Insights From My Digital Sabbatical

August 5, 2019

by Ravi Raman

Sorry for not replying to that passing comment on Facebook. Or reacting to your Instagram feed. Or responding to your requests on LinkedIn. I’ve been purposely delinquent in tending to my social networks, for a good reason: for the past month, I’ve been on parental leave.

As an independent Executive Coach, the choice to take a month off was mine and mine alone. Yes, I needed to plan appropriately to make sure my clients were not left in the lurch. However, the motivation for disconnecting for a month was to take advantage of one of these few times in adult life when being unreachable is acceptable, and dare I say, laudable.

For July, I’ve been mostly off the grid. This meant taking all social apps off my phone, removing all notifications (except for calls and texts) and opting for low-tech activities when possible (real books not eBooks for example). I even stopped sharing my runs and hikes on Strava (gasp!).

My digital sabbatical was yet another reminder of the dire toll that a constant digital connection takes on an already full life. In particular, I noticed a few things that I’d like to share:

Tech isn’t the problem. Socially charged tech is.

I love technology, and it’s clear to me that technology is not the problem when it comes to a sense of frenzy, anxiety, and rampant overwork I see many people suffering from. The problem is what socially-powered experiences do to the psyche, particular when the mind is already overloaded with the demands of life. Unless one is adept enough to transcend the grip of the ego, the impact of a stream of your friends carefully curated finest moments does not inspire you to be your best. Instead, it instigates one-upmanship, FOMO, and a sense of limited self-worth.

My experience is that social feeds trigger a dangerous palette of emotions, particularly high on that list are fear and outrage. After a month away from the occasional dip into my Facebook feed (and I wasn’t a Facebook addict either) I felt a palpable sense of OK-ness and acceptance with myself and my lot in life. I also felt naturally inspired to pursue my own interests, not chase what someone else is saying I should or shouldn’t do, or measure the value of my life experiences based on the number of likes that flow in. I also felt far calmer than I’ve been in ages, and I’m a pretty calm dude as it is.

No one in their right mind would opt-in to using something that’s guaranteed to create a panoply of negative emotion. Unfortunately, socially-oriented technology triggers enough of the addiction centers of the mind (not unlike gambling) that people are doing precisely that. A month away from it all made the impact clear as day for me.

Most news is not worth knowing.

What does it mean to be informed?

One of the harder things to pull away from is checking the news. My news drugs of choice are Google News (carefully curated to push my trigger buttons!), NPR, PBS, CNN, and Twitter. Over the month of my digital sabbatical, I significantly reduced my news consumption. Instead, opting for reading books or longer-form articles (I get the paper version of The New Yorker). Mostly, I just ignored what was going on.

Over the past few days, I’ve gone back to my old habit. Checking Google News in the morning and listening to the news on NPR. I’ve learned that there have been two mass shootings in the past few days. Multiple people have died tragic deaths for various reasons in the Denver area (where I live), and Ebola is making a comeback in parts of Africa. I also read all sorts of opinions (not facts) about the various Democratic presidential candidates and tweet-by-tweet tear-downs of Trump’s latest missives.

All this has left me agitated (with Trump), confused (with the bi-polar nature of political news coverage), fearful (hearing about various random crimes in Denver) and outraged (at the mass shootings). All of this happened on a Sunday afternoon. Instead of enjoying myself, I was swept away in a maelstrom of emotion turmoil (I’m a bit hyperbolic, you get my point).

Was this useful to me, or anyone?

The news did not trigger me to take decisive action. It just triggered me to get emotional and keep clicking more headlines. There are surely better ways to be informed, engaged, and inspired to be a positive agent on the issues that matter.

Shallow browsing makes the mind dull and anxious.

One reason I enjoy reading books (and listening to long-form podcasts and YouTube interviews) is that they make it easy to focus on a topic for an extended period of time. The opposite of this approach is the web surfing approach whereby the name of the game is to hop from topic to topic in a random-walk sort of way. I’ve been doing far less of this shallow browsing over the past month. The impact has been a palpable sense of calm, improved focus, and a desire to go deeper into topics.

For example, I’m now reading a 600+ page book on The Silk Road. I’m finding it easy to pick up the book and read, without feeling the impulse to check my phone or open my laptop. I’ve wanted to read this book for a long time. Suddenly, I now feel inspired to do so in an effortless sort of way. As a result, I’m having much deeper thoughts and inquiries about the material I’m reading. I notice the same thing happening with mundane activities around the house, where instead of just doing a quick and dirty job cleaning the house, for example, I’m more apt to re-organize and deeply scour things thoroughly.

I’ve been naturally going deeper into things, without feeling like I need to use willpower and effort to do so. I think this capacity to focus and concentrate, arising naturally, is an immensely valuable thing. I’m convinced that this is emerging since my brain is not constantly multitasking and bouncing around between various external stimuli. What’s even more interesting, is that I’ve considered myself to have a strong capacity to concentrate, and tend not to multitask. I now realize just how much hopping from topic to topic I’ve been doing lately!

Your business (or career) won’t die if you don’t respond to email.

As an independent business owner, and a service-oriented business at that (coaching), being responsive to customers (and potential customers) seems vitally important. What happened during my month away from email? Did my business tank? Did all my clients run for the hills?

First of all, I’ll admit to checking my email on two occasions and replying to a few messages. That said, I didn’t need even to do that. I had an “out of office” message sent to everyone who emailed saying I was out for the month. Yes, I had a handful of potential new clients reach out. Will they have found another coach since I didn’t respond to their inquiries? Perhaps, but perhaps not. I’m reaching out to them this week. Let’s see what happens.

Even if my business declines slightly by being less responsive on email, what I gain in increased focus and clarity is worth it. More likely, I’m thinking that the improved creativity and output I generate (which tends to happen when I’m taking in fewer inputs) will help my business in the long-run. My best example of this is the blog you are reading right now. My last blog post was over five months ago! Yet, for some reason, today I was inspired to share and started writing these words. It’s as if the space created by not filling my mind with external data allowed a natural desire to create something to arise.


So am I going low-tech and non-social for good?

I’m not sure. For now, I’ll be consuming nothing from my social feeds on my mobile device. The usual culprits – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn- are banished from my phone, and I have no plans to re-install them. All other app notifications are muted and will stay that way. As for email, I’m doubtful that I can keep it completely off my phone, but I’m going to give it a shot for as long as I can.

There are other scenarios I’m on the fence with. Aspects of LinkedIn are important for my business. I also occasionally use Twitter for product support and relevant local news (e.g., snow and trail reports for the Colorado mountains). I’ll save those scenarios for when I’m using my computer (not phone). Making things even more complicated, I’m on the board of directors for a non-profit, and responsible for marketing (which includes social media engagement). I need to sort out how to engage on social for the non-profit while not doing so for me personally. Then, there is this blog post…do I share it on my various social channels?

So there are a lot of open questions about how sustainable my digital sabbatical will be now that I’m back from parental leave. One thing, however, is for sure: it’s worth it to invest the effort to regain a healthier relationship to the onslaught of socially-charged tech. This isn’t just about getting back time. It’s also not just about being more calm and present. It’s about allowing for deeper insights and creative potential to emerge, born from a refreshed capacity to focus on what matters. In the raging torrent of a half-dozen social streams, how many brilliant ideas drown?

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