Shortly after I first started teaching college communication classes, I came to the realization that I had no idea what I was in for. I had always heard that teachers brought their work home with them, but a little part of me assumed that was a reputation belonging only to primary and secondary educators, not professors. Needless to say, I was surprised by the amount of time my job started stealing from my life, between the grading, keeping up on reading discussion forums in my online classes, and the endless deluge of emails, most of which were answerable by a quick reply of, "Check the syllabus."
During my first year of teaching, it is fair to state that I spent six to seven hours a day on campus, but then another four hours a day at home, parked in front of a computer screen. This distribution of time continued for at least five days each week, but more often than not, all seven days. In a feeble attempt to make things better, I purchased my first smartphone and quickly synced all of my email accounts into one easily accessible place.
On the one hand, my phone freed me up from screen time, since my emails could all be answered on the run. I cut probably about three to four hours a day from my big-screen time, only to replace it with small-screen time. The only advantage to this was that I could be with my family physically during those extra hours.
Or could I?
My kids probably began to wonder if their father had a screen for a face, because that's all they saw when we were together. I can recall on more than one occasion starting an argument with my wife because I failed to fully pay attention to her or the kids. While I had made a step in the right direction of becoming more physically available, that physical availability was actually worse than being physically absent. Why? The reason starts with recognizing that being physically present produces a certain set of expectations. My wife expected me to listen. My children expected their father to respond to their questions. Everyone expected me to be involved, engaged and attentive during our mutual interactions.
But I wasn't.
While my body was present with my family, my mind was still on campus, solving one problem after another, explaining concepts to confused students and assisting colleagues with technical needs. While it felt good to be needed, this duality of presence caused more than a few fights to erupt between my wife and me, and finally, the dam broke. My wife, being the brilliant negotiator she is, convinced me that the solution was to observe a technology holiday each and every week. Looking over my schedule, we decided that Saturday was the best day. The agreement I committed to was that, on Friday night, I would put away the phone, the computer and the tablet, and without so much as a glance, I would not touch them again until Sunday morning, save for cases of emergency.
It wasn't easy at first. Like so many others, I had contracted the scourge of our time: nomophobia, the fear of being out of mobile contact. Leaving my phone behind and being away from emails and Facebook updates both created a high anxiety for me. Somehow, I knew someone was trying to contact me with something urgent.
The fix? I had to make consistent reality checks. Would anyone's problems become worse because I had not addressed them immediately? No. Would my Facebook notifications expire like sour milk in a matter of 24 hours? Nope. Would anyone de-friend me, suddenly acquire a seething dislike for me or think less of me for not responding to their contact for one more day? Not likely.
Now, I write this policy into my syllabi and explain it to my students on the first day of classes. Guess what? They respect me for it. My wife respects me for it (and continues to keep me honest). Most importantly, my children respect me for it, because I am setting an example for their futures.
Unplugging for 24 hours each week provides several benefits. First, it teaches us that entry and exit from the digital world is a choice, not a requirement. By reminding ourselves that this is a choice, we can better control our mindless, impulsive checking and rechecking, which often interrupts thought processes as well as immediate social interactions. Second, a technology holiday allows us to slow down the pace of life, look around and become more aware of our immediate surroundings. To the most important people in our lives, this demonstrates that we are willing to sacrifice screen time for face time, an act that communicates love and warmth. This presence is irreplaceable by any other means, so offering it of ourselves at least one day a week is imperative to the health of our most meaningful relationships.
If we aren't on our phones or computers, then what should we be doing? How should we spend this day off from the digital world? Here are a few helpful suggestions to get you started:
1. Go for a walk with no destination in mind. It doesn't even have to be scenic and carefully planned. Simply leave home and start hoofing it with a loved one. See where you end up.
2. Have a family meal. Get everyone in the family involved in the process of selecting it, shopping for it and preparing it. Then, gather around and eat together. Let conversation fill your time, and when finished, don't be in a rush to get up.
3. Create a photo essay. Get in the car with a loved one (or more), start driving, and pull off wherever you find something worthy of shooting. When finished, go home and edit the pictures together, have them printed, and put them into a journal. Repeat as often as necessary, and by the end of a full year of doing this consistently, you'll have something amazing to share.
4. Get crafty! Pull out the arts and crafts supplies, and see what you can make together. Make masks for a masquerade ball later that evening. Use old tissue boxes to make "cell phone monsters" that mysteriously eat your phone on Friday night and return it on Sunday morning. Make popsicle stick houses and bridges.
5. Go play! Head to the park and run around on the toys. Swing on the swings. Ride the merry-go-round. Climb the jungle gym. Or, if it's adrenaline you seek, plan something more elaborate, like a day of paintball, laser tag or indoor trampoline jumping.
The point behind all of these activities is to disconnect from the virtual world and reconnect not only with all of our senses, but also with the people around us who matter.
Consider implementing a technology holiday once a week.
It may be difficult at first, but in the long run, you will feel yourself regaining control over the devices that may currently have control over you.
Follow Josh Misner, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mindfuldadblog