Do we need to unplug?

Does moment-to-moment mindfulness mean we need to switch off? We discuss the pros and cons. 


Friday, March 1, marked the fourth annual National Day of Unplugging. Around the world, participants (like the people in this lovely screenshot on the left from the National Day of Unplugging’s website) switched off their devices from sunset to sunset—a glorious 24 hours without tweets, pings, rattles, and status updates.

The logic behind this unplugging is that by turning off our digital devices, we can free ourselves of stressful “iDistractions” and turn our attention to the present moment.

You might find the next piece of news counterintuitive, then. Tomorrow, it’s very likely—in fact, you can count on it—that you’ll see fresh stories on, tweets, and Facebook posts.

Not that we don’t believe a break from our digital activities would be productive. It’s just that…well, even without technology, it’s still very easy to become distracted and stressed and not at all focused on what’s actually happening in the moment.

Case in point: even those who work with anti-stress products aren’t safe from stress. Just last week, a fellow working at a plant that packs stress balls allegedly punched his boss in the face after he found out he was laid off.

Talk about anxiety and stress. No tech required either.

And that’s the rub: Does a day devoted to unplugging assume that unplugging will inevitably lead to less stress?

At the same time, some of us do have a bit of a problem with how we use our gadgets. Recent studies looking at our behavior around tech suggests that social media can actually make us anxious. And it’s not uncommon to see people glued to their screens while riding the bus or walking down the street. In fact, in 2011, About 1,152 people were treated in hospital emergency rooms in the U.S. for injuries suffered while walking and using an electronic device at the same time.

So, there are good reasons for planning a holiday from our devices.

One reason being personal safety.

In a post about National Unplugging Day, the Huffington Post suggests this day of respite is much-needed for those addicted to their devices, and “Anyone who Instagrams their hardboiled eggs.”

Okay, but is it fair to point the finger at Instagram for our own propensity to document our breakfast foods?

Can we blame our smartphones when we’re using them unwisely?

This thinking—that technology determines our thoughts and behavior—is pervasive.

At the Wisdom 2.0 conference last weekened, how to use technology mindfully was a huge topic. And more than a few participants fell into the camp of: how we use technology defines us.

One defining comment circulated on Twitter during the conference, from author Sherry Turkle. She writes about the intersection of digital technology and human relationships.

The tweet that circulated at the conference, attributed to Turkle, was: “Technology doesn’t just change what we do, it changes who we are.”

So, how we use technology shapes our lives. But what if it’s also the other way around: how we shape our lives effects how we use our technology?

Yes, some people might spend the day scanning Facebook with a pack of Ding Dongs close by. But others are starting conversations and contributing to meaningful causes.

This is what Soren Gordhamer is attuned to—those doing good online. He’s the Founder of Wisdom 2.0. Last summer, when The New York Times published an article claiming Silicon Valley wanted people to put their devices down, Gordhamer responded in a blog post that this line of thinking is rather superficial. He suggested the conversation should instead be about how we use our digital spaces. He writes:

A day spent without your device, but instead spent gossiping to friends and neighbors, is surely much less impactful than one spent on social media helping to raise money for a well in rural Africa so people without water can drink.

Gordhamer says the real conversation has less to do with putting down our devices or balancing our time between offline and online. Instead, the real conversation is about wisdom and living with meaning and purpose—which can be accomplished with our without our gadgets.

In a simliar vein, Neema Moraveji, who runs Stanford’s Calming Technology Lab, wrote about his own desire to unplug in a blog post. He came to the conclusion that he can’t blame his tech for the things he fails to cultivate in his own life:

It turns out that I found it’s not really about unplugging per se—it’s about creating calm. If you have calm in your body, mind, and heart, you don’t have to be so strict about unplugging. You can feel when enough is enough. You find the physical world more appealing. Your life is less about rules and more about connection.

Indeed, there are a few ways you can find mindfulness in digital spaces. There are apps for mindfulness that provide guided meditation instruction, helpful infographics, and reminders.

Here at Mindful, we just created something called Mindful Interrupters: brief, 140-character-or-less updates that interrupt us when the mind is operating on overdrive.

Instead of unplugging, we could make an effort to practice mindfulness in digital spaces—or even practice before we enter them.

At the same time, unplugging does afford us something meaningful in that it gives us the physical space to do something else with our time. Who doesn’t need a reminder to stop texting or scanning Facebook? It’s a helpful reminder to give ourselves the space we sometimes forget to give ourselves when we’re caught up in the momentum of our thoughts.

So, are you unplugging this Friday? Have you implemented any mindful practices in your digital spaces?