try to escape it that you realize how tied in you are.
Three Big Q’s to Ask Yourself
The real insight, however, comes from what Thurston discovered about himself after his re-entry into the online world; namely, that he was addicted to information, to himself, and just sharing way too much. It’s worth asking yourself if you are doing the same thing, and in that sense, feeding your own out-of-control stress levels.
1. Are you addicted to information?
Thurston writes, “Only when I dramatically reduced my connectivity did I realize how addicted to information stimulus I had become–and that I did not need to sustain that constant high to live well and happily.”
We all feel like we’re good citizens when we’re informed—we see it as our responsibility, but even that can be a mask for our real fear: Being left out. Fear of missing out. Of not knowing.
Recognize that being hungry for status updates and the “latest” isn’t the same as, say, having a healthy appetite for learning. While we all want to be kept abreast, it’s worth asking yourself when’s the last time you passed on the rapid-fire updates and instead immersed yourself in a topic in a more deep and profound way, giving yourself time to really reflect and form your own ideas about what’s out there, which contributes to your own growth, not just a mass of data in your head.
Do you share too much?
Thurston writes of his Tweeting habit,
“…I spent an inordinate amount of time documenting, commenting on, and sharing experiences. In the process, I wasn’t fully having those experiences.”
Social media is a lens through which you process and share information. But the modern imperative seems to be that if you didn’t share it, it didn’t happen. You know this isn’t true. And the itch to share springs from a need to let other people know what you know, what you did, who you are. Sure, sharing can be all in good fun, but ask yourself, do you value the sharing above the experience itself? It’s not unlike the person who takes a zillion pictures on vacation—he ends up viewing his own vacation through a lens, and from a position of posterity, not presence. When sharing keeps you from being here now, it’s worth asking yourself if you can ease off.
Are you self-obsessed?
“Never before have we had the ability to microgauge our own rhetorical value to the world…Since the break, I look backward far less than before and I’ve tried to create more discrete moments for checking email rather than maintaining a constant level of inbox awareness, anxiety, and guilt.”
Our social media lens isn’t just turned outward, of course—it involves a fair bit of navel-gazing, self-judging, self-aggrandizing. It’s like being trapped in a hall of mirrors—endless reflections of ourselves in everything we do. The urge to obsess over your own feed, your own tweets, your own take and view of the world, as well as other people’s reception of it, can send you down a self-involved spiral, and as you can imagine, that creates more stress than it does satisfaction. Ask yourself if you spend so much time observing and assessing your own digital presence that it gets in the way of real experiences, real connections, and real happiness.
(Read Thurston’s piece on Fast Company.)
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Terri Trespicio is the editor of meQuilibrium, the first-ever online stress management program. She’s also a lifestyle expert and writer. Follow her @TerriT, and meQ @mequilibrium.