The Summer I Unplugged

I sat criss-cross applesauce on the tile floor, the window open in front of me, a hot breeze winding around my legs. Voices drifted in from the table on the patio below, and every few minutes a burst of deep laughter would float up to my ears. Out the window of the ancient home, set high into the hills of Porticcio, Corsica, I could see the sun setting behind the mountains, spreading a pink and orange light from where it dipped into the Mediterranean Sea up and over the trees and onto my toes. It was stunning. And I was not enjoying a second of it.

I was hot. And tired. I missed my cat and my bed. My legs ached from hiking, my hair sticky and salty from the ocean. I was running out of clean underwear. I wanted to escape, just for a minute or two. So I picked up my cell phone and turned it on, its familiar weight in my hand instantly pacifying. The telltale white glow bathed the room in an unnatural light. My thumb swiped the screen tenderly, lovingly, searching for something to soothe my jittery thoughts and sunburned shoulders. And then I remembered. Damnit. I tossed the phone onto the bed from my spot on the floor, my hands finding each other in their emptiness. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and let my head fall back into the wall. With nothing to distract me, I’d have to stay here, alone with my thoughts, for better or for worse.


 

For me, summer “vacation” is a time for experimenting. (I use those quotation marks because if you are, know, or love a teacher, you know just how little of this mandatory unpaid time is actually spent vacationing. If you’re one of those people that thinks that teachers get two free months of leave each year, let’s chat.) It’s the time that I reflect on each year, take note of the places where I thrived and struggled, and take time to recalibrate to make the next school year better. Sometimes I plan these experiments ahead of time, and sometimes I don’t even realize that I’m in the middle of them until I feel something changing.

This summer, I had no idea that was setting myself up for an experiment at all. All year, we’ve been planning a summer vacation: three weeks roadtripping across France, Switzerland, and Italy. We planned bits and pieces over 2018, booking Air BnB’s, reserving a rental car, reading through travel blogs. Somewhere in March, I said, “I think I’ll unplug for this trip, so I can really enjoy it.” My husband looked up, shocked, and then tried to discreetly hide it behind a cough. “Oh, okay,” he said, still fake-coughing. “Sounds great.”

It was an honest reaction. Because I live my life – for lack of a better term – so utterly plugged-in. Between social media, email, online research and reading, freelance writing, professional development, and running my little Fitz brand, I spend a huge amount of my time online. And while we have rules about tech use in our home and I attempt to spend time unplugged everyday, it doesn’t always work out that way. Being a librarian, an educator, a writer, a consultant, a millennial (an old one, but still, I make the cutoff): whatever I want to blame it on, I struggle to spend time disconnected. I knew this about myself before I packed my suitcase.

But as our trip loomed closer and the time came to make a choice the tech I was packing, I thought, how hard can this really be? So I left my laptop, tablet, and Apple Watch behind. I refused international cell service, meaning no phone calls or voicemail. I set my text messaging service to Do Not Disturb with a vacation message in case any messages came through on wifi (I did use an SMS messaging program to touch base with immediate family, because I love my mother and didn’t want her nerves about my travel to kill her). I set vacation responders on all of my email addresses and deleted Gmail from my phone. While I was at it, I deleted Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, Hulu, and Netflix. My phone was a lovely paperweight with a great camera.

This summer, I completely unplugged. Here’s what I learned.

Technology addiction is real – even if you think you’re above it.

 I teach healthy use of technology and balance as an important part of my job. I’m thoroughly trained in digital citizenship and stay up to date with news and research on digital wellness and mental health. I talk to my middle school students all the time about social media and purposefully model positive use for them. And I force myself to spend time away from my devices everyday. So I can’t be addicted… right? Wrong. Hi, my name is Sarah, and I’m addicted to my phone. I had no idea just how addicted I was to that dopamine hit that comes with logging on until I removed it completely.

You can’t unplug halfway.

