Analog August came out of my deep longing to make a digital detox part of my summer. I wanted to try and connect again with the physical world, where holding a book or looking at the stars at night was the first thing I did, instead of reaching for my phone and the Instagram app like an addict.
So in August, we’ll be exploring what it means to unplug and reconnect with physical things. When I considered possible Girl's Guide authors for this topic, I instantly thought of my friend Shelley Thomas. Shelley and I have known each other for almost 15 years. We both grew up in the country on acres of land and have a fondness for wide open spaces. Today Shelley works part time with Good Friends of Wilmington, a nonprofit organization of women dedicated to providing financial assistance to disadvantaged families in New Hanover County, and with us at The Inspiration Lab to manage our conference registration process.
While Shelley does work, she's chosen to spend a bulk of her time taking care of her three children and enjoying life with her husband. Shelley and I have been asking each other questions like: What does it mean to put technology in its proper place? What does it look like to have a healthy relationship with our screens? Shelley's wise and insightful answers made her the perfect person to share ways to turn off the technology and connect with the people and places around you.
Like most women, I have always prided myself on my ability to multitask. It just seems like a given; how else am I supposed to get it all done if I’m not doing three things at once? But during last year’s holiday season, I began to notice I was feeling more overwhelmed and unfocused than usual. It wasn’t just the normal holiday craziness; this was something different. When I began to look around my life to determine the cause of this chaos, the culprit was right there in my hand... and in my pocket… and in my car... and beside my bed! This little thing called a smartphone, which was supposed to make my life easier, was having a detrimental effect on my sanity and my soul.
I was a late adopter to the smartphone age and have always been on the fringes of digital use. I still have a paper planner (Bullet Journal, anyone?!) and have never made a Facebook post. Yet, as I sit writing this, I feel distracted by the pull to check my email, read the article I have flagged, or browse Craigslist for the new bike my son needs. We can call ourselves a more connected and productive generation than any before us, but we also need to realize we are also a more unfocused and lonely generation. In an effort to regain my focus, decrease distractions, and value people over convenience, I have been rethinking my relationship with technology, specifically my smartphone. As I’ve thought about, read about, and lived a digital minimalist lifestyle, here are my tips for you:
Be thoughtful in your decisions about what technology you use. You have to make these decisions with what’s best for you in mind, because tech companies are only interested in their bottom line. They are crafting and creating things in a way that will have you spending as much time staring at your phone as possible. No matter how great the app seems or how much easier it could make your life, think about what you’re giving up in return. Are you missing out on real life and relationships, even unintentionally? This deserves your thought. Be the boss of your phone or it will be the boss of you.
Try to let the things you value guide your relationship with technology, rather than letting technology have control over you. I value spending time with people and making them feel heard and loved. I enjoy hearing a voice on the other end of the line and value conversation over convenience. I cherish finding joy in the little things in life and seeing beauty in the faces and natural world around me. We miss these things when we’re staring at a phone instead of at the unique faces around us or the brilliance of a sunset. I appreciate good manners and hate the way it’s now considered perfectly acceptable to let our digital devices take precedence over the people around us. Show your consideration for someone by not responding to a text when you are in the middle of a conversation with them. And when possible, show you value someone by reaching out with a phone call rather than a text. I value putting beautiful and worthwhile things in front of my eyes and in my mind. Our thoughts and souls are being shaped by what we’re digitally consuming, so carefully curate who and what you’re following.
Communicate with your voice, not just your fingers. Yes, there are times when a text is the most convenient way to connect with someone, and I am thankful to have a fast way to relay information or get a quick yes/no response. However, sometimes an actual phone call will lead to fewer interruptions and faster resolution to the question or conversation at hand — plus there’s the added benefit of hearing a real voice! Just think about how unique the human voice is. Vocal timbre is the unique “something” that gives color and personality to your voice and how it is recognized. Every voice has its own distinguished timbre. How amazing that you can hear a friend at the end of the line and know who it is? Don’t replace verbal conversation with digital connection; they are not the same, and we are losing part of what makes us human when we build our relationships around tweets, likes, and texts. Vocal conversation gives relationships space to grow and develop. You may start talking about one thing, but then other things are shared and discussed. Decide to choose personal conversation over convenience.
