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The Power of You -Unplugged

How Ditching Digital Devices Made Me Happier and More Productive All Day.



Not long after launching my consulting business, my girlfriend asked me, “do you realize how often you check your phone now?” I put the phone back in my pocket. Apparently, much more than I used to.


Like so many people working remotely, I spend several hours a day on a computer. When I’m not on the computer, I have its fast-handling, miniature substitute–my iPhone–with me like a sidekick. Our digital devices and their countless apps give us instant information at our fingertips, which would seem to make us smarter and more productive, but that perceived value comes at a cost.


This Is Your Brain -On Your Smartphone.


A study by Kristen Duke and Ayelet Gneezy from the University of California, San Diego showed how smartphones make us less intelligent. The study tested both fluid intelligence–the ability to solve unfamiliar problems–and available cognitive capacity–the level of someone’s focus on a specific task–in relation to subjects’ proximity to their smartphone. Subjects had their smartphones either on their desk, stored in a pocket or book bag, or in another room during the tests. The result: the closer people were to their smartphones, the worse they did on both tests.


Numerous apps on your phone (and the social media sites you may have open on your computer) are designed to keep you checking. Many apps use variable reward schedules, a concept discovered by psychologist B.F. Skinner. Skinner found that mice responded most to reward-based stimuli when the reward came after a varied number of responses. There was no predictable pattern to the rewards or negative consequence (like a shock) to responding. Humans show the same behavior to variable-reward-based stimuli. If the cost is minimal (takes just a second) and the reward isn’t always predictable (social media “likes”), then we check habitually. When our smartphones are always there, we lose focus on being here, now.


Digital Detox on the Run


Running has long been my go-to activity for fitness as well as “moving meditation” when I can find that point. But I haven’t been finding that runner’s high lately. I’ve been running with a heart rate monitor watch and linked footpod as training tools for years. While the watch has helped me train well enough to achieve some respectable race results, I realized recently that I was constantly looking at it for feedback and validation of my effort out of attachment to hitting the pace, heart rate, and distance that I believe I should be doing (yup, who needs a big dose of his own Letting Go post).


The morning I decided to leave my phone in the car, I went for a complete digital break by ditching the watch and its monitors. It helped that I ran in Madison, WI. I don’t live there. I’m familiar with the streets I drive and bike, but less so the individual neighborhoods and trails. Not knowing routes in detail prevented me from trying to calculate distance.


A few miles into the run, I turned in to the UW Arboretum. Several turns into the labyrinth of trails, I stopped my habitual route calculating. I let go of how far and long I had gone–or should go–and just ran. I turned down trails out of curiosity. I made loops clockwise and counter clockwise. I sped up because it felt so good to fly over the leaf-littered trail as trees passed by. I didn’t feel like I was pushing myself at all. I relaxed into a faster pace. I felt like I could do this for hours.


This Is Your Brain -In Flow


I had entered a flow state. First characterized by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow is the complete involvement in an activity, a feeling of euphoria, a sense of clarity, and a pleasant disconnect with time–that it’s either standing still or disappearing in an instant. In flow, you’re totally present, aware of now and not distracted by external events outside your zone or your own internal dialogue around the past or the future.


When I got back to my starting point and looked at the clock in the car, I’d been running for almost 2 hours and 45 minutes, about 45 minutes longer than my regular long run. Retracing my estimate of the route on a map later, I realized that I’d gone farther, faster than I’d run in a long time. That euphoria stayed with me all day. Despite the much longer run, I still finished several other tasks that day. I felt more focused, more content. I didn’t get the soreness or fatigue that I would have expected from running 22% longer and almost 50% farther than my “usual” long run.

You don’t need to go for an unplugged run to feel the same benefits. Anything physical is good (though try something different if your usual workout includes habitual times or reps), but just closing the tablet, putting down the phone, and walking away from them is a health benefit. Try engaging in something enjoyable and or challenging enough that you remain fully focused on it and lose track of time. Even if you don’t find flow, not being one of Skinner’s mice for a few hours will give your brain and body will get the boost they need.


Close the screen. Put down the phone. Step away. Run away if you have to.

Your brain will thank you.


Update: I went back to the usual phone checking by the next evening. Reading the study linked in this post motivated me to try being less connected again. I didn’t open my phone from 5 pm yesterday until 9 am this morning. I checked the weather before my evening run by standing outside (novel, I know). I slept better last night. I responded to a couple business emails on the computer this morning and got back off the internet. I’m enjoying the focus—enough that I put off getting back on the internet to post this.



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