Less than 24 hours after landing in Switzerland, I felt the first itch. We were settled into the hotel, getting ready for bed, and I had a few minutes to spare – and no idea how to use it. For those first 24 itchy hours, I  thought that I could leave myself connected to wifi, with notifications on, and just choose not to participate. But I found myself with an unbelievable compulsion to grab my phone and respond. That’s weird, I thought. Must be an off day.

But the next morning by breakfast, the itch had turned into a panic. What’s happening without me? What am I missing? How am I supposed to just not respond? It was then that Mr. Fitz, in his gentle but firm style, pointed out that what was happening here was not unplugging. It was more like slow torture. And because I was incapable of having the apps on my phone and not checking them, we did the unthinkable: we deleted them and left the phone in the hotel room. I’d love to tell you that I sucked it up, had some coffee, and moved on. But the truth is that it took days for these FOMO jitters to fade and allow me to focus on the present, and even longer for me to stop seeing my days through the lens of, But how will I post this? Even after I adjusted, I still had moments where all I wanted was the comfort of my screen (see: the great Corsican freak-out, above). My habits are deeply ingrained, and they’ll take far longer than three weeks to break.

It can be solitary and boring offline. Isn’t that wonderful?

If you’re a go-er and a do-er like me, your life is likely filled with delicious distractions. Driving, I listen to audiobooks; cleaning, podcasts; cooking, the news or Netflix; downtime is dedicated to reading novels or articles. My brain is constantly powered on, listening or poring over text, receiving, decoding, and organizing information. The same goes for loneliness. With thousands of digital companions one swipe away, I’m never really alone. My phone can connect me with millions of people all over the planet instantly.

In principle, this is a wonderful thing, but in practice, I abuse it. I’m constantly experiencing and learning new material without giving my brain any time to truly digest and reflect on it. Chronically connected with thousands of people, without building any real connections. Taking away my safety net forced me to spend time alone, process what I was seeing and doing, and reflect on what was happening. I had been drowning out my own brain for so long, I had no idea that it, too, had worthwhile things to say.

It’s easiest with some support.

I’ll be honest – it’s not that hard to put your phone away when you’re wandering the French countryside. And with a built-in failsafe – no international cell service – I couldn’t really change my mind or give in. If I had been home, sitting in my living room, this probably wouldn’t be a blog post. But still, I found it helpful to have support. I let my husband and my family know of my goals on the first day of the trip, admitted when I was feeling shaky, and talked through my weird, withdrawal-like symptoms as they came. Because they knew what I was trying to do, they were supportive and more mindful of their tech use around me, which made it infinitely easier.

It’s hard to let go of control.

I’m not sure I need to say much here. Teachers, librarians, humans… whatever you are, you probably like to be in charge. Stepping away from your online life feels an awful lot like relinquishing control, whether you’re focused on personal FOMO or readers forgetting your brand. This was one of the most difficult things for me. For years, I’ve kept up an intentional social media presence by posting on my Fitz accounts almost every single day. Three weeks off felt a lot like brand suicide. In retrospect? It was about control. Nobody noticed nearly as much as I did, but they did welcome me back with excitement when I returned.

Not everyone will be on board.

Unplugging is complicated because it’s a personal decision, but it effects the people around you as well. My librarian gig is a full time job (and the emails, planning, and meetings go year-round), I teach part-time at a local yoga studio, and keep myself busy with the writing, posting, and collaborating I do for Fitz Between the Shelves. So the truth is, when I log out, I leave a lot of people hanging. I did my best to prepare to unplug, but still left some holes. Not everyone was thrilled with my taking 3+ weeks off from my regular life. And that’s okay.

Next time, I will lay more groundwork before powering down. I’ll let a wider circle know my plans and work harder to have my ducks in a row before I power down. While unplugging and spending time for myself is important, it’s also important for me to respect and support my teammates, regardless of my personal plans.

Fitness isn’t reliant on a tracker.

