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Gwenn Schurgin O'Keeffe, MD Headshot

My Year Unplugged: How I Found My Off Switch

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At the kick off of this year's National Cyber Security Awareness Month last week in Boston, the closing panel discussed "10 Years of Cybersecurity: How Far We've Come and How Far We Need to Go." It was a great review of every topic imaginable from the technologies we've all experienced to the impact on our lives and the remolding of our social norms. Projecting about where we may be heading over the next decade was a great way to end the afternoon. Of course, the only predictions that may come true over the next decade are that we will have more technology that will be smaller, and likely smarter, and the impact on our lives will continue to be profound and very real. Beyond that, it's truly anyone's guess.

As the panel talked, I found myself reflecting on how technology has impacted my life over the last decade, particularly around the themes of citizenship and social norms. My mind started running down a "then and now" list of sorts. Here are some of the items I started to think about:

  1. A decade ago, friends would talk on the phone and meet in community spots for lunch, coffee, play dates with kids. Today, "friends" chat online, "like" each other's comments and posts and meet via Skype or Google+ Chats but not as much offline. A decade ago, we didn't have social media just media and much of it was printed.
  2. A decade ago, people would make eye contact if they saw someone they knew while walking in a mall, street, cafe. Today, eye contact is rare, often because most people are looking down at a digital device.
  3. A decade ago, people would talk to their table mates when out together at a cafe or restaurant. Today, it is not uncommon to see people gathered at the same table but not interacting because each person is mesmerized by his or her digital device.
  4. A decade ago, when people wrote a blog post, people read it and engaged. Today, people read blogs but hardly engage.
  5. A decade ago, only your closest friends knew your deepest secrets. Today, people share everything about everyone.
  6. A decade ago, people did not feel the need to connect with everyone all the time. There was a boundary between work and play and some discretion in where conversations occurred. Today, people work all the time and anywhere and conversations occur all the time and anywhere.
  7. A decade ago, people valued being nice to each other. If someone bumped into you while walking, typically that person would say "excuse me" or "I'm sorry." Today, people are distracted, feel entitled and hardly apologize.

As I sat there listening to the panel, I also realized we still had a great deal of work to do in all our communities and much of that work had to do with helping people learn to not only not fear technology but create more balance in their lives. I had that a-ha! moment in my own life, in fact, about a year ago, sitting in another conference. It was a surreal moment when I realized that what I needed to do was unplug and take a step away from the plugged in world where people claimed to be connected and back into the real world without plugs where I hoped to find connection again. I had no idea what would occur but I knew one thing for sure sitting in that conference room: I had to get offline for a while and regroup.

To be honest, it was never my intention to be so off the grid for so long but I found myself becoming so refueled and enjoying life so much that it just turned out that way. Here's a few of the areas I found have made huge differences in my ability to stay more balanced with plugs in the mix:

  1. I found myself naturally checking email less and only replying to the emails that mattered. Today, I only check email twice a day and still don't respond immediately.
  2. I learned to make better use of texting. It's truly one of the best tools for connecting with people to explore offline time and stay connected to family out of state.
  3. I rediscovered true connections with friends and hobbies I didn't think I had time for -- and all offline.
  4. I learned that saying "no" to events and commitments that didn't have value for being away from my family was ok to do.
  5. I learned that turning off the technology not only didn't destroy my life or career but actually enhanced both.

What started off as a planned small unplugged reprieve turned into a new lifestyle. Today, I feel completely refreshed with a newfound balance and relationship between me and the plugs. Over the last decade, I've actually come full circle. I connected, disconnected, and reconnected... but this time with the off switch close at hand.