Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Mitch Joel


Don't Turn Off Technology -- Turn Off Your Bad Habits

Posted: 06/25/2013 8:05 am

Don't blame technology for our unhealthy relationship with it.

Grazing the magazine newsstand on my flight to NYC last week, I was thrilled to see that the latest edition of Fast Company was on sale. I was even more excited to see Baratunde Thurston on the cover. Most people knew Thurston as the director of digital for The Onion.

He then moved on to become a bestselling author (How To Be Black), a well recognized speaker, a regular contributor at Fast Company and much more. In short, he was riding the wave of his digital connectedness upriver into global success, while developing a personal brand to be reckon with (over 140,000 followers on Twitter, multiple appearances in mainstream media and more). My heart sunk when I saw the name of the cover story: #Unplug - My Life Was So Crazy, I Disconnected For 25 Days. You Should Too. Next up: the siren-ringing sounds of your life as it comes crashing to a halt. There is a simple truth here that people don't want to admit: it's not the technology and all of this inter-connectedness that is the problem... it's us.

Unplugging may make your misery worse.

How many notifications do you have set up in your life? Think about your smartphone. When does it notify you of anything? A voice call? A text message? A voicemail message? An update from Facebook? A direct message from Twitter? When you have a scheduled appointment? When someone would like to set-up an appointment? A notification that a meeting is about to happen? A warning that your flight may be delayed? What about your computer? A new email? An incoming Skype chat? A request to connect via Google Hangouts? A reminder that your favorite blogger on Huffington Post has just published a new piece? A special price for that hotel you were hoping to stay at? The lists, pings rings, beeps, buzzers and more could go on and on. Lately, Thurston isn't the only one talking about a more regimented social media and technology diet. The enthusiasm that many people are expressing to create these digital bankruptcies shore up to a bigger problem: finding a healthy balance in our lives.

Don't blame the potato chips. 

Thurston and others who have recently talked about their inability to keep up with the influx of digital inputs (Chris Brogan and Seth Godin have frequently discussed these issues) could be missing the bigger point: this is the inevitable outcome of success. If you do everything right in terms of building a platform or something that people want to pay attention to, you will never be prepared or able to deal with that success. The same is often the case for brands who are looking to hit viral gold. More often than not, they are not prepared and flounder when it actually works. It is very hard to scale a personality. In short, we become victims of our success. No one is going to cry for Thurston, Godin, Brogan, me or you. Let our biggest problems in life be that we can't keep up with all of the people who want to consume our media and connect with us. Let our email become one big, unwinnable, game of Tetris where all we're doing is moving those messages from the inbox to a folder while attempting to respond, only to have that inbox continually increase at a faster and faster click, until: game over.

How to take your life back (without unplugging).

People are often shocked when they spend any amount of time with me in my protein form. My smartphone, laptop and tablet have zero notifications. Zero. There is only one notification set and that is a customized vibration tone on my iPhone for when my spouse calls and/or texts me. That's it. Otherwise, I look at my devices when I have a moment. Seems simple enough? It is. Over time (and I have been using these technology from very nascent stages), those who connect with me no longer have expectations of an immediate response. The goal is simple: never put yourself in Thurston's position so that your life requires a moment to unplug. Instead of letting the technology and their notifications manage you, start managing your technology and notifications.

The results will stun you.

You won't find me thumbing the iPhone while pushing my kids on the swing at the park, because there is nothing notifying me of any sort of message. So, unless I take a break on the park bench and decide to pick up the device on my own accord, I don't have to play life judge and figure out if an email is more important than the swing-set. This is key: notifications are ambiguous. They no longer tell you what's important, they simply inform you that there is something new to look at. Like the Pavlovian creatures that we are, we just can't help but take a peek at what the message could mean. Over time, this conditioning has jaded our judgment and confused the importance of our work. Many people attack the last message that came in rather than the important ones. Many people attack the messages that are quick to respond to and wait for more time in their day to attack to the ones that require more work. All of this isn't technology's fault. All of this is our fault, because we're allowing the technology to manage us, instead of the other way around.

Take a break.

Instead of taking a break for any period of time, start deactivating your notifications. Block off specific moments in the day when you will check your social feeds (Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, etc...). Decide how much time you're going to allocate to responding to email messages. A lot of the email back and forth can be solved with a thirty-second phone call, but we've conditioned ourselves to engage in a week-long email chain that looks more like a game of badminton than resolving a work-related issue. Agree that before you make a grab for any device, you will proactively define if what you're doing in the here-and-now is more substantive than what may be on the digital screen in your pocket. See, if you unplug, you will eventually plug back in. What you're plugging back into isn't technology. You're plugging back into bad habits. These habits were facilitated by how technology works, but they don't have to be that way. The next time that you're thinking about unplugging from it all, take a step back and ask yourself what, exactly, you're unplugging from and how you can best manage the process? The vast majority of us will never have as much attention as Baratunde Thurston. The vast majority of us aren't as gainfully engaged with all of these digital channels and social networks as Baratunde Thurston. Still, all of us can do a much better job at turning off the beeps, blips, lights, vibrations and ringers in our lives.

