‘Unplugging’ is a myth: How to create a digital experience that works

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Whenever I speak to accountants about their relationship with technology, I find they are at a loss for realistic ideas about how to improve it. They understand they are reliant on technology both professionally and personally, but they still find themselves fatigued by it. In short, they need a better way.

In an age where interest is measured by clicks and the value of anything can be quantified by likes, it’s not hard to see how forceful all-or-nothing opinions carry a lot of weight. While much ink has been spilled on the nature of the link between social media and political polarization, no topic is immune from such thinking. (Superhero movies, for example, are either the best thing to ever happen to the movies or the death of cinema.) One area that seems especially prone to grand pronouncements of this sort is our relationship with technology.

There’s nothing controversial about saying that tech is an ever-increasing part of our lives. The numbers don’t lie, but even level-headed articles from reputable sources can’t help but paint those numbers as “terrifying.” On the other side of the coin, though, are those who exalt any innovation and believe that more tech is always better. The truth, as ever, lies somewhere in between.

The myth of disconnecting

Before you can approach your relationship with tech on renewed and improved terms, you have to dispel the romantic notion that you can forswear tech altogether. People love to pretend that they can turn off their computer, put their phone in their pocket, and go on as if that tech never existed. While you can find countless guides for how to “disconnect,” not a single one of them will be practical for anyone who doesn’t have the means to live a life at odds with modern society.

If we accept the fact that trying to shun tech is wishful thinking, we can begin to ask ourselves how to alter our relationship with the digital world. One of the best ways of doing so that I’ve come across recently is Cal Newport’s theory of “digital minimalism” from the book of the same name he published earlier this year. “Digital minimalism definitively does not reject the innovations of the internet age,” he writes, “but instead rejects the way so many people currently engage with these tools.” He defines his theory as follows: "A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else."

Unpacking digital minimalism

There is no way to provide a list of apps that will fall under the umbrella of minimalism. The answer will be different for everyone. Instead of tech itself, your agency over them is what makes digital minimalism sing. In our personal lives, it’s a straightforward task to identify intrusive tech. If something doesn’t make you happy when you use it, use it less or not at all. “My advice to gain the upper hand in this struggle is to demobilize the digital stream,” writes Newport in an article for the New York Times about decreasing digital dependency. In the article, he advises tactics like limiting social media to desktop rather than letting them follow you around on your phone. When you decide when and how you access your technology, you control it, rather than vice versa.

Of course, we don’t have quite so much freedom in a professional context. You can’t tell your boss, “This accounting software doesn’t strongly support the thing I value, so I’m not going to use it.” Having to make concessions to the reality of the workplace, though, doesn’t preclude a minimalist approach. The vast majority of us have way too much happening on our screens at work. (How many tabs do you have open as you read this article?)

There are plenty of ways to reset your tech relationship at the office. Make a list of the essential programs and services you use on a daily basis, the ones that you can’t do your job without. If a piece of software, social media platform or the like don’t appear on the list, try not to limit them at work or schedule time in your day when you will indulge in it. Another nice trick is to completely log out and shut down your machine at the end of the day. Doing so creates a definitive break in your mind between “on” and “off,” even if our tech never truly goes to sleep.

Supporting new habits

It’s important to remember that restructuring your digital interaction takes time. You can’t change your habits overnight; you have to work toward creating new ones that stick and practice it. Thankfully, even tech companies themselves seem to have a vested interest in helping you get more of a handle of your relationship with tech. Apps like Apple’s Screen Time and Android’s Digital Wellbeing track all manner of digital engagement methods to give you hard data on when you’re logging on and where you’re spending your time. The same way the FitBit has made millions of Americans avid step counters, maybe these apps will make us more aware of how much time we’re spending in front of screens.

Finding replacements for the endorphin rush social media can provide is another way to lessen the influence technology has on you life. Whether you play board games with friends, take up knitting, or join a basketball league, hobbies can serve to improve your experience outside the office and, perhaps, your performance within it. Any hobby that encourages old-school analog engagement gives us a reason to forget our phones, if only for a little while.

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