Sometimes you need to leave your phone behind. We are weak-willed people. Even if you tell yourself you’re only taking your phone along so you can take pictures, the draw to check this or do that is going to win. And before you know it, you’ll be down a rabbit hole (or two or three) and moments you will never get back will be gone. Decide to be fully present, and enjoy the moment with all your senses. The sunset will never be more beautiful in a photo than it will be in person, so keep your eyes on the sky. Nobody on Instagram will be eating your food, so savor the taste and smell of the feast before you, and enjoy the people around the table. Your children’s laughter won’t be heard over a picture, so imprint it in your heart and mind while it’s happening. As someone who still prints out photos and puts them in an album, I appreciate having pictures to mark and remember life’s big and small moments. I suggest pulling out the camera you have somewhere — even if it’s a digital one! — and putting it to use again!
Don’t just limit technology use for yourself; do it for the next generation as well. Our children are digital natives, so they will never know a world without smartphones and social media. We have to be intentional about teaching them how to connect personally rather than digitally. Even something as simple as making a phone call can cause anxiety because they don’t know phone etiquette. Knowing how to have a verbal conversation is a skill they need for their current and future relationships, not to mention future job prospects. Study after study has shown that today’s youth feel lonelier and suffer from more mental health issues than previous generations. Not to mention, kids, who communicate mainly through digital means, are losing their ability to feel empathy. They can say or post anything without realizing the emotional impact it has on others. Model what it looks like to have a healthy relationship with your phone and social media. Help your children find their self-worth in something other than how many likes their picture or post gets.
It’s okay to be alone, and it’s okay to be bored. Many of the greatest leaders and innovators in history had to withdraw and be alone as they were navigating difficult times or creating amazing art and technology. Solitude is healthy and important for our bodies and our minds. When we are endlessly entertaining ourselves and filling every moment with distractions, we aren’t able to spend time in the self-reflection necessary for our emotional health. We also don’t leave time for daydreaming and letting our minds wander. Growing up, my mom always used to say, “Boredom is the mother of invention.” Give yourself the gift of being bored, because you never know what beautiful idea or thought will be born from it. It will be uncomfortable, but that probably means you need the experience of being alone with your thoughts more often.
When you start living a digitally minimal life, you create room for good things. Beginning in January, my husband and I made the decision to put our phones on “Do Not Disturb” from the time he got home until our kids were in bed. It also helps to put your phone out of sight so you don’t have the urge to walk by and glance at it. This has been one of the best decisions we made this year. For us, nothing coming through between 6 and 9 at night is so important that it can’t wait until 9:00 p.m. to be handled. Instead of addressing every little email or text that comes in during those hours, we fill that time with things that bring us together. We enjoy taking after-dinner walks. Sometimes this is all five of us, sometimes it’s one-on-one with one of our children. Such great conversations happen during those times; nothing happening online can ever replace these moments.
Get back to basics. We enjoy reading out loud together; it is our favorite way to wind down in the evening or pass a summer afternoon during a thunderstorm or oppressive heat. We also love board games and card games and spend many evenings playing a game together instead of watching television. If you would like some game suggestions, let me know — there are so many great ones out there! We’re also a competitive family, and some evenings become Lego-building competitions or drawing contests. I think the key thing is to look for activities that can involve the whole family and increase your face time with each other, instead of increasing your face time with a screen.
There are lots of strategies and suggestions out there for how to break up with your phone or do a digital detox. I highly encourage you to try it. My hope is you will begin thinking about how much time you’re investing in your digital life, rather than your real life.