I won't forget the moment I realized how much time I spent lost inside my phone.
My family and I were on our 13th almost-annual trip to our family mountain house. Set on a picturesque private lake in upstate Pennsylvania, the home-away-from-home is our favorite place to celebrate the Fourth of July. With multiple families packed into a tiny house without some of today's modern amenities, you begin to appreciate the simpler things.
A simpler place with fewer obligations
The home is situated in a deep valley down a long dirt road. A few minutes after turning off the main road, our phones go into an eternal state of "searching" for a signal. The TVs display three or four public channels, whose clarity was recently improved by a makeshift antenna my father-in-law nailed to a tree. In the place of high-speed internet or 500 channels of HD programing, you get a game of late night Scrabble; talking about stories of past trips; canoe trips on the glassy freshwater lake; and kids roasting marshmallows while massive, probably illegal fireworks explode much closer than you'd prefer.
I'm always amazed by how the days feel longer at the lake house. I don't know if we enter into some third dimension, or maybe it's the absence of distractions that slows the clock down. Whatever it is, this year the visit forced me to realize how important it was for me to disconnect and appreciate the sound of silence.
"Dad, I lost my worm." Jack, our seven-year-old son, was doing a great job of keeping the fish fed. He was really determined not only to catch a fish, but insisted on learning how to bait his own hook. "Dad, can I put the worm on?" he asked.
Peace and quiet on the water
I'm not much of an outdoorsman, but Jack was really excited about fishing, so I did my best. The next few times, we put the worm on together, and I realized during this process how much of my attention he had, possibly because he was whipping around a razor-sharp hook, but I like to think it was because I was there for him, and I wasn't worried about anything else outside of this moment.
Jack felt confident he was ready to add his own worm, after losing 20-or-so from previous attempts. He did great. With the exception of a few poked fingers, he had it down, and finally hooked the first of many fish that weekend.
It was a small, pure moment of focus. I've been trying to replicate it ever since.
I hadn't realized how much I had been missing in my daily life because of what I call connectivity distraction.
I wouldn't say I'm addicted...
I work behind a computer all day, so I'm constantly connected. I work remotely from home, so I don't disconnect after my work day ends. Little notifications follow me through dinner and into our evening activities. Even on the weekends, every buzz of my phone, whether I look at the notification or not, I'm whisked away into a state of semi-consciousness where I consider the possibilities of that buzz. Is it an update on a work project? Or maybe somebody replied to a tweet? What if someone is trying to reach me by text? It could be — and probably is — unimportant. Then again, it could be the most important message of my life!
I wouldn't say I'm addicted to being connected, but my norm has certainly become an always-connected state.
Since our fishing moment, I've set some disconnecting guidelines for when I am home, and they have been working well so far.
Wrong time, wrong place
I enjoy being on my phone, even after work hours. I love what I do, so it's only natural for me to want to read about and poke around in those interests. However, there is a time and place for that. When it's family time, we all go into airplane mode. What I've realized after being fully disconnected for five days, is that the notifications will be there when you're ready to check them.
No such thing as a "quick reply"
Quickly replying to a work email or Slack ping during movie night is disrupting, and unless it's an emergency (sometimes there will be exceptions), most of the time it can wait. When the lines were blurred between my family and work life, I couldn't disconnect, because work never ended. I now follow a pretty strict guideline, and unless I'm on-call, I don't even carry my phone with me when away from the computer. Or, if I'd like to take photos, I am diligent about using airplane mode.
Think of the children
Lastly, I want my children's perception of technology and connectivity to be one of good and value, as a tool, not a lifestyle. My wife and I have spoken a great deal about how important it is for our family to spend time together disconnected, so we've implemented limits for our kids as well. This generation of kids is being raised in a world full of devices and technology at their fingertips, and we want ours to understand not only how to disconnect, but that it's okay and important to do so.
In practice, not only am I able to conduct conversation with more clarity than in recent memory, I am more engaged and more clearly recall my conversations when I reflect on the events of a day. By breaking up my day, I've been able to store memories in distinct buckets, which has been really helpful in fostering my work / life balance.
It took a few days without technology for me to realize that I need less of it in my life, or at the very least, more deliberate breaks. It was absolutely rejuvenating, and what I realized was it doesn't require a trip to the mountains each time I want to recharge and disconnect, I can do it anytime by just stepping away, because the notifications will be there when I get back.