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Pulling the Plug as an Act of Self-Care

Today, Eric Vanden Eykel is sharing his views on self-care in academia with us. Eric is an Assistant Professor of Religion at Ferrum College, where he teaches biblical studies and world religions. The focus of his research is in the history and literature of early Christianity. He and his wife have two daughters and a dog. You can find him on Twitter at @evandeneykel.

Several years ago now, while I was studying for my doctoral qualifying exams, I stumbled across a provocative read: The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. In it, technology and culture author Nicholas Carr argues that the internet is changing how we think and process information, and not in a good way. At the end of the preface he leaves the reader with a haunting proposition: “The computer screen … is so much our servant that it would seem churlish to notice that it is also our master.”

I found Carr’s argument compelling because at that time I was experiencing many of the issues that he mentions: difficulty reading for extended periods, trouble focusing and retaining information, anxiety about not being able to read everything, etc. All of these are symptoms of what is commonly called “information overload,” and any one of them can be crippling or even fatal (metaphorically, of course) for one who is studying for their doctoral qualifying exams.

In an attempt to remedy my situation, I tried an experiment: leave the laptop/phone/tablet behind when I was heading out to study, start taking notes by hand, and see what happens. To say that the first few weeks were difficult would be a gross understatement. Some days, my angst would peak before I had even escaped my driveway: “What if someone e-mails me? What if I need to look something up online? What if I need to download an article that one of my books mentions? What if I need to take a picture of something awesome?” But I pushed through, and after a few months I found not only that my focus had improved, but that I was remembering details of what I was reading in a way that I’d never before. Even the quality of my sleep increased! I had discovered firsthand the joys of unplugging.

Fast forward a few years and I no longer have the benefit of being able to leave my laptop behind for extended periods of time. In academia, the ability to spend months doing nothing but reading and thinking about interesting books is a luxury afforded to graduate students and faculty on sabbatical. For the rest of us, electronics are an inescapable part of the job: e-mails from students and faculty don’t answer themselves; course management software, however intelligent, needs a push in the right direction every now and again; and workload and scheduling forms must never be written by hand!

But while unplugging for months at a time might not be feasible for most, the good news is that there are simple ways to unplug for short periods of time every day, and significant benefits to be had by doing so. Below are three examples, all of which involve what has become (at least in my life) perhaps the most dangerous and harmful device that I own: my smartphone.

1) Take a walk — By far the easiest way to unplug is to put actual, physical distance between you and your electronic devices. So about once every two hours while I’m at work, I go for a walk. I have a route through the quad that can be accomplished in about ten minutes, which is long enough to feel like I’ve taken a break, but short enough that it doesn’t affect my ability to accomplish my daily tasks. The key to making these walks “unplugged” is that my phone has to stay behind in my office. Otherwise I am too tempted to answer it when it buzzes in my pocket or to fiddle with it as I’m walking. While I am walking I try to focus on something mundane in an effort to give my brain a real break: counting my steps or the number of seams in the sidewalk usually does the trick.

2) Designate a phone-free zone in your house — Another way to guarantee that you get some unplugged time every day is to prohibit use of your phone in a specific part of your house. It should be a place that you use on a daily basis, otherwise you are kidding yourself. My kitchen table is my phone-free zone. When I am sitting there, whether it is to eat, to play Play Doh with my children, or to chat with my wife, I do not allow myself to touch my phone. If by force of habit I find that it has leapt out of my pocket and into my hand, I put it in the other room. The kitchen table is an ideal phone-free zone for me because it is also one of the most social spots in our house, and making it phone-free allows me to unplug not only for my own benefit, but to give those seated there my full attention and respect.

3) Exercise — Last, but certainly not least, exercise can be a wonderful means of unplugging. I say “can be” because many forms of exercise (walking, biking, running, etc.) lend themselves to headphone/phone use. I used to run with headphones because I liked listening to podcasts (it made me feel more productive). I don’t anymore, for two reasons: first, because I found the experience of running without headphones to be significantly more relaxing; and second, because the ultimate source of my music while running was my phone, and its presence had started to become a distraction. I have no qualms whatsoever with those who use headphones while exercising, but I have found their absence from my exercise routine to be freeing.

I’m no Luddite; I spend a good portion using, enjoying, and benefitting from my electronic devices. But I have found that giving myself frequent breaks from these devices helps me to be a more productive scholar, a more present husband and father, and a happier and healthier human being.

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