I Went Offline for 5 Weeks, This is What I Learned

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The anti-modern switch - I am downgrading. 

Earlier this week, I shared my story about missing work for several months after being in a ski accident and the unfortunate recipient of a concussion. My fifth mild traumatic brain injury, I suffered from fairly serious Post Concussion Syndrome and still have some lingering symptoms.

When I was able to return to the office, my doctor would only allow me to work part-time for five weeks to ease my brain back into activity. As part of this arrangement, he asked me to not use screens or the internet in my spare time. The logic being that I would already be using a screen for most of my time at work and that resting after work should include a break from this kind of activity. 

This was almost unfathomable for someone who loves to be connected. My job position is in Marketing and Communications, which is a dream for me as I love technology, social media, and digital life. I have always believed that technology is an extension of ourselves, and that how we use technology is more a reflection of ourself than a problem with technology. I've never blamed the phone for the person who won’t stop texting at the dinner table - it’s the person who is being a jerk. So whenever someone has asked me if I’d ever consider unplugging, my answer has usually been to scoff at the mere suggestion.

However, I was curious as to what I would learn from an internet hiatus, and also hopeful that it may help with my healing process and return to work. So here it is..  An epic journey from hyper-connectivity to the doldrums, mundanity and refreshment of an unplugged life. I will try to convey my expectations, lessons learned, disappointments, and ultimately, what the future holds.

I don’t think there is a way to convey this all succinctly, so it is going to be a long read, but maybe that is fitting considering the 140 character lifestyle I was eschewing. At the very least it will serve as a good reminder to myself in the future.

A quick note about of how I was connected during this time: Since I was half time at work, we had a volunteer come on to take over our social media activities, meaning my time at work generally consisted of email, meetings and strategic planning. I also stopped using text and instant messaging (Gtalk) as this is no different than using a mobile device for internet use. 


I didn’t have any expectations going into this as it wasn’t really my idea, or my choice. This isn’t like giving up booze or junk food where I could expect to lose weight or sharpen my mind and wits by laying off the sauce. However, after one day of not using the internet, I decided to write down some possibilities and expected outcomes from my hiatus. I think addressing these expectations one by one is the best way to talk about what I learned through this process, so here we go, in no particular order…

1. I expect to feel better. 

Rest is the most important thing for concussion recovery. That being said, sitting at home all day and not being able to read, exercise or engage in long conversations is not easy. Picking up a tablet or phone and surfing mindlessly was an easy way to pass the time prior to my internet hiatus. I was skeptical that giving up internet time would help me feel better, but I think it did. Maybe it was just more time that helped, but I feel much, much better today than I did five weeks ago.

2. I expect to be a maniac.

You want to talk about withdrawal symptoms? Try turning the mobile data and text messaging off on your phone. I still carried my phone - as I wanted voice calls - but the first few days of no data or sms were characterized by what I would call “notification frenzy”. Notification frenzy is the constant desire or urge to check your phone for a missed alert. Similarly, it took a few days before I would stop feeling the urge to click my Facebook bookmark on my computer at work. Thankfully it eventually passed, but it was quite an eye opener to how crazily connected I was.

3. I expect to be bored. 

No doubt. Man, did I get bored. The unfortunate thing about this entire process is that I am still dealing with some serious mental and physical limitations due to my injury. So I couldn’t spend the five weeks reading twenty novels or working out like a fiend. Most of my days were still characterized by fatigue and the need to rest as I ramped up my work schedule. At the same time, I found that when I can’t kill boredom with mindless Facebook/Twitter/Web surfing, it opens up a fair amount of time for other things.

4. I expect to become more aware of my surroundings.

This definitely occurred, but not to the extent I had hoped because I am still very much a mush-head. Not having my face buried in a device all the time definitely opened up my eyes to what was going on around me. Ironically, when this first started happening my first inclination was to tweet, instagram, or text what I was seeing to others. Eventually I learned to just enjoy these simple moments for myself, which was one of my favourite learnings of the whole hiatus.

5. I expect to become more aware of the people around me. 

Uh yeah. I really began to start relishing time spent talking to people, whether in-person or on the phone. And I will say this - I would have never typified my group of friends as being unengaged or consumed by their phones in the past, but trying to spend time with people when they are constantly on their phones can be maddening. There were many times when I wanted to grab a friend’s phone and chuck it into a brick wall. Obviously, this was largely me projecting my current state on to my friends, but this led to probably my biggest lesson from going offline…

No more text messaging.

A quick caveat - I have long been known to be a horrendous person to speak to on the phone. Many a girlfriend has lashed out at this shortcoming (among many other shortcomings), so it was a rather ambitious step to force people to call me.

