The Washington Times-Herald

September 2, 2013

Labor Day: Just the time to give the apps a nap

By Chuck Salter
Special to The Washington Post

— If there's one weekend that calls for a break, a timeout, an email-free day (or two — or, dare I suggest, three), this is it. Do you really want to be the person who can't stop laboring on Labor Day? Sorry, that's not a badge of honor. I'm not just talking about work-work, either. Managing your digital life — photographing and obsessing over status updates that convey your clever, care-free online persona — has become practically a full-time job.

I work at Fast Company, a magazine that focuses on hyper-achieving, hyper-connected, hyper-stressed innovators. Recently, we released a book about unplugging, about our need to gain control over the increasing demands — digital and otherwise — on our attention. It's called "Unplug," and we had the audacity to publish it as an e-book, which the Irony Police were quick to notice. But where else would we find our target audience?

Here's some of the advice we've gleaned, tips that apply to this weekend and beyond.

Get the word out

Last year, our columnist Baratunde Thurston went offline for 25 days. Before vanishing, he warned everyone in his social network. If you suddenly stop answering texts, video chat requests and work emails, people, you know, notice. Best to prepare them.

Thurston sent out what he called a "smoke signal." He changed his profile pictures in social media to an all-black rectangle with the dates for when he'd be offline. For everybody else, set up an automated vacation message saying you won't be returning emails — and mean it.

Turn off the noise

People aren't the only ones tugging at your sleeve these days. If you have a smartphone or tablet, you have apps. And if you have apps, they want to talk to you, too. To let you know when you have new Instagram followers, when a friend has commented on a Facebook post, and when there's important breaking news — an Atlanta Braves comeback win, in my case. This next step isn't fun but it's necessary: go into your device settings and disable alerts from your apps.

Move your life offline

It's incredible how dependent we've become on the everythingness of the Web in such a relatively short time. It's as though we've been eating out of straws and have forgotten how to chew. Not having Google Maps or Twitter at your fingertips will be a shock. You need to be as resourceful as our pre-Internet selves were back in the early 1990s. If you're exploring new parts of the city, or a new city altogether, take a map. (You may need to Google where to buy one first.) Feel the need to tweet? Pick up a pen and a blank notebook. You can write as many characters as you like.

Have a lifeline

Jumping into the Great Unplug, even just for a holiday weekend, can feel like jumping out of a plane. It's scary. And what does the parachute company ask for when you sign the waiver absolving them of a nasty landing? An emergency contact. Here, too, you need someone to be able to reach you — just in case. But once you unplug, you'll soon realize how few true emergencies there are.

Stay strong

Now, the hard part: staying off the grid. There's a reason these sorts of breaks are called digital detox. You will miss the gentle vibration in your pocket of a new text. Don't give in.

Part of what you're feeling is the faux urgency of our Webified world. An email or tweet only sounds as if it requires an immediate reply. It's not your spouse asking you to refill her wine glass. That requires an immediate reply. If you go offline for a while, you find that the world is a far more patient place than you think.

Confront your habits

To avoid temptation, you need to examine how integrated your work, digital and personal lives have become. When did you start falling asleep with your smartphone on your chest? Thinking in tweets? Seeing the world through Instagram-filtered glasses? Put your phone in a drawer overnight. Instead of checking email or Twitter first thing in the morning, try stretching, walking or running. Exercise is one way to counteract the little rush you're missing from each retweet and like. Those are no match for adrenaline surging through a body in motion.

Sit still

Make sure you're not simply replacing the constant busyness of being online with the constant busyness of remaining offline. You don't want to deny yourself the simple pleasure of being in the moment. Leave the house without your devices. Part of what you're doing is proving to yourself that you can. And that you don't need to broadcast your every encounter. Or peruse every restaurant and concert option available. Or have the world's information a click away. All that is great, yes, but you appreciate it more if you give it up every now and then.

Plug back in - thoughtfully

On Tuesday, when life rushes back to normal, take what you learned during the long unplugged weekend with you. Try adding some "airplane mode" moments to your day. See if it makes you more productive and more creative at work; breaks have a way of doing that. And see if it makes you feel less like you're simply managing chaos.

A three-day weekend isn't enough for a total transformation, but that's not the point. Lasting change starts small, with new habits you build on. After his break, Thurston, who had at one point had averaged 1,500 tweets a month, began unplugging for several hours during the week. He instituted a no-appointments week four times a year. He gave up text-walking, reminding himself to look around at his surroundings — and avoid tripping or getting hit by a car. "The greatest gift I gave myself," Thurston said of his break, "was a restored appreciation for disengagement, silence, and emptiness."

That, he hopes, is one way to plug into a more balanced, fulfilling life.

Salter is a senior writer at Fast Company and editor of the new book "Unplug: How to Work Hard and Still Have a Life," from which this article was adapted.