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How To Avoid A Digital Overload When Unplugging Isn’t An Option

If you work in tech, keeping connected isn’t optional. Here’s how to strike a healthy balance.

How To Avoid A Digital Overload When Unplugging Isn’t An Option
[Photo: Flickr user Cubmundo]

People who work in the tech sector–people like me–can sometimes find themselves in a bind. On one hand, we love technology. Our livelihoods depend on being connected, on living almost symbiotically with our digital tools and devices. On the other, we know that too much connectedness can be harmful.

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Not long ago I found myself getting overwhelmed. I was fighting back the mounting stress and anxiety that comes with the compulsive need to check my phone constantly. I was desperate for a long-term solution, something that wasn’t just a temporary fix like a digital detox or an off-the-grid vacation. I knew I couldn’t give up technology altogether. I wanted to change my reality and regain the balance. So I signed up for a four-day meditation retreat at Tassajara, a zen monastery in the Carmel Valley mountains, to see if there was anything I could learn there that would have lasting results.

Life at Tassajara was routine and spartan. I woke up at 5:20 a.m. and worked until noon. A 5:40 a.m., we marched into the zendo (temple) for an hour-long meditation. A strange thing happened to me at Tassajara. My body didn’t mind waking up early. Without all the added stimuli from my smartphone, I fell into my natural circadian rhythm–early to rise, early to bed. Sleep came easily when I got up early and tired myself out by shoveling compost. Enlightenment, in my case, was simply relearning to eat when I was hungry and sleep when I was tired, two basic things I’d neglected to do under the deluge of constant notifications–urging me to do all sorts of other things instead.

On the second day, I faced withdrawal. There were no distractions or temporary relief from the jumble of emotions and physical discomforts that set in. And I was surprised by how quickly they did. When my mind grew restless, I had to sit with it, dive into that feeling, and let it drift away naturally. I couldn’t jolt myself out with some fleeting escapism, like the small, immediate pleasure of getting retweeted–which now seemed vain and trivial. In seated meditation, I was forced to reflect and really confront myself.

Rather than just slip back into life as usual, I promised myself I would bring a piece of Tassajara permanently home with me. I realize I can’t reconcile the lifestyle of a Buddhist monk with being a working technologist in a capitalist society. As a product manager, I have to test out my own products, be a power user, and stay updated in the latest gadgets, apps, and digital trends. I love being on the cusp of new technology–it’s what brought me into this career in the first place–but it can get tiring. So I’ve picked up these three habits to help me better coexist with it.

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1. Turn Off Push Notifications

Download virtually any app and it will ask permission to bug you. Sometimes you want to be alerted immediately–like when a real human contacts you–but most of the time you don’t, like when your cousin’s spouse replies to a Facebook comment. Even if you do like a steady stream of notifications, there can come a time each day when you’ve had your fill. After a day’s work, I turn off all of my push notifications to give my mind space to sit with its thoughts. I give myself time to reflect without some alarm or other pulling me into to a soul-sucking cycle of digital engagement. I can bask in the day’s victories and ruminate on what I wish I had done differently.

2. Use Airplane Mode At Night

To prepare my mind and body for sleep, I put my phone on airplane mode at 9 p.m. each night so I can relax uninterrupted. One reason I could fall asleep so easily at Tassajara was because I wasn’t being prodded to stay up. I now unwind with a book and a mug of herbal tea in the evenings. Without the glow of my computer screen or the buzz of my phone at my side, I let my mind rest, recover, and prepare for another day.

3. Meditate On The Go

A little goes a long way, and you don’t need a serene place in the middle of nature to refocus and reflect. I use the Calm App to meditate for 20 minutes on my shuttle ride to work. Instead of viewing the commute as a labor, I see it as my opportunity to set my intentions for the day. I’ve also found I don’t need to cut all ties with my smartphone in order to avoid a digital overload. In some cases, the source of the problem is also part of the solution. Using my smartphone tool to practice guided meditation on the go is just one way of doing that.

Since visiting Tassajara, I understand my relationship with technology differently. I am a less tired, technologically codependent, anxious person. I no longer need my phone for stimulation, distraction, and external reinforcement. I control my digital tools–which lets me enjoy them again. They don’t control me.

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Bo Ren is a product manager at Facebook as well as a writer and adventure capitalist. She writes about product management, gender, and humanistic technology. She tweets @bosefina.