Not texting for five weeks was an epiphany. Actually talking to people when they call is not only refreshing, it prevents having to spend ten times the amount of time trying to convey the same message via text. Yes, there were times when it was inconvenient to call - like when I had to reschedule a meeting with three different dudes and had to call each of them - but these times were the exception.

When I watched people get lost in their phones when I was hanging out with them, it was almost always because they were texting others. Prior to my hiatus I would have defended this kind of activity, after all they are probably just staying connected with a friend or maybe even inviting them out to join us. The thing is, a simple phone call could sort all of it out in less than 30 seconds and wouldn’t require interrupting a real life conversation every two fucking minutes.

*In the last month I spent 588 minutes talking on the phone, and sent 3 text messages - all in response to my boss. Compare that to 63 minutes and 912 texts the month before.*

There were a lot people I didn’t get talk to this month because we didn’t text, but the people I did get to talk with more than made up for it. You can learn a lot more about a friend, and what is actually going on in their life, through two minutes on a phone than through 50 texts. So sayonara SMS!

7. I expect to become more focused. 

Yes and no. At work, not having to do social media meant I could really focus on a mile long to-do list. There is a line of thinking out there that multi-tasking is actually inefficient and makes us less productive and more stressed. I was amazed at how much I could accomplish at work by tackling tasks one at a time. In my home life, I didn’t notice much of a difference.

8. I expect to become more critically engaged.

Not Googling everything is hard. Really hard. Recipes, inane facts, directions, how-to videos are all just a click away. Not searching online forced me to either learn on my own, or enlist the help of others to do certain things. For example, I used some of the spare time I had to refinish the furniture in our house. Ordinarily, I would have googled the hell out of it to figure out what to do and avoided asking or engaging others for help. Instead, I had to rely on the advice of others, Home Depot people, and brainstorming between Kate and myself. I think this made us more prone to mistakes, but it also made it more of a learning process and ultimately more rewarding.

9. I expect to lose weight.

Negative. I may have stopped the onslaught of pounds from two months couch time though, so maybe that is a small win.

10. I expect to experience new places.

A little. I managed to spend some time at the public library - I needed a woodworking book after all, but aside from that I was generally limited to staying close to home. I may have also gotten a small taste of Italy by learning how to make sausage from some crazy old Italians.

11. I expect to learn new ways of doing things. 

Definitely. As mentioned above with the furniture and sausage making, relying on other peoples expertise is something I could definitely learn to do more.

12. I expect to have some of the basic assumptions of how I live my life challenged.

Oh boy. I am still sorting this one out.

There are lots of things I missed. I do miss the people who would only contact me via text. I miss Twitter. I miss THE NEWS - I am a news junkie and love reading all different perspectives on happenings around the world. Being limited to local newspapers is a huge change from being able to access all the various news sites, blogs and alternative media available online.

However, I can’t overstate how thoroughly I enjoyed being unplugged. As I have slowly gone back online over the past few days I feel like I am giving something up more than I am getting something back. My phone has been whistling at me non-stop since I started writing this post, which is a total aggravation.

So yes, my basic assumptions are gone. Deciding on how to move forward is still up in the air.

13. I expect my closest relationships to improve. 

Getting to talk, via voice, to my closest friends and family on the phone every day was a huge treat. Strange thing, I remember an old friend who used to call me every Monday morning for just two minutes to check in and catch up. I used to really enjoy it, and genuinely appreciated the thought that went into doing it every week. A sincere thank you to all those that called me over the past five weeks, you literally made my day with each call.

14. I expect my relationship with my girlfriend to improve.

My girlfriend doesn’t want me to go back online. She called the last five weeks the “best five weeks of our relationship”. At times she called me a different person, and in a good way! So maybe this should be reason enough to not plug back in.

Strangely enough, I found myself resenting her every time she used her phone or computer during this time. Basically, I didn’t appreciate the interruptions! This may be a level of attentiveness that maybe she isn’t comfortable with, imagine that!

15. I expect to be disappointed. 

I have learned over and over in my life that there is no panacea to personal development. Which is saying something for someone who used to be a “born again” religious person. There is no magic switch that gets flicked and I become the man I want to be. There is only striving, then apathy, then disappointment, and then trying again…

Hopefully, coming out a little bit better than I was before.

I didn’t write every day, I didn’t exercise every day, I didn’t enter a level of spiritual consciousness that I was heretofore unaware of. But I do feel I learned a little bit more about myself, about what really matters to me, and maybe just a touch more of what I really want out of life.

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

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At 15 May 2013 at 14:02 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

What an breakthrough. I have made a conscious decision not to become dependant on my phone and so far I do not own a smartphone. I do like email but make a point of useing the phone if A0 I have not spoken to that person for a while or I anticipate that it will take me 30 minutes to type what I can say in 5. My biggest beef aside from the person who constantly checks for messages are people who are oblivious to the fact they are not alone and conduct loud and very personal conversations in public places.


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