It might seem ironic to highlight the benefits of disconnecting from technology via an online blog, but I'm not here to say technology is bad. On the contrary, smart devices help us connect with others, allow for new learning, and can provide deeper insights into topics as diverse as politics and science. But when do the scales tip in the other direction? At what point does constant connectivity begin to do more harm than good?
I once spent time working in the Amazon rainforest and was literally forced to be disconnected from technology and the outside world, often for days on end, while conducting research in the jungle. During those campouts I would have moments, fleeting yet profound, where I felt a kind of inner peace and stillness. I felt that the lack of distractions - and absence of ever-present notifications and updates about events that had little bearing on my real day-to-day life - were driving these moments of peace and contentment.
Today I lead Backroads hiking and biking trips in the beautiful landscapes of Spain, France and Norway. I've noticed the impact disconnecting has had on the guests who have joined me in spending our days actively engaged in the natural world around us, rather than on our phones and digital devices. It's always interesting - and rewarding - to hear them comment on how powerful and refreshing these breaks from technology feel during an extended bike ride or hike.
Apart from my personal experiences, there's growing scientific evidence to support this important truth: regularly unplugging from technology can improve your life in measurable, often significant ways.
What is unplugging from technology?
'Unplugging' or 'disconnecting' involves making a conscious effort to decrease screen time and reduce the constant distractions of smartphones and other technology. This can be done by removing yourself from connectivity, such as heading out into the woods for a few days, or by simply reducing your time spent on smart devices in your everyday environment.
What are the benefits of reducing screen time?
Various studies have suggested the benefits from unplugging are manifestly real and range from the straightforward - such as helping you mentally and emotionally recharge - to the profound - like improving your interpersonal connections and helping you get over past romantic relationships.
What do studies say about unplugging?
Several studies have concentrated on this emerging behavior. Researchers at Kansas State University looked at the impact of unplugging after work on health, happiness and overall quality of life. Perhaps unsurprisingly, participants reported feeling much fresher and more recharged after disconnecting.
In another study from the University of Maryland, researchers discovered that students who unplugged after class reported an improved quality of life, which was quantified by metrics such as spending more time with friends and family, more frequent exercise and eating healthier foods. According to the study, less time spent on devices freed up 'space' for these improvements to be made.
A 2013 Pew Research Center survey showed that 44 percent of people sleep within arm's reach of their phone. This not only has the potential to interrupt sleep via notifications (if they're turned on), it also affects sleep patterns to view a screen's blue light before bed. Blue light can cause eyestrain, increased stress and decreased melatonin (which, in turn, increases the likelihood of weight gain). Keeping the smartphone, tablet or laptop away from the bedroom helps mitigate these problems.
On top of all that, both spending time in nature and engaging in physical activity have been repeatedly shown to deliver similar benefits. When you unplug, you have more 'free time' to take advantage of getting outside and improving your health.
What are some ways to unplug?
Try one or more of these routes to realizing the benefits of disconnecting:
1. "Do Not Disturb." Simply put your phone in "Do Not Disturb" mode and leave it that way. You're still connected, but free from the constant intrusions of audible notifications. The notifications will still be there, but only seen when you decide to review them. The idea is that a "ping-free, vibrate-free, light-up screen-free world" is a viable long-term way to balance using technology without being trapped by it.
2. Disable Push Notifications. Disabling all push notifications means you would never see any notifications. Messages, emails and other updates remain unseen until you decide to manually visit each individual app. As a less extreme option, new features on both Android and Apple phones allow for notification grouping and set timing, which can all be customized - an indication of the growing awareness of the myriad negative social, mental and physical consequences of an overly-plugged in life.
3. Intermittent Silencing. This is a great option if you're either unable to leave your phone in "Do Not Disturb" mode indefinitely or if you can't trust yourself to stop looking for notifications. Turn your phone on airplane mode for an evening, an hour, or any other preset length of time each day - and stick to it. Disconnect as much as you can afford without jeopardizing your livelihood or trustworthiness with those who depend on your reachability (such as your kids).
4. Get Outside - And Leave your Smartphone Behind. This could be as simple as taking a hike, a bike ride or traveling actively. Backroads trips are a great opportunity to surround yourself with like-minded people who often share in the desire to unplug while in nature. For those several hours each day spent immersed in mountains, local villages and country roads, they're engaging with the real, vibrant and beautiful world around them. A short delay in responding to whatever texts or emails might be waiting for us is a small price to pay for the reward of being truly present in our own lives, particularly when traveling in such magnificent places around the world.
I love seeing the benefits that guests (and often myself) experience after only a few days of getting out and getting away from the constant pull of connectivity - it brings me closer to that feeling I once stumbled upon in the jungle and will forever treasure.