Disciplined Unplugging for Fun & Profit

Note:  Those of you who know me may also know that for a long time my family complained about my Blackberry use, that I had this PDA holstered at all times, that I love social media and that I had been known to compulsively text while driving.  This makes me busy & productive, but also diffused- not Conscious or On Purpose.   About a year ago, it came to me that I wanted  a different quality of work and creation, restful and easy, so I started to unplug- first a little bit each day, then around bedtime, then increasing blocks of time this year: 2 days, then 4, then almost completely for 10 days on a vacation.  The result:  incredibly fecund creativity, deeper connections and relationships, a doubling of my income, and I’m 10 pounds lighter.   I started listening in to the most productive, highest level people I know, and they all, to a one, have the habit of disciplined unplugging.  This piece is the result of that inquiry.

We love the internet but…..

The Pew Center for Internet Research says the web has made information “abundant, cheap, personal & participatory”.  It has given us information we need, when and where we need it.  We now have the ability to keep connected despite being such a mobile world- with tighter ties with far flung friends and family (free Skype calls to Europe, anybody?). Some have even called the web an external hard drive for humanity, a sort of intermediate stage collective consciousness.

However, from an attention standpoint, we’ve all been hit with a one-two punch:  first, there’s been a huge shift in the sheer volume of information consumed (a 2009 UC study claimed an increase of 350% in the amount of information consumed daily between 1980 and 2008), and second, there’s been a shift to pervasive interface (cell phones, smart phones, remote working, social networks, 1 minute news cycle, status updates).   This always-connected living has changed our collective habits (from CrackBerry use in meetings to texting while driving), the depth of our interactions and the structure of our brains.

The shift in the pace and method of information exchange is shifting the quality of our relationships and changing the quality of our outputs.  Moreover, the rapid news and ‘status’ cycles causes us to pay attention to stuff that often doesn’t relate to our goals.

To create defensible mental space, and do your best work, you have to block out the external noise and the distractions for a long enough period of time to get centered and to flow. Mihaly Cziksentmihaly, in Flow, talks about how great discoveries are made.  They aren’t the result of an “aha moment” in isolation.   Great insights happen after an extended period of immersion in the laboratory- or immersion in a question or topic of interest.

Continual intrusion breaks this flow and vacuums up your attention. We are collectively distracted online, or on our devices, and we do ourselves long term harm, not good (such as missing our greater evolution or calling, or engaging in less meaningful personal connections). To paraphrase Emily Yoffe in Slate:  we’re running in endless circles chasing information that doesn’t matter.

Linda Stone calls this Continual Partial Attention Syndrome. She asks a fundamental question about whether we’re actually even capable of doing good work with this quality of attention. ( Note: She also coined the term “screen or email apnea”- when you are so engrossed in what is happening on the screen that breathing actually stops).

Research suggests that it’s not just behavioral, but that the structure of our brains may be impacted by our changed behavior: our capacity to concentrate and flow and listen deeply is being lost.   NPR just did a piece (8/24/10) Digital Overload: Your Brain on Gadgets that speaks to this.

In order to counteract this shift and do our best work, we need some new defense mechanisms, and new habits.  But this can be a challenge, like changing any habit.


Why would this be hard?   There are some real addictive chemical impacts in the body, which, if you choose to take the unplugging challenge, you will be called on to override.  Seeking is one of the greatest human drives, and online information consumption, social networks, even the compulsive checking of email are all seeking behaviours.  In other words, they are wired into our chemical reward system.    That’s right: using Facebook creates constant little dopamine hits-  iDope.

But I know it’s not only the chemicals-  there is something about virtual working, about online working, about isolation that keeps us running to these networks.  I had to ask myself:  What is it about the connectedness that keeps me engaged?  Is it iDope?  Or is it more primal- the ego satisfaction of instant feedback?  Or is it laziness- the ease of slipping into reaction TO incoming news rather than autonomous self direction?  Is it the social anxiety that comes from being in a room of real people?  Do I think I will be missing something if I tune out for a while?

Creating a Perimeter Around Your Own Best Thinking

The hyper-social web necessitates new strategies and ground rules, so that you can take your life back to enable the deepest states of creative and productive flow.

You do have the option (if not the mandate) to take back your time- power over your time may be the greatest freedom.  With focused attention, and what I am calling disciplined unplugging, we can all get into our own “lab” frame of mind.  I’m not alone in this-  some have even made turning off the devices a spiritual practice: groups like the Sabbath Manifesto urge people to unplug one day a week, and even sponsor the National Day of Unplugging.

