The Cost – and Joy – of Disconnecting

I plan to hit "Mark all as read."

586 work emails. 770 emails awaiting me in Gmail. 2700+ Google Reader posts. And untold thousands of tweets.

But it was so very worth it.

I just returned from 19 days in Asia. When originally planning the trip – as part of a class for my Master’s in Integrated Marketing Communications through Northwestern University’s Medill School – I had thought about how great it would be to travel this time while remaining connected to life back home.

But the more I thought about it, I realized that this 19 day trek provided a very real opportunity to escape from the fog of social media. And since Facebook and Twitter are blocked in China, that automatically made 8 days possible.

Could I do it? The thought made me nervous. Sure, I often pick a weekend day and cut myself off. 19 days is a very different animal, though, especially while traveling and likely encountering great pictures and Twitter fodder. And imagine the FourSquare points I could accrue!

I decided to go whole-hog and cut myself off entirely. I was bringing my netbook so I could write about my experiences – several blog posts coming as soon as I finish them – but I didn’t get an international data plan for my phone.

My plan was to not touch the internet for three weeks. No social media, no email, no phone. I communicated my plan to everyone who needed to know, providing emergency contact numbers. I scheduled things to auto-publish for work. And then I packed my bags and left home.

Landing at San Francisco after the first leg of my flight to Seoul, I checked in on FourSquare and texted a few people, nervous about the looming cut off.

The first couple of days, I found myself reflexively reaching for my phone during lulls while waiting in line or riding the bus. I kept trying to fill the downtime. Once I got through the digital shakes, though, it was fantastic. I was much more present, much more aware of and in tune with my surroundings. I observed things I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. I stared out windows. I relaxed and wrote – some by hand, some on the netbook.

I didn’t completely attain internet-free nirvana, though. Since I was traveling for class, I did need to connect to email a few times to access files, prepare for presentations and send thank you notes. But when I did, I refused to open any emails not related to the tasks at hand, cringing a bit as I watched the unread count climb each time I logged in. (I’m thankful I proactively unsubscribed to several different email lists in the weeks before my trip.)

In China, I tried accessing several websites, just to test the limits of the Great Firewall. (Verdict: nope, you can’t access Twitter, Facebook, Wikipedia or certain books on Amazon.com. Some news sites were strangely “unavailable.” And even Gmail mysteriously went down for a two-day period in Shanghai.) Never fear, though, the Chinese government operates 16 TV channels to ensure you’re well informed!

Sadly, I can't mark all my work emails as read. But once I clear out all the newsletters, notifications and expired meetings, it should be manageable.

On the long trip home – nearly 28 hours from my hotel in Taipei to home, via Tokyo and DFW – I thought about my break from social media. My head is clear of distractions and detritus, and full of new ideas and connections that may not have been made if I was busy scrolling through Twitter.

Since my job as a social media strategist entails a lot of Twitter time, I know I’ll likely never get another such break again, at least not to this magnitude. But I’m glad to know that I can do it, and that I’ve been reminded that it’s possible to just be without needing a digital crutch.

And now to tackle my inboxes.

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2 responses to “The Cost – and Joy – of Disconnecting

  1. I love, love, love following you!

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