How to unplug in 2016

I have a confession to make. I wanted to dive into this first article in 2016, didactic and pristine. I wanted to report that I’m sticking to my new year’s resolution.

Alas, we’re only a couple of weeks into January and I’ve blown it already. What am I talking about? Unplugging.

During 2015, unplugging from social media was a popular topic on the web. It’s hard to ignore the irony: people announcing on social media that they really would like to do less social media.

I returned from the holiday, checked email, downloaded podcasts and thought I’d leave it there. But no. I then proceeded to stay online on eBay, listing items to sell… and checking into Facebook… then a quick flick through Twitter. Bang went my own resolution to switch off my computer no later than 6pm.

Oh, and did I mention that this was on a Sunday night, before I’d even started back at the office?

In reality, much of what we think about unplugging has little to do with switching off completely, and more to do with taking control of our relationship to technology.

Plugging in has become pervasive in our lives

Plugging in has become pervasive in our lives. Next time you’re out and about, just take a moment to watch people going about their business.

You will see pretty much everyone present attached to some kind of device, whether walking down the street, in a cafe, library or workplace. Research has even found that our attachment to electronics and messaging rewards our brain chemistