The life-changing benefits of unplugging
When I emailed Nick George, executive director of nonprofit The Listening, earlier this year, a line under his email signature grabbed my attention. “I am offline from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday, when I observe a ‘tech sabbath’,” it read.
I was intrigued and asked Nick to tell me more.
Nick says he has been taking a 24-hour break from technology for a couple of years after getting the idea from a friend’s email signature as well. During this time frame, Nick says he spends time with family, catches up on errands and will even talk on the phone or FaceTime with his parents—so it’s not completely tech-free, but there’s no absentminded scrolling through social media or responding to emails. “There’s something nostalgically simple about it. I find myself appreciating the weekend more,” says Nick.
According to Alisha Walker Marciano, Ph.D., professor of physiological science at University of Lynchburg, reducing exposure to technology, even for short periods of time, is helpful to prevent what’s known as cognitive overload. “We might be doing work on the computer and have five tabs open and a phone next to us. This requires us to constantly shift our attention, leading to cognitive overload,” she explains. “Having that happen constantly can be problematic because it keeps people from being able to focus on the tasks they are trying to complete. It can make people feel more fatigued.”
All of this connects to our social and emotional health as well. Marciano says that some past research has found if a cell phone was present in a face-to-face conversation, the individuals in that conversation reported feeling less connected to the people they were speaking to.
Social media, in particular, is of specific concern. Constant use of the platforms has been linked to excessive feelings of depression and anxiety. “One study found that people who gave up Facebook for a week actually reported better psychological wellbeing than people who did not,” she says.
If you aren’t glued to your phone, you may be more likely to get outside and enjoy the outdoors—which Marciano explains is linked to tons of benefits: “Exposure to nature, even if it’s just going on a walk in a neighborhood, improves attention, is associated with better mood, lowers stress, and improves short term memory.”
Marciano recognizes that not everyone is going to want to disconnect or be able to disconnect for a full 24 hours, like Nick. But she says there are smaller ways people can reduce distractions:
• Put your phone on “do not disturb” for a little while each day.
• Cut down on the number of notifications you receive from various apps.
• Set boundaries for certain times of the day to stop checking work emails or social media.
• Keep your phone at a distance at bedtime and overnight.
“It doesn’t have to be all or nothing to be beneficial,” she says. “Generally, being more intentional about your use of technology, having a purpose and using it with a purpose will help you reduce how much time you spend online.”
Two years after he started setting some tech boundaries, Nick doesn’t feel restricted but instead views the tech-free time as a gift.
“It’s not intended to be legalistic or bar you from getting work done,” he explains. “But at the same time, if your intention is to take care of your mind and spirit, it’s totally worth it to leave work at work and live your best life on purpose!”