That act alone has nothing to to with unplugging, but everything to do with plugging into what is most important in our lives.

Mitch Joel is president of Twist Image - one of North America's largest independent digital marketing agencies. His first book, Six Pixels of Separation, named after his highly successful blog and podcast of the same name is a business and marketing bestseller. His latest book, CTRL ALT Delete, is out now.

Loading Slideshow...
  • The WildCat Robot

    In 2012 Darpa, the American military science research megalab, unveiled this video of a robot which can run faster than a Cheetah. According to some sources, in 2013 they'll be showing off a new version <em>which can run around outside</em>. At which point we'll all bow down and worship our new robot masters.

  • Gaia Spacecraft

    In October 2013 the European Space Agency <a href="http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Space_Science/Gaia_overview">will launch the Gaia spacecraft</a>, which will create an insanely detailed 3D map of our galaxy and catalogue about a billion stars with its billion-pixel camera. It's a dramatically awesome piece of equipment which could change the way we see our universe over the course of its five-year mission.

  • Retina iPad Mini

    <a href="www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/11/09/ipad-mini-review-uk_n_2100108.html">The iPad Mini was our favourite tablet of 2012</a>. It's lighter and more beautiful than the bigger version, and it's almost perfect - with one exception: the screen. We expect that to change in 2013 with a Retina model - if Apple can build a big enough battery to fit in the Mini's tiny case.

  • Next-Generation Gaming

    Next Year it looks almost certain that both Sony and Microsoft will release new gaming consoles. What they'll be like - and what they'll be called - we don't know yet. But you'll definitely want one.

  • GTA V

    The next Grand Theft Auto is set to be the biggest game of 2013 - and we can't wait to see what it looks like in its final form. From the trailers released so far it seems set to bring new scale, drama and impact to the series.

  • SimCity (2013)

    The new SimCity was <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/07/30/simcity-interview-ea-producer-gamescom_n_1718722.htmlhttp://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/07/30/simcity-interview-ea-producer-gamescom_n_1718722.html">the best game we previewed in 2012</a> - and with its release in 2013 it's promising truly seamless multiplayer, complex AI and all-new game modes which could turn the city building game into a truly immersive sandbox.

  • Oculus Rift

    The <a href="http://www.oculusvr.com/faq/">Oculus Rift virtual reality headset</a> isn't definitely going to ship commercially in 2013. But we should definitely start to see more from developers about how they might use it, and what types of games might be possible. If we do, you should get excited - this could be a whole new world of cool technology.

  • Bendable Phones (Sigh)

    We know, we know. Bendable phones are one of those technologies which has been around for years - <a href="http://ces.cnet.com/8301-34447_1-57559886/samsung-preps-5.5-inch-flexible-phone-screen-for-ces-demo/">despite recent media reports that make it seem as if it's a brand new idea</a>, this picture was taken in 2008! But 2013 might be the year the tech finally hits phones - and even if it doesn't make the handset itself bendy, it <em>will</em> make it more flexible, durable and thinner.

  • Samsung Galaxy S4

    Samsung's flagship device the Galaxy S3 will be superceded by an S4 - or something very, very similar - quite soon into 2013. And while it will likely be just an incremental update in some ways, it could be the first truly breakthrough Android device which shows clear space between it and the latest iPhone. <a href="http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/samsung/9750817/Galaxy-S4-is-Samsungs-new-phone-due-in-February.html">Rumours of a 13-megapixel camera, a super HD display</a> and other improvements do make it sound rather tasty - but we'll have to wait and see.

  • Virgin Galactic?

    In truth it's probably a long shot, but billionaire Richard Branson thinks his Virgin Galactic space tourism service could launch in December 2013 - with himself and his family as passengers. If it does, <a href="http://www.cnn.co.uk/2012/07/11/tech/branson-farnborough-virgin-galactic/index.html">it will take space travel to a truly new level.</a>

  • Google Glass 2.0

    Google debuted its augmented reality glasses last year, and the 'Explorer Edition' will go on sale to early adopters in 2013. But we also expect other companies to respond - and possibly for Google itself to make a splash in the true consumer space. The tech is still early, but we're getting closer to the next big breakthrough.

  • 4G UK

    4G launched - to most peoples' surprise - in 2012 in the UK. But it won't be until Ofcom's auction takes place early in 2013 that the market really hots up. We'll see a huge broadening of available 4G services in 2013, and only then will it take off to its fullest extent and start to change lives around the country - particularly in rural areas as-yet unreached by traditional broadband.

  • Comet Of The Century

    The Comet Ison could be among the brightest and most intense ever seen, <a href="http://science.time.com/2012/12/20/coming-in-2013-the-comet-of-the-century/">if predictions come to pass.</a> It's set to pass within the Earth and the Sun at the right distance to be visible during the day - possibly emitting as much light as the Moon in a more concentrated pinpoint of light. It could be a spectacular sight - and make for some even more spectacular science.


Follow Mitch Joel on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mitchjoel