The Blackout

I am on a personal journey to go offline. I want to limit heavily my exposure to news, social media, online gaming and the likes. I have two main reasons. The first is they distract me from doing other stuff. A couple of days ago someone asked me: where do you find the time to read and do all this? You have to make some cuts. When you don’t succumb to unintentional content consumption–the content someone else has laid out to trap you in–you carve time for intentional reading or action–the things you do want to engage with.

The second reason is that I believe online addiction is a real disease, nocive as alcoholism or tobaccoism. We are simply not mature as a society to acknowledge it. And as much as tobacco became an industry that plays the dangerous game of creating shareholder value by poisoning people–the more the better–social networks thrive on creating an addictive pattern of usage. Society learned the perils of tobacco at a certain point in time (certainly too late, the industry was already there,) and jumped into regulating it heavily. Nobody regulates today Facebook, or Candy Crush. I believe one day we will.

Perhaps the final proof of the nocive nature of online addiction is how relieving it is to step out of it. When you stop smoking, you regain your taste and smell, you regain your physical condition. When you leave Facebook, you are rewarded with the same type of recovery, in this case on a psychological level. You regain the ability to focus, to engage more fully with the environment. I read that the physical presence of your phone already creates anxiety, even if it is turned off! The feeling you might be missing some new Instagram notification (famously named as fomo), triggers you to compulsively check it. So deep in our brains is that habit carved out, that the only presence of that object in the room has been proven to increase the stress of the person. Scary.

So what steps have I taken to reduce exposure? First, I left social networks. I met my MBA colleagues after 10 years and the organizer told me I’m the only one in our promotion not in LinkedIn. I secretly–or not so secretly–smiled at it. I don’t use Facebook (my user´s still there though), LinkedIn or Instagram. I still check Twitter every now and then (once a week perhaps.)

I stopped reading news. This one may seem rather extreme (actually I do check them some days,) but it is blissful. Whether you like it or not, the business model behind an online news site is ad based. This means news sites will optimize two things: profiling you based on the way you read the paper (so that they can show better ads); and make you click on articles, for which news have to be worded in a certain way, not necessarily the most informative one. So even when you think you are entering the site to learn what is going on, you are jumping into a place that will manipulate you into staying around. I do acknowledge there is an element of self regulation in the reputational aspect, but they have to live in a constant tension between maximizing revenues and maximizing credibility. I simply don’t trust those business models.

I use a content blocker. A little plugin in my browser that will block any advertisement. I realize the contradiction of enjoying a certain content and not willing to pay for it (by letting them show me advertisement,) but it is so much better experience, and online advertisement is such a creepy thing. I simply cannot help it, and makes for a much more focused reading experience.

I disabled all notifications. When I say all, I do say ALL. I don’t get notified of new emails in my laptop. I don’t get notifications in my phone or iPad. Go into Notification Center and simply disable EVERYTHING. Notifications are a way to hook you into someone else’s priorities, and pull you out from yours.

I rearranged the apps in my phone and iPad. Here’s what my home screen looks like.

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There are no icons whatsoever (I need to work on that new dock, though.) When I turn my iPad on, nothing is demanding my attention. Before I did this, I turned it on to get immediately pulled by those pending messages in dozens of icons (those red circles in iOS) and then forget what I wanted to do in the first place. This trick is wonderful. I’m no longer distracted by all those icons demanding attention. I constantly use the search function to look for the app I want to use (pull down on the home screen or press Cmd+Space in the keyboard.) Again, it makes for a more deliberate use of the device instead of a distracted one.

But finally I came up with an idea at home that I’m enjoying a lot. I call it the blackout: at 21.30h, all electronic devices must be turned off at home. I mean ALL. No TV, no phones, no tablets. We will put all of them away from us. So far, it has been an enlightening experience. My 8 year old son really gives me a hard time every time I call for the blackout (I mean, he wants to be a YouTuber...) But 30 seconds into the blackout, he will be drawing, or playing with a sword, or–wait for it–talking to me. There’s no background noise in the home, so the atmosphere of peace is great. Sometimes I have time to read a paper book. Yes, paper. My wife cheats, though. She uses the excuse to take our younger son to sleep to keep watching shows on Netflix. We will keep working on that. But anyway, those minutes of relief at the end of the day pull me back to a state I believe we all must enjoy at some point. I’m not retiring to a cabin in the woods yet, but certainly will keep on looking for those peaceful moments more and more in the years to come. Go and try it out if you haven’t.

See you next week.

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