I’ve been tracking my exercise and heart-rate for years using a fitness tracker or smart watch. I love exercise and love data, so seeing graphs and charts of my activity and heart-rate is a dream come true. When I took my watch off before we left for the airport the morning of our trip, I could feel my heartbeat drop to my toes. I had been tracking my movement and exercise for so long, letting those little colored digital rings tell me if I was healthy or not – would I know how to make good decisions without them?

The result was not at all what I expected. Obviously, removing my smart watch helped me to distance myself from my digital habits. But with no digital data to rely on, I was also forced to pay closer attention to my body’s signals. My app couldn’t tell me if I slept well, so I had to note in the morning – do I feel well rested, or should I go to bed earlier tomorrow? At the end of a long hike, instead of reviewing calories burned or elevation climbed, I stretched and checked in with my muscles. How did I feel, and how could I use that information to plan our next hike? My body had been giving me data all along, I just preferred the ease of what my watch delivered.

It takes time to remember how to be a person offline.

Full disclosure: I wasn’t my best self that first few days away from my phone. The crutch that I normally used to appease anger,  lessen annoyance, cure boredom, or even to punctuate my happiness, was gone. Suddenly, I had to actually feel my feelings and sit through my downtime. It felt like my brain was detoxing, having to relearn habits and deal with unpleasantness I had grown accustomed to passing over.

What surprised me wasn’t the difficulty of the detox process, but how quickly my brain adjusted. Before I fully understood what was happening, I stopped reaching for my phone. From there, it was up to me to shift my attitude to match my thought process. Being present and living in the moment is beautiful in principle, but in practice, its a skill that needs to be practiced in order to be maintained, just like creativity and curiosity. Incidentally, those three blossomed in tandem for me. As it turns out, I really like my brain when its not tethered to a cell phone.

The world goes on, even when you’re not looking up. 

It’s a simple lesson, but it has taken me this long to realize it. If I had chosen not to unplug, our trip would still have been fantastic. We would still have seen beautiful things, eaten amazing food, and spent quality time together. But I would have missed so much. For me, the beautiful moments are lovely, but the growth and reflection happen in the difficult and frustrating moments. While I now know that I’ve been missing many of those moments thanks to the pacification of my cell phone, I can’t know how much personal growth that has already cost me. And I can’t know how many lovely moments and experiences I’ve missed while scrolling through Instagram.

So, what now?

That’s a great question. Ten days post returning to the States, I’m still working through my reflections of our time away and their impact on me. Instead of jumping back in with both feet upon returning home, I decided to move slowly and intentionally, and add each app or digital connection back as I felt the need for it. So far, I’m about 50% as connected as I was when I left. But honestly, we all love to try and hold onto our vacation selves after returning to our everyday lives. It’s not always possible. Knowing this, I have a few questions on my mind as I head back to work this week:

  • How can I unplug and step away from my devices outside of work hours, when I am unable to work on those devices during work hours because I am giving my full attention to my school community?
  • How can I balance solitary time with a job that requires constant connection?
  • How can I best communicate what I have learned about technology addiction to my students, who are likely struggling just as unknowingly with similar issues?
  • How long can I hold onto this mindset that slow, quiet, and solitary are worthwhile goals? And how can I find my way back here when I lose track?

I don’t have any answers for you yet, but I’m looking forward to learning. Thanks for your patience with my inconsistent posting this summer as I stepped away. I received all of your comments and emails, and am working my way through them. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you ever completely unplug? Have you had a similar moment of reckoning? What helps you to find balance between digital and offline time?

 

Check out some of my other reflections. In 2015, I pushed myself out of my comfort zone by taking a makerspace gig. In 2016, I stepped into the shoes of my students and read from a required reading list. Last summer, I hit the pause button and barely read at all. How do you spend your summers?

2 thoughts on “The Summer I Unplugged

  1. I am very non tech – so I found this post enlightening. From my experience you don’t need to be On all the time. In fact it’s better for you to have downtime – away and off the grid so to speak – time to recharge and spend some quiet time…..best of luck finding your own balance!

    Like

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