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The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.
~ Henry David Thoreau
I have a confession
The internet makes me nervous. Not the way you might think. I don't fear identity theft or stumbling onto an offensive website or being led astray with misinformation. Rather, the more I use the internet, the more restless I become, the shorter my attention span, and the more challenging I find it to simply sit still. It took me a long time to make the connection. I'm in my 40's, and people say hormonal changes affect all of these things. I thought it was just a sign of age that I went from being someone who read a couple of full-length books every week, to someone who carried the same book around for a year. Then there's that feeling in my stomach – the butterflies that I enjoyed when I was a teenager and saw a cute boy across the junior high school dance floor – but now they flutter all the time. I am always buzzing.
One day, I decided to take a weekend off from the internet altogether. In fact, I gave up TV, too, and I don't have a cell phone, so I got to experience a screen-free, distraction-free weekend. Let me tell you: it was AMAZING.
The days are so long! There is time to spare. I finished one book and started another. I got all my cooking done for the week, without feeling any pressure to do so. I spent time outside, soaking up nature, walking slowly, listening to the wind. I was creative – I wrote in my journal, I drew a mandala, I took artistic photos of my neighborhood.
I breathed more deeply. I took a nap. I spent time with people I love – quality time, eye contact time, conversational time, snuggling time. And the rejuvenation that came from that internet break was a revelation. I can't recommend it strongly enough. Now, I take a day off from the internet every week. Sometimes I'll do the whole weekend. And sometimes when we take a vacation, I purposely pick a place with no internet access, to experience a full week offline.
Now, obviously, I'm not anti-internet. I'm a blogger, after all, and I wouldn't be healing rheumatoid arthritis through diet, if the internet hadn't shown me this was a possibility. I'm not telling you to give up the internet forever, just see what it's like to give it up for a day, and discover the gifts that day brings.
- Decide whether you'd like to go internet-free or completely screen-free (no tv, internet, cellphone, video games, etc.) I recommend screen-free, but if you need to ease yourself in, going internet-free is powerful, too.
- Commit to a length of time. I recommend a minimum of 24 hours to really feel the benefit.
- Keep a notebook handy. Your mind will generate things you need to research on the internet, or people you need to text or email, things you must do now before you forget. Make a list. You can do it tomorrow, and writing it down helps let the temptation go. After a while, you mind will let you be.
- If you have a smartphone, consider hiding it. Some people put it in a drawer, or even out in the garage. Out of sight, out of mind.
Regain your attention span: The internet trains us to have a short attention span, through the shortness of the articles, the vastness of the information available, the way we can click from link to link to link in an article. Our brain gets used to doing that, and starts to expect the same in daily life, even when we're offline. We pick up a book and put it down after a page or a paragraph. We start a conversation, and our mind wanders to five other things before our friend finishes a sentence. We start cooking a meal, and check our texts and facebook account while the butter's melting, or the water's boiling. Before you know it, we live a life of distraction, always feeling pressed for time, where focus has become a thing of the past. The good news is that this isn't a permanent change to our brain. We can reverse this feeling just by taking a break. Your attention, your focus, your calm center are all still inside you. You just need some time offline, to feel it again.
Improve your health through the power of sleep: I mentioned that I took a nap on my internet & tv-free weekend. I also went to bed earlier and slept a little later. When I'm plugged into the internet or tv, time flies, and before I know it it's past midnight. I also find my “to do” list grows, and feeling a lack of time and focus, I set my alarm earlier and earlier to manage the load. A recent study showed that after a week of sleep deprivation, genes responsible for the repair of damaged tissue in the body get turned off and stop doing their job. That's a scary thought. Research also shows that lack of sleep has a direct effect on immune function and also increases inflammation in your body, two things especially concerning to anyone with an autoimmune disorder.
Enjoy the health boost of being outdoors: Mark Sisson, a leader in the paleo movement talks a lot about “primal living” – recapturing some of the natural benefit our ancestors had years ago, when they lived and worked outdoors every day. (We're not talking about the tendency to get eaten by sabertooth tigers, but rather the health-inducing qualities of daily fresh air and access to nature's beauty.) Research backs him up. Here's a quote from Science Daily:
“Elderly adults tend to live longer if their homes are near a park or other green space, regardless of their social or economic status. College students do better on cognitive tests when their dorm windows view natural settings. Children with ADHD have fewer symptoms after outdoor activities in lush environments. Residents of public housing complexes report better family interactions when they live near trees.”
