Inflated self-importance and the value of unplugging

Oh, the mouse-clicking insanity!
Oh, the mouse-clicking insanity!

I forgot my phone at home yesterday. When I left the house in a rush, my pre-coffee brain could not recall that I had plugged it into my stereo system to stream NPR, thus avoiding the agonizing membership drive week broadcast on our local station.

I recognized the unusually comfortable state of my rear pocket while driving to campus. I then went through at least three of the Kübler-Ross stages of grief: denial (I couldn’t have forgotten it… I must have it here somewhere), anger (what an idiot I am for leaving it at home), and finally acceptance (nothing I can do about it now). But what was most interesting was the period of mild anxiety I experienced. What if clients called about their projects? What if I missed an important email? What if Ben called because his car broke down and he needed my help?

It took a surprising amount of self-talk to dispel this anxiety. I actually had to remind myself that none of my clients’ projects were so pressing that they couldn’t wait until the afternoon. Nobody was gnawing their fingernails waiting for an email response from me. And Ben has plenty of other people he can call if his car breaks down.

I am not so important that I cannot unplug for a while. None of us are.

Look at this schmuck, happily chatting on his digital slavemaster.
Look at this schmuck, happily chatting on his digital slavemaster. OK, fine, he’s just an actor paid to pose for stock photos, but still…

After I remembered this fact, I was relieved. I took the opportunity to reflect a bit about these little devices that have become almost like fifth appendages for many of us. As I walked around campus, I noticed not only students but staff and faculty meandering distractedly along the pedestrian mall, their eyes fixed on the tiny screens in their hands. Inattentive people nearly collide with one another and friends walk side by side without talking, so engrossed in their Facebook feed that they are oblivious to their physical reality.

I felt liberated. Such a simple thing, but liberating all the same. Nobody could call me, nobody could reach me by email, and I would not receive any Facebook notification vibrations in my back pocket. And best of all, I had a legitimate excuse for being out of touch. Nobody will fault you for not immediately returning calls if you are phoneless.

The truth is that I crave an unplugged existence. Being a member of the generation that straddles the digital divide (we vividly remember life pre-cellphone, pre-computer, pre-internet, but on whole we are also fully versed in digital technology), I am often nostalgic for those analog years. I yearn to be untethered from email, phone conferences, FTPs and Facebook. It seems these digital intrusions create so much noise in my life, filling it with artificial busyness, reducing my efforts to pixels and megabytes.

The times I feel most connected to life are the times that I am most disconnected from the digital world.

There is something so satisfying about the solidity of physical involvement that gets lost in a mouse-clicking, keyboard-tapping digital existence. There is something real about making things with my hands instead of on a screen, or pushing my body to exhaustion instead of pushing my vision to a delirious blur. There is something irreproducible about face-to-face interpersonal connection, the touch of a caring hand, the sound of laughter instead of LOL, and an actual smiling face instead of a :).

Sure, I can theoretically unplug at any point. I can turn off my phone or shut down my computer with the push of a button. But in the relentlessly competitive world of freelance design, this places you at a distinct disadvantage. Clients expect overnight turnaround, instantaneous callbacks, and near round-the-clock availability. I am not making this up, and I have lost clients for not being a 24-hour computer/mobile slave. According to Pew Internet:

  • 39% of cell owners say that people they know have complained because they don’t respond promptly to phone calls or text messages.
  • 33% of cell owners say that people they know have complained because they don’t check their phone frequently enough.
Image from the US gov't public domain.
Image from the US gov’t public domain.

And that’s just an average. I’d say from my own experience that it’s much higher in the freelance industry.

This isn’t right. When did we become so damned dependent on our phones? When did it become expected of us that we be available for calls and emails 20 hours a day? It feels like the line between work and personal time is getting more and more blurry, thanks to our pocket-size digital ball and chains. And most Americans  whole-heartedly embrace this slippery slope, this slow erosion of our personal time.

Let’s be honest: it feeds our egos to think that we are so important that we must be available at all times. The “ding ding” of an email notification or the vibration of a Facebook comment stirs in us an illusory validation of our own self-importance, confirmation that we somehow matter to the daily functioning of our respective corners of society. Studies show that the average American checks his or her phone every 6.5 minutes. What!?

I feel guilty when I unplug. I feel like a slacker, or like I am shirking my responsibilities. I feel anxious. I need a bulletproof excuse to justify my unplugging.

That’s why I didn’t really mind forgetting my phone. And that’s what pulls me to the wild places, where you cannot send a text message if you try. And that is what is calling me to South America.

Granted, I will be working while on the road next year. We will be relying on Skype and Google Voice to stay connected with family and friends back home, and of course I’ll be posting here about our trip. We will surely spend a fair amount of time on the computer when we are in urban centers. But nobody will expect us to return phone calls or text messages instantaneously. We won’t even have cell phones.

I will have the bulletproof excuse I need to unplug for a long time. And I can’t wait.

Do you make time to be fully unplugged? If so, do you feel guilty about it, or like you will somehow be penalized for doing so? Does your work situation impose unrealistic expectations on you regarding your phone/email availability?


4 thoughts on “Inflated self-importance and the value of unplugging

  1. Gretchen Getsinger October 18, 2013 / 10:08 pm

    I recently forgot my phone at home and went through similar anxieties.and a whole bunch of what-ifs. I calmed myself by remembering what life was like in pre-cell phone days. Being unplugged that day was wonderful!


    • rameyontheroad October 18, 2013 / 10:28 pm

      Yes! Such a pleasant accident. Makes me want to “forget” my phone more often. Society got along just fine pre-cellphone, yet somehow we are all convinced they are now 100% necessary all the time. Hmm.


  2. Robyn October 24, 2013 / 11:21 pm

    David and I rarely turn our cell phones on. When we do make a call from our cell phones to someone and leave a message and ask them to call our land line at home “as we do not frequently use or check our cell phone” invariably they try to call (redial) us on the cell phone and get irritated when we don’t respond. Did they even listen to what I had to say in my message!? Apparently not. I have little patience in the presence of people constantly being distracted by their cell phones especially in cars. Who’s there? Who’s driving! Who’s disconnected?


    • rameyontheroad November 17, 2013 / 6:08 pm

      Yes, the ubiquity of phone usage is quite notable these days. I have almost been struck down while running by a motorist who was texting… TWICE. One time I had to throw myself into a ditch while the vehicle ran off the road. While I am thankful for the convenience of my phone in so many ways, I try not to let it rule my life. Balance.


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