I've just returned from the most amazing place. I'm not talking about Hawaii, where I spent the holidays with my daughters, my sister and my ex-husband -- though it was lovely, and all the more so because of the foot of snow that's greeted my return to New York. I'm talking about the week I spent unplugged, away from email, social media and TV. Occasionally unplugging from all our devices and techno-distractions is one of those seemingly small adjustments that actually have the power to transform the way we see the world, live our lives and interact with the people who matter most to us. The unplugged version of myself was better able to give these things my full attention -- which, as Daniel Goleman says, is "a form of love." And I was able to remember, to paraphrase Louis C.K., that no device or screen can match the HD quality of the actual world.
I don't want to give the impression that I was experiencing some unplugged paradise. Like any deliberate change in your life, unplugging is a process. Some things made it easier, like the fact that our Huffington Post offices were open on only two days out of the week that I was unplugged. And the fact that I spent a good part of the week putting the final touches on my Third Metric book, which has a lot to say about the value of unplugging and recharging. And some things made it harder, like being in a beautiful, scenic place that called out to be photographed many times a day. And the fact that my unplugging experience gave me ideas for stories about unplugging -- which I was then tempted to email to HuffPost editors with lots of enthusiasm and exclamation points. But I didn't.
One of my favorite definitions of mindfulness comes from Mark Williams, a clinical psychology professor at Oxford, who says that it "cultivates that ability to do things knowing that we're doing them." In the course of my unplugged week, I was very aware of being unplugged. And that awareness has made me more mindful about technology's role in my life, even now that I'm fully plugged in again.
Almost immediately, I was floored by the realization of just how much my phones had become almost physical extensions of myself. During the week, I was constantly reaching for my phone out of habit. Sort of like a phantom limb, only in my case it was a phantom BlackBerry.
It wasn't just my body. My mind was also racing with thoughts about my connectivity-related habits. I found myself thinking about my inbox. Was it piling up? Was I missing emails of earth-shaking consequence? By unplugging now, was I simply adding to my future stress by saving up emails I'd have to respond to later? It was a great relief to know that I had an away message explaining that I was on a digital fast, so at least I wasn't going to be insulting everyone I knew and loved by not promptly responding.
Since I was traveling with my daughters and my ex-husband, I had their (very different) tech habits all around me to consider. For my ex-husband, who hates phones, unplugging comes naturally. But my older daughter Christina is an Instagram devotee who kept instagramming photos and showing them to me. I was dying to re-gram them! But I didn't. It was like having an angel on one shoulder and a devil (with an iPhone) on the other. When we were surrounded by gorgeous views, I felt the tug of my old habits -- I wanted to snap photos and tweet them, post them on Facebook, etc., etc., etc. I had pre-scheduled several inspirational quotes to run on my social media accounts while I was away and unplugged, but a big part of me wanted to share my real-time experiences.
In fact, I found that pre-scheduling inspirational quotes to run while I was unplugged did not work very well, because many of my Facebook friends and Twitter followers thought I was breaking my fast and got very upset with me, as I found out during the one hour a day I had allowed myself to check in with the office on the days the office was open. This is one of the most endearing things about going public with a challenge, as I had found out in 2011, when Cindi Leive and I had taken a similar pledge about sleeping more. The whole world suddenly becomes your babysitter, conspiring to make sure you honor your commitment.
Unplugging meant rediscovering and savoring the moment for its own sake. Which is to say, taking in a view without tweeting it. Eating a meal without instagramming it. Hearing my daughters say something hilarious and very shareable without sharing it.
I came away with a few concrete lessons. For one, unplugging is easier when you change locations. In Hawaii, where everything was different from my day-to-day life in New York, I was away from the surroundings and routines that usually trigger my hyper-connected habits. It also helped that I could eliminate the temptation by putting my phone in the hotel safe together with any valuables. (It occurs to me that, for all these reasons, hotels have a great opportunity to help their guests unplug. Maybe they can call it "Check In to Check Out." Just saying!)
My unplugging protocol also raised a few questions. For example, during the hour of office check-in each day I had allowed myself, what happens if your daughter walks in the room and wants to chat? Do you add some time to the hour? Is that cheating?
Even though the unplugging portion of the Unplugging Challenge is over, we will continue to examine the benefits and challenges here on HuffPost. Mika Brzezinski and Cindi Leive, my partners in the Challenge, will be blogging about their own unplugging experiences, and on Thursday, the three of us will be on Morning Joe to talk about how it went and what we learned, and yes, own up to the times we fell short. On HuffPost, we'll be continuing the conversation on our dedicated section Screen Sense, including through partnerships with organizations like National PTA, whose president, Otha Thornton, recently wrote about how limiting time on digital devices can help families make the most of their time together.
If you joined us in the Unplugging Challenge, please let us know in the comments section how it went and what the experience taught you.
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