I’m drowning in e-mails, articles are piling up in my news reader and I have to send off a PDF. Looking at gadgets and screens every day, I swear I can feel the radiation bleeding out from my ears. I don’t want another app, website or whiz-bang service promising to help organize my life. No, what I need is a digital vacation.
But I can’t just drop everything, hang by the pool and read a trashy novel while sipping pina coladas. I’m addicted to gadgets, and it turns out, more than two-thirds of us check our phones for messages, alerts and calls, even when they’re not ringing or vibrating.
We love our gadgets. It’s become a badge of honor to be “on” all the time. But are we addicted to the work or the praise that comes from being connected? It seems it’s the latter.
“People who appear to be thriving on the nonstop workweek are really thriving on a job well done,” Leslie A. Perlow, author of “Sleeping With Your Smartphone,” wrote in a piece for Harvard Business Review. Often, we’re actually hooked on the praise, which comes from a distorted definition of success, and the cycle keeps us coming back for more.
You can’t blame the need for praise, and in this world, gadget use is increasingly necessary, but according to the New York Times, frequent gadget use can lead to what former Apple and Microsoft executive Linda Stone dubbed “continuous partial attention,” or CPA.
In a nutshell, CPA is the habit of looking at people, and the world, like they’re yet another screen. We already compulsively check our phones, e-mail and social media — and that carries over to real-life. Rather than gazing around to “take it all in,” we scan the horizon for something more interesting or urgent, and when we do it too much, stress levels can often rise and put a strain on our relationships.
Stone uses the term to refer to a mental state where we’re attuned to everything without fully concentrating. It’s a valuable skill in our hyper-connected world, she wrote on her site, but “in large doses, it contributes to a stressful lifestyle, to operating in crisis management mode, and to a compromised ability to reflect, to make decisions and to think creatively.”
It’s no secret chronic stress leads to illness. It raises the risk of heart disease, cold and flu and even allergies, according to the New York Times.
The challenge, then, is how to manage our attention span, according to Stone, and as we evolve beyond an “always-on” lifestyle, the choices we make — about how we use devices, how often we block off gadget-free time and what other activities we pursue — often determine how fulfilled we feel in our lives.
There is no app for that, but it starts with the off button.
When you plan that next getaway, choose something different: a “digital detox.” By taking a tech-free vacation, these destinations promise to rejuvenate your body, revitalize your brain and recharge your relationship. And instead of constant stimulation, you take a break from those electronic companions and interact the old-fashioned way — with each other.
“Camp Grounded” is a technology-free retreat for adults. When guests arrive, they check their accompanying “fear of missing out” at the front door and surrender their endless streams of electronic alerts and beeps. Instead, they indulge in yoga, canoeing and sing-alongs. It’s not about taking away gadgets, but putting something more restorative and peaceful in its place.
Talking about work is banned, and instead of real names, everyone is given a camp name. By removing the things that connect us in this wireless, oversharing, humble-bragging age, Camp Grounded, founded by Oakland-based Digital Detox, aims to build connections that run deeper than following one another on Facebook or Twitter.
“I was a vice president at a start-up in L.A. and I burned out,” Levi Felix, founder of Camp Grounded and Digital Detox, told me by phone. At the time, he and his girlfriend took what became a three-year sabbatical, traveling the world and even spending six months on an island without electricity. He explained how the journey taught him about life in the slow lane and inspired him to offer retreats to those who need a respite from their digital lifestyles.
For about $350, Felix says campers can indulge in three days of activities at a former Boy Scouts quarters in Navarro, Calif., about two and half hours north of San Francisco. Men and women are separated and housed in three-walled lean-tos with water-resistant sleeping pads, but they can bring their own tents if they prefer. Meals, meanwhile, are served with locally-sourced foods.
The activities emphasize the beauty and harmony of nature with opportunities for artful expression. Instead of a rifle range, for example, you can join the “typewriter range.” Felix said a typewriter lacks a delete key so writing on it means you have to make mistakes a part of the art.
“It is about being present,” he added. “Whatever you write, you have to go with.”
Campers are also encouraged to write “gratitude journals” and do what Felix calls “intra-gramming” — instead of snapping a photo to upload to Instagram, you do it the analog way, sketching it by hand.
“We provide the permission, space and the communal setting,” he said, adding that the weekend is more than just “surviving without technology” — it’s developing an affinity for natural beauty and simple things, whether they’re digital or not.