Getting Ready to Unplug

Here are some suggestions for creating an input buffer or perimeter to get to your deepest, most creative, most focused, most present and productive state of mind.

Your long term best interest: You may need an override thought to get away from the immediacy of communication today. You also have to believe that you are not going to miss out, so you can unplug with the confidence that “it” will always be there when you get back.  Tell yourself that no email is so important, nothing happening online in this moment, is so urgent that it comes before your own productive flow, the place where you can actually create and contribute.

Getting clear on your own intention:  What matters, what are you trying to discover, create, allow?  What will you pay attention to? What will you be concerned with and where will you allocate your time and attention resources?

Awareness/ Set the Baseline: Knowing your own patterns is a good place to start. How much actual undistracted time are you really getting?  How long can you go without checking email, phone, Facebook?   Are you getting yourself into a flow state daily?

Apps can help. For example, Rescuetime, which I’ve been trying for 2 weeks, tell me what’s on the front burner on my screen over the course of a day or a week, and you really get a chance to see the unvarnished numbers.  I’m really liking it, but have to say the total number of minutes on a site isn’t the only issue impacting flow- it’s how often am I interrupting some other high productivity task for a short hit of iDope.  No app has solved that yet.

Disciplined Unplugging

Every person I have spoken with on this subject claims some form of disciplined unplugging.

Off times/Off Days: There are two primary tactics for clearning the decks:  unplugging a little bit each day (off times) or unplugging for larger chunks of time (off days).  Buffers around sleep- morning and evening- seem to be the most popular.  For example, not checking email right on waking or right before bed, but instead using that time for analog activity, setting intentions for the day, or preparing for sleep.

Leave your device in the car: Yes, that’s right- if you can’t turn it off, or stop looking at it, leave it behind. When you are going into meetings, just lock it in the glove box.  At first you may experience some form of digital phantom limb syndrome, patting down your pockets looking for your device- but you get over it soon enough.

“My Telephone Number is a Precious Commodity”: Chris Sacca, one of the first Twitter investors and a leading VC in general, has a pretty strong fortification around his time.  He was speaking with a small group at Wanderlust last month, and talked about not allowing interruptions, especially things like phone calls on someone else’s time/agenda, to interrupt his flow- there were very few people who have his phone number.  He prefers asynchronous communication which keeps him in the drivers seat.  He also puts big buffers around time in relationship with his partner and in nature- even going so far as to choose to live in the Sierras and have people come to him.  Now that is cool as a cucumber.

Being an Earthling

Being alive in this body is a privilege.  We’re no longer doing the wide variety of activities we would otherwise do in an earlier era.  Our brains, our bodies, our relationships, our service and contribution are all out of balance when they are wired to the grid all the time.   All the benefits of the web and mobile access aside, it’s time to put more weight on the other side- to move, to get in nature, to think deeply, to work without interruption, to meditate, to dance- to create the mental space for deep creativity- to get back to focusing on what matters- the important signals, not the constant noise.

Train your brain to be still again: Meditation is sweet nectar.  Being able to be still, to have an empty container, a quiet lake in the mind, you can actually invite answers and questions to come to you.  To truly listen!  In this state, anything is possible, plus it is quite psychedelic and renewing- it induces Theta states which feeds the brain vital nutrients for higher baseline functioning.

“Be where your body is.”: Reverend Joyce Duffala makes it even simpler.  Your thoughts and attention can be focused on being right where you actually are.  This of course, doesn’t just apply to technological distraction, but to mind wandering in general.

Give your body back its full range of motion:  Do you know the physical signs of a right handed desk worker?  Overdeveloped forearms, deeper downward curve of fingers, wide ass, Thoracic spine curved forward,  rounded shoulders, head protruding, a hump at C7, defined strain in the right neck and right arm from ear holding and mouse movements, lower back strain?  Don’t be that person.  Daily use of full range of motion in all your joints, even opposition motion- this MANDATES getting off the devices and out from the screen.

Get back in nature:  Once you unplug, you may choose to take another step- get back into the natural world.   Take a real unplugged vacation- go camping or into a remote cabin or the seashore.

It’s my belief that our attention drives our actions, our actions build our experience and our experiences create our lives.

Disciplined unplugging offers a higher quality of intention, attention, and ultimately a richer and better life than the harried mode of operation produced by being constantly wired.

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