Let’s get the obvious out of the way: you can’t read these words without an electronic device connected to the Internet. So there’s a point at which “Chasing Minimalism” (the blog) and “chasing minimalism” (the lifestyle) diverge. In the past few weeks, I’ve been exploring the intentional unplug. I’ve found that just a few minutes a day has made me a more mindful dad, husband and yes, employee.
First, a brief aside. I ran the Montgomery County Parks Half Marathon today. It’s my favorite race of the year. The course is nearly flat, the start is close to home and I have run a good chunk of it many times on my own. The organizers do a wonderful job, and they keep the number of runners small. The weather is usually great — today was no exception. And I had my friend Sankar alongside me for most of the race as he prepares for his first marathon. Fun coincidence: my bib number, 807, was my address for two years in college.
Today’s Parks run was my fourth in a row. But it had a slightly different, slightly more somber feel for the 15th anniversary of 9/11. We had black shirts and black race bibs with American flags on them. Meanwhile, by chasing the 1:50 pacer the whole time, I knew I was pushing myself harder than usual. Unlike last year’s race, where I hit 12 miles and knew I had enough energy to nail the finish, my mind started to slip into the what-ifs at that point today.
Then something remarkable happened. The random running playlist in my ears switched to U2’s “Walk On.” This song was written to honor Aung San Suu Kyi, but I’ve always thought of it as an anthem about making difficult choices and rebuilding. The band played it at nearly every stop on the Elevation tour. U2 released it as a single in the United States shortly after 9/11, when it took on additional meaning.
It lifted my spirits today as it had 15 years ago. I beat my previous half-marathon record by almost a full minute.
I suppose it’s fair to say that without technology, if I were left only with the sounds of footsteps and heavy breathing, I would have finished today’s race a lot later. And this makes the theme of today’s blog a little ironic.
To unplug is to disconnect, to spend time intentionally outside the embrace of technology. To live life in the moment instead of worrying about reproducing that moment for later.
Lindy and I are about a month into an experiment that I think will end up a permanent part of home life. No devices in the bedroom except for setting the alarms on our phones. And no devices at the dining room table. We have space, and time, set aside elsewhere at home for this now.
Three things happened recently that made us want to do this. I’d been reading weekly Screen-Free Bedroom updates from the excellent Slow Your Home blog. I also grabbed The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection from the library. And Lindy and I were sitting in bed one too many times, separately scrolling mindlessly through our respective social media feeds at the end of a long day and realizing we weren’t really spending time together.
The book is a fascinating read. It’s written by a curmudgeonly magazine writer who happens to be younger than I am. It examines the notion that we are the last generation to know what life was like before everyone was constantly online — before smart phones and social media and the Internet of Things. What’s new isn’t change itself or the scale of change. Centuries ago, Gutenberg made it possible to shift from verbal to printed communication, putting a lot of storytellers out of business. But today’s rapid pace of change in communication is stunning. It’s also something the next generation won’t even think about. We’ve got to think about this as parents of a kid who’s too young for her own phone or tablet now, but not for long. She needs to see us modeling good behavior. That’s tough when we feel like a piece of us is missing if we happen to go outside for a walk without our phones.
A few weeks ago, we saw John Oliver live at the Kennedy Center. Early in his long, masterful set, he taunted a fellow audience member for shooting video of the performance with his cell phone. “Now’s not a good time for me to have this experience,” he mocked. “I’d rather watch this later, tiny, and much worse.” He managed to capture in a couple sentences what has always bothered me about people watching concerts through their cell phones.
What I’ve noticed in a few weeks of limiting screen time at home? I’m sleeping a bit better, likely because the glow isn’t keeping me awake. The limits have spilled over into other areas of life, and for the better! I am far less tempted to use Facebook, Twitter, Feedly and email to fill the little pauses in life. I don’t automatically reach for my phone every time I’m waiting in line or get bored in a meeting at work. I am reclaiming my time and attention from advertisers and from mindless distractions. Even in a frighteningly fascinating election cycle, I don’t feel like I’m missing much.
I’m fortunate enough to now have a job that doesn’t require a 24/7 connection to work, and where email response measured in minutes or even hours is the expectation — not seconds, as I’ve had before. So I’ve turned off email notifications on my phone, remembering to check a couple times an hour if I happen to be away from my desk. I’m calmer. The dings and pings and the constant shifting from one activity to email and back again isn’t very productive. But I’m still able to practice Inbox Zero anyway. And I am still saving things to read later, even though I’ve been turning more to books and less to Instapaper of late.
I’ve removed the Facebook app from my phone and disabled notifications for everything except phone calls and text messages, which unfortunately still make me jump when they arrive. It’s a work in progress. I was at a two-day retreat for Leadership Montgomery this week, an intense and humbling experience in remote Pennsylvania. Devices were not part of the program except during breaks and after hours. But this was the precise moment Greater Greater Washington chose to run a long-planned blog post I wrote about Metro. My Twitter feed was blowing up. People were commenting! Real-time feedback on my writing sends the dopamine hits flying. I stayed more plugged in than I wanted.
How to unplug
Here are a few things I’d consider doing if you’re interested in your own unplugging experiment.
Take a social media sabbatical, letting the excellent writer (and Northwestern grad) Catherine Andrews show you how.
Disable every single notification on your phone that you and your loved ones don’t depend on for health or safety. Delete specific social media apps and occasionally check your feeds using your mobile browser instead if you must.
Designate areas in your house and times in your day for screen use, instead of letting everywhere and all the time be the norm.
Don’t check your phone until you’ve been awake for a half hour. Meditate, exercise, read a book or just sit and drink your coffee in peace instead.
Take the It Can Wait pledge and remember that your kids in the back seat are watching you use your phone while you drive.
Consider living without sharing for a bit, or sharing in person.
And remember that the lives of our friends and family members through the lens of social media are not their real lives. This content is filtered, idealized and glamorized. Real life is full of triumphant soccer practices and half-hour screaming fits. How many of the latter have you seen on Facebook?
I’m going to continue to unplug in new ways as I discover them. Maybe if we all do, we can have a more mindful world even in this time of nonstop information.
Also published on Medium.