So take advantage of being unplugged to get outside and go somewhere beautiful. Depending on your options, that can be pulling out a lawn chair and feeling warmed by the sun, sitting next to a city fountain and feeding the birds, hiking a nearby trail, or taking a day trip to the beach. Remember that, as human beings, we weren't made to spend 100% of our lives indoors.
Dust off your old hobbies & find some new ones: How did you spend your free time before the onset of technology? Do you even remember? Pull out the novel that's been gathering dust on your nightstand. Get out your journal and write an entry by hand. Find your knitting needles and finish that sweater. Get out your guitar, sit down at the piano, see if you remember how to play your high school flute. Write a poem. Doodle. Grab some magazines and cut out words and pictures to create a dream board; you don't need Pinterest to do this, and the tactile experience is a lot more fun. Do some gardening: it's the adult version of playing in the dirt. Learn to juggle. Call some friends and play a pick-up game of your favorite sport. Do you like building things? You can start a project as small as a model airplane or as big as a cabin in the woods. There are so many ways to have fun. As adults, we can often forget how.
Rediscover family time: If you have kids, you're lucky, because they know how to have fun. Have them unplug with you. They might object when you first mention turning off the devices for the day. At first it might even feel awkward, as you all wonder what to do. Here are some ideas to get started: Play an old-fashioned board game or a game of cards. Pull out the crayons and markers and have fun drawing together. Start a nerf gun war. When it comes time to make a meal, cook together. Have the young children help fill the measuring cups and teach the older children some knife skills. Make some grain-free cookies. Eat your meals at the table, and talk to each other. Has it been a while since your children have given more than one-word answers? Try this book to get the conversational ball rolling. Get outside and go to the park. Depending on the season, play frisbee, go fishing, have a snowball fight or rake some leaves together for everyone to jump in. Rediscover each other as a family. If you have teenagers and they think all of these ideas sound lame, how about re-creating some experiments they love on youtube? Have fun with the chemistry of diet coke and mentos, or build your own catapult for a home version of punkin chunkin.
Check something off your to-do list: You may not think you spend a lot of time watching tv or surfing the internet, but time flies when we're in front of a screen. Hours can pass without realizing it, and even if that's not the case for you, a few minutes here and there throughout the day adds up. So today, when you are free from technology, take advantage of the time and complete a project that's been hounding you. Check something off the list and feel the satisfaction of doing so.
On the other hand, do nothing: When's the last time you did that? With the pressures of work, family, home, school and maintaining our health, the days seem far too short to accomplish all we need to do. Today, take a few minutes (or a few hours) to consciously do nothing. Gaze out the window. Listen to your heartbeat. Give yourself permission to simply be.
Rediscover romance: Intimacy often takes a back seat to life's daily “to do” list. In most longterm relationships, people are more likely to divvy up chores over the weekend, rather than sit on the couch gazing into each other's eyes. So, on your unplugged day, make some time to sit on that couch. Really look at each other again. Talk and really listen to each other. Or be silent and remember how it feels to lean against someone and feel yourselves breathe in synchrony. In addition to feeling good, research shows that touch lowers cortisol levels (the stress hormone) and raises oxytocin levels (the trust and safety hormone). People say you can't go back in time to the infatuation phase of first falling in love. Maybe not, but you can create a space to really feel the love you share. Sometimes, a libido you thought was dead just needs an opportunity to blossom.
De-stress: Technology enhances our lives in many ways, but with it comes obligations, pressure and added stress. Unplugging for a day is all about taking a break from that stress and remembering what it's like to live the slow life. There are hundreds of studies connecting stress to disease. I'll leave you with one which summarizes the past 40 years of research: chronic stress leads to immune system dysfunction, delayed wound healing, an increased susceptibility to illness and chronic bodywide inflammation. That's a cycle worth stopping, and taking a technology-free day is one way to interrupt that cycle.
Do you unplug from the internet occasionally? What are the benefits and challenges for you?
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Photo Credit: I fell in the love with the photo at the top of this post. It's by the talented photojournalist Hamid Sardar-Afkhami, who has spent years documenting the lives of one of the last nomadic mongolian tribes: the reindeer people.