The focus on nature isn’t revolutionary — it’s an old idea retrofitted for the demands of the current age with American roots dating back to the 19th century.
While the nation was recovering from the ravages of the Civil War and the stress of industrialization, in 1869, a young Boston preacher named William H.H. Murray published one of the first wilderness guidebooks, “Adventures in the Wilderness,” which described the expansive Adirondacks mountain range in upstate New York.
At the time, American writers like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson argued for the spiritual value of nature, according to Smithsonian Magazine, but Murray’s book — complete with how-to tips and humor — struck a popular chord with readers. It gave enthusiastic descriptions of unsullied and verdant natural world — lakes shimmering “like gems… amid the fold of emerald-colored velvet” — as a balm to modern headaches.
As a result, harried Americans flocked to forests, lakes and wildlife in a “human stampede,” starting the trend and notion that nature can help heal whatever ails you — whether it’s wartime trauma, Reconstruction or your boss e-mailing you to work on weekends.
If making lanyards and hiking isn’t for you, the idea of detaching from devices is catching on in cushier vacation spots, as well. At a time when Wi-Fi is everywhere, hotels, like the Lake Placid Lodge, are inviting guests to leave their electronics at the front desk, what it calls a “tech blackout.” Their “check-in to check-out package,” which costs around $1,400 for two nights, includes lodging in a cabin, cooking class with their chef and hiking, boating, yoga and fishing throughout the stay. The idea is to immerse yourself in “the serenity of the Adirondacks,” a notion that would make Murray smile if he were alive today.
We actually have more than the traditional five senses of taste, touch, smell, hearing and seeing, and one of these, called “proprioception,” is the sense of your body’s orientation in space. Distinct from the sense of balance, it’s the reason you can read and snack at the same time without missing your mouth or interrupting your vision.
By staring at screens all the time, we aren’t developing these other senses like proprioception. Having an excellent ability to concentrate on a scrolling screen, it turns out, doesn’t exercise the same “brain muscles” as listening to a lecture, competing in sports or knitting a scarf. And by constantly looking at our phones, we’re improving our CPA, but weakening our ability to develop other types of focus and attention, such as “relaxed presence.”
Having a “relaxed presence” requires the mind and body to work in concert as they do in sports and self-directed play, Stone told The Atlantic in an interview. And people who use that method to explore their world are better able to concentrate in the moment, while experiencing less stress.
Viewing the world through a screen also saps empathy, she explained. As a learned ability to recognize emotions experienced by other people, empathy helps us form social bonds, in part through eye contact and gaze.
“If kids are learning empathy through eye contact, and our eye contact is with devices, they will miss out on empathy,” she told The Atlantic. That’s why when someone doesn’t look at you while they talk — whether it’s your phone-checking friend or a cashier giving your change — it feels rude. And often, bad behavior or even forgetfulness is the result of poor attention habits.
Digital detox camps, though, aim to develop our atrophied sense of relaxed presence and empathy by re-immersing us in the natural world and re-introducing depth and meaning into our interactions — helping us to fully engage our brains, look people in the eye and live a life beyond the screen.
If a beautiful resort in upstate New York isn’t in your cards, you can replicate the “off-the-grid” feeling in your own home. In fact, some of the world’s most successful people, such as Cisco’s chief technology officer Padmasree Warrior, are finding time to put down their devices and, gasp, ignore the Internet.
“I’ve taken Saturdays to be the day I pull back completely,” she told the Huffington Post at the Third Metric conference. “I do things that are more creative and I’ve actually found that helps me when I get back into work to be more thoughtful, and I truly believe that feeding your creative soul is really important to being more analytical.”
Like Warrior, you can ignore gadgets for a weekend afternoon or enforce a “no phones at dinner” rule when out with others. Or if you go for a few days, just leave the charger at home — it’ll force you to conserve battery only for important calls of e-mails.
Find a time that works for you, whether it’s a weekend or just a Saturday afternoon, but start making a list of things you’d like to do while you detox. Early birds, for example, can get up a bit earlier to take a walk or meditate.
And whether you go to a detox camp or just try one at home, don’t worry: the digital world will keep on ticking. It won’t disappear; it’s just waiting for you.
The choice is, though, how will you respond? ♦
Categories: Culture Desk | Features