September 25, 2019

It’s Time To Put Your Phone Down: A Millennial’s Take On Unplugging In The Digital Age


Somewhere, amongst the rise of iPhones and smartwatches, we crossed a line into sudden and constant availability – we’re talking all day, every day – to our coworkers and friends. Once upon a time, we would go offline, and that was it. The “out of office” message was our friend. We would be essentially unreachable until we made the conscious decision to be available again.

Oh, 2011. Those were good days.

Now? Now we’re never truly offline. And as a result, we make ourselves available to everyone in our network 24/7, because we are all deathly afraid of what it will mean—to our relationships, but just as important, to our careers—if we don’t.

When you’re always available to your coworkers, you set the expectation that you can (and will always) do that small favor or send that quick email, whether it be during your workout, while you’re grocery shopping, or on your way to dinner. On top of this, your friends and family assume a certain amount of availability to give advice or catch up or respond to a meme even if you’re working or otherwise busy. As we become more available, there are no longer boundaries like “don’t call before 9 am or after 8 pm” like there once was when our only connection was a landline and an email system that you could leave behind on your desktop. Instead, we check our emails, text messages, and social media the second we wake up and stay “connected” until we go to sleep at night.

Here’s the thing: It’s stressful to always be available, but in an age where, to quote an old saying, “everyone’s doing it,” it’s difficult to advocate for professional and personal boundaries. What kind of friend are you if you’re not available for a crisis because you’ve unplugged? Are you as hardworking as your other coworkers if you don’t respond to an email while you’re stretching after a run, or watching Netflix? When did it become normal for these kinds of behaviors to be expected, and in some cases, demanded?

The reality is, only you have the power to distance yourself from your phone. If you allow yourself to always be available, you are setting the expectation that you will always be available. It’s exhausting. And, a growing body of research suggests, wildly unhealthy. Recent studies show that cell phones can have extremely detrimental effects on mental health. One study showed that “About 48% of those who spent five or more hours a day on their phones—a lot of time by any measure—had thought about suicide or made plans for it, vs. 28% of those who spent only one hour per day on their phones. No other variables—like household financial issues, homework, or school pressure—could account for the rise in mental health issues over that time.

If you feel like you are in a never-ending game of Whack-a-Mole with the messages and texts erupting from your phone, then it’s time to start setting boundaries. It will feel uncomfortable, because you’ll have to fight the nagging feeling that you’re missing out or falling behind at work. But it’s worth it for your health—both physical and mental.

Here are a five small steps towards beginning the process of unplugging for real:

  • Leave your phone at home when you eat out (or upstairs if you eat in).
  • When taking time to yourself, leave your phone on airplane mode with the Wi-Fi off.
  • Delete apps that cause you stress and take up a significant amount of your time.
  • Establish boundaries: Commit to not checking your phone for 15 minutes after you wake up and for an hour before you go to sleep.
  • Familiarize yourself with your phone’s “Do Not Disturb” settings – they are often customizable and are good in a pinch.

If any of these steps sound innately stressful, then it’s time to evaluate what’s really causing this stress. To truly unplug, try doing things like setting firm expectations with your boss about when you are available outside of work hours when it’s not an emergency. Tell your friends when you just don’t have the energy to help with something right now (or, better yet, just don’t respond until you do). Test yourself: avoid looking at your phone for a whole day on the weekend and see how you feel. If you are feeling exhausted from a constant barrage of notifications, the truth is that you are just plain exhausted.

Set boundaries. Give yourself permission to tune out. And rediscover life outside of a screen.

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