Probably three or four times a week I come across articles that talk about how necessary it is to take digital breaks – shutting off devices and online connection for a period of days or weeks. The intent is to disconnect from the 24/7, always-on nature of life in the 21st century, to break some of the bad habits we’ve developed, like mindlessly surfing Facebook or Twitter till the wee hours or shutting out family and friends with the distraction of a tiny, glowing screen. I get it. In some ways, the Web has taken over our lives. Our smart phones now fill the gaps in time while we stand in line at the grocery store, sit in a doctor’s office, or wait for the bus, when previously, we may have spent time talking to someone, or just paying attention to the world around us. We do need a break from time to time, it’s true.
However, I think the concept of extended digital breaks may be a little misguided. Shutting off all access to the online world may not be as effective at resetting our brains and our habits as we think. Why? Because even if we decide to disconnect for a day, weekend, week, or more, when we reconnect, we are likely to fall back into the same old habits.
It comes down to the reasons we connect. When I consider my own online habits, I can break things down into some basic groups – work, social, and entertainment. Work is work – checking and responding to email or text messages from colleagues and clients, doing research, updating social networks for work purposes, writing and publishing. Work is the stuff I don’t want to do during my down time. Social is talking and sharing with friends and followers via social networks like Twitter, Facebook, and so on. It’s text messages and emails from friends and family. It’s the stuff I want to do when I’m not doing work. Entertainment is pretty much everything else – writing and publishing I do for fun, music, videos, LOLCats, and so on. It’s also stuff I want to do when I’m not doing work.
Where the concept of shutting off all online activity breaks down is when we cross the lines between work, social and entertainment. I think that many of us, when we say we want to take a digital break, mostly mean we want to take a break from the stuff that falls into the “work” category. Work is the stuff that we don’t want intruding on our personal time. The fun stuff? We’re okay with that.
Every time I’ve tried to take a digital break, I’ve found that it really didn’t help me much. When I connected again, nothing had really changed. My habits were no different.
Of course, I am not advocating being connected constantly – if you are, that’s a sign of a bigger issue. But generally speaking, when I need a digital break, it’s because I need a brain break from my work. And often, I head to social and entertainment to recharge. So why would I deny myself the opportunities that connectivity provides me to do that?
We don’t need to lock our smart phones in a drawer and unplug our modems. We do need to make sure that we have a healthy balance of connection and disconnection in our lives, and we need to ensure that work doesn’t overtake our need to be social and desire to be entertained. It’s not the fault of the Internet that we’re feeling overwhelmed – it’s ours.