How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.
~ Annie Dillard (b. 1945), U.S. author. The Writing Life, ch. 2 (1989)
Today’s world is one of connectivity. The word would mean little to those my grandmother’s age, yet to those of us 40 and under, it means wireless internet networks, base stations, Facebook, Twitter, smartphones, wifi hotspots, GPS, tagging, Instagram, instant messaging… And all this connectivity has the effect of making us constantly available to others.
Yet plenty of what flies around in cyperspace is actually just faffing. Very addictive or compulsive faffing – fun even – but let’s face it. A lot of the time we spend being “connected” is actually just for the purpose of mucking around. Even the times when it’s not mucking around – when it’s something worthwhile or potentially worthwhile – it’s still taking us away from the here and the now, and many people are starting to get weary of that.
More and more people are trying (often unsuccessfully) to disengage from constant availability for varying periods of time. People who are creative need the headspace of being alone or at least uninterrupted. Many parents are concerned that the amount of time that they end up spending being connected online is distracting them from the here and now of their kids’ childhoods. Or they worry about what it’s teaching their kids about priorities, or seeing their kids do the same thing and worrying about this. Many people are even worrying if there is something wrong with *them*, because of how addictive connectedness can be.
Some people go hiking or camping or holidaying to get away, but then again with GPS coverage world-over and mobile phone coverage nearly everywhere, even this won’t work unless you leave your phone at home, and in some cases it’s obviously better to have an emergency way to contact the outside world, if you are going on an extended trip in the wilderness for instance – and how often can one do this anyway? Once or twice a year if you’re super keen? Even for the keenest hikers and holidayers, it’s no longer enough to break the cycle.
But take heart – you don’t have to disappear into the wild just to get away from the constant and insidious stess of connectivity. Here’s a list of ten ways that you can practise being unavailable. Not all of them even involve internet technology. My personal belief is that the feeling of being obliged to respond and engage online simply flows on from a general sense of obligation in most people, to respond when spoken to. And actually, there’s no rule in the universe that says that you have to be available to others. (Women, especially, remember this!) Your life is your own. Try some of the following ideas and revel in your power to be unavailable!
1. Train yourself to not always answer the phone –
(what’s the worst thing that can happen?)…
2. Rmove yourself from as many social media networks as possible,
or make yourself invisible.
3. Turn on invisibility,
(the thing that tells others you’re online or not!) and chat functions from Gmail, Yahoo, Skype, MSN, Facebook etc.
4. Set all privacy settings in online accounts to the highest possible privacy –
do you really need to hear from every single person you ever went to school with? Do your “friends of friends” really need to hear about your life online? Become a bit of a social media hermit; don’t worry, your true friends will still be able to keep in touch!
5. Don’t always answer your front door.
This is a hard one, but it’s worth learning how to do. Internet you can switch off; phones you can switch off, but your door remains there – and people can knock on it. Your door is a piece of technology too, albeit an old-fashioned one – and one that was invented, in part, for privacy! You have no moral obligation to answer your front door. Ever. Of course, most of the time you will. Sometimes it will be a friend or family member dropping by, and maybe rarely, once in a blue moon, it might be a long-lost friend or someone needing your help… but realistically it’s usually going to be mail delivery, Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Red Cross – or someone pretending to be the Red Cross…! Even the police can’t come in without showing you a warrant, so don’t worry about the door being kicked down. It’s unlikely to cause you to miss any opportunities in life, if you just don’t answer the front door sometimes. Try it, even if just once. There’s an unusual sense of power in doing it. It’s a very simple way to regain a little bit of power that constant availability strips from us. Just don’t answer your front door sometimes. Try it!
6. Turn off your mobile phone for a whole day occasionally,
and every night always – at the very least, switch to “flight” or “offline” mode. It’s better to not sleep next to a connected phone, anyway, (it’s possible they interfere with our own brain waves and sleep patterns) and switching it off for a day or more at a time is very freeing, after the first initial hour of irrational worrying that you might miss something.
7. Practice deactivating Facebook for a week at a time;
you can do it from the Security page of your Settings. Reactivating can be undone by simply logging in again, and you lose nothing at all – all your stuff and groups and friends and whatever comes back – but while you’re gone, you won’t be taggable and people won’t be able to post stuff to your wall, and when you return you’ll find that any threads you were involved in have now quietened down. Don’t worry when Facebook kicks up a stink about how everyone will miss you and won’t be able to contact you. You know better. They just want you to stick around so you can keeping looking at their ads. Nobody will be notified when you deactivate, and – although this is hard to take – when you come back feeling like a prodigal, most of your “friends” won’t even have noticed you were gone! 😉 You’re strong; your ego can take it! Deactivate once in a while; it will feel good, I promise.
8. Unsubscribe to everything in your email box that you can.
Especially store newsletters. If you must get newsletters for online stores and the like, set up a Gmail account specifically for online newsletters, and when you sign up to things which you suspect are going to send you advertising, or sale notifications, sign up using this email address instead. Now note your password somewhere safe, then log out, forget about it and get on with your life… next time you need something and want to find a good deal, go into your “ads” email account and check the last week or so of emails for sales on the item you actually wanted. This might even save you money, as well as saving you time and decluttering your main inbox.
9. Make a general habit of saying Maybe.
You don’t have to say Yes every time to everything – really. Your life is your own. Don’t get into this yes mentality. It’s exhausting and leads most people to being roped into gatherings, activites, work and responsibilities they didn’t really want. You don’t have to say No to things straight away, either. Practice being noncommital. There’re nothing immoral about that. Say “Maybe but I can’t commit at this stage”, and let them follow it up with you at a later date, when it’s closer to the date or when it has become more pressing. Chances are, a lot of things you said “Maybe” to have fizzled before they even became realities, or someone else has stepped in to do the task you had hesitated about doing, probably because you are already too busy, overcommited, or weren’t really that interested anyway.
10. Don’t reply to instant messages or text messages right away.
Replying immediately trains others to expect your constant availability. Let them wait a bit; if someone really needs you, they’ll follow up with a call or try contacting you again – they’ll find a way if they really need you NOW. But how often does life really present that kind of emergency? Practise being slow with replying to messages. Nothing bad will happen to you and you’ll probably find that your responses are better when you give yourself time to think first. And sometimes messages don’t even need a reply – they’re just fluff. Choose how you spend your time on social media and text messaging – it’s not a bad thing, just choose what you do with it, rather than letting it choose (and overwhelm) you.
You were not born to be at the beck and call of others. Your life is your own. Communication technology in this day and age can be a blessing or a curse; we get to choose which. We are in charge of our own lives.
For as Annie Dillard wrote so wisely: “Spend the afternoon – you can’t take it with you.”