Before I took a weeklong cruise to Alaska, I had decided to “unplug” for the duration of the trip. For me, this meant no Facebook, no Twitter, no checking email, no reading blogs, or accessing the internet. (I did allow myself to Instagram — but in hindsight, I think I’ll forego that in future unpluggings.) A small challenge for a girl who normally checks these things at least 50 times a day.
I deleted all pathways I could to any sort of connectivity and put my phone in airplane mode (but ha! I certainly checked for signal every now and then!) Once on the trip and on the boat, it became easy to resist the temptation to connect: cell phone signal was hard to come by out at sea and the price for access to wireless internet was more than I felt was reasonable.
For the first day or two of the trip, I found that being without internet and social media was like an itch I couldn’t scratch. I felt a subconscious pull to periodically check in to see if there was an interesting status update, an article I “needed” to read, or if I had an unexpected (or even expected) email from a friend. If I had to stop and wait for something (wait for the bus, wait in line for the bathroom, wait for the elevator), I wanted to pull out my phone and distract myself by checking any of my old favorites. But since I deleted everything and wasn’t connected, I didn’t have that option. What to do now?
I had to learn (or relearn) to sit and wait. To be present to what is happening now, instead of tuning out reality. I was really surprised at how much I had trained myself into distraction. How much every moment of my life became either doing or distracting, not just being. Disconnecting forced a pause. And by the third and fourth day, it felt good to pause. Itch withdrawal began to subside. Breathe in, breathe out. I noticed more. I noticed the breeze coming in the port while waiting for our ferry to depart. I noticed the tall pattern our shadows made from the crowd of us waiting to leave for our excursion. I noticed the sweet and patient conversation of a mother explaining to her young child what a glacier is. I noticed the quiet rise and fall of my own breath. I really loved noticing.
I also engaged people more. Smiling at the baby in the seat in front of me. Asking the strangers near me what excursions they had done (or were about to do) that day. Admiring someone’s jacket or haircut. Sharing a joke or a laugh with a fellow line-waiter. I got a chance to exercise my conversation skills and practice listening and relating to others. I felt far more connected to the world.
The absence of the itch helped me feel more peaceful, more present, more focused, and ha! more connected. There was nothing to miss online (FOMO!), I was actually missing everything right in front of me. What else had I missed in my quest for constant so-called connectivity? What was more important, paying attention and connecting in my real life or paying attention and “connecting” to some virtual feed of things?
Returning from the trip I felt a bit anxious about how to bring this new habit of noticing and connecting with me. And to be honest, my ability to curb the itch has waned in the weeks since I’ve been back; it’s far too easy for me to get caught up in digital distraction. But what I learned during my brief period of unplugging has stuck with me. I’ve started to carve out periods of unplugged time throughout my week. When in meetings that don’t require internet access, I’ll put away my devices and commit to being fully present to the person (or people) in front of me. I’m working on focusing more in both work and life. And I think I’ll unplug for longer next time, because I think a week is just the beginning for unweaving the mental threads that bind me in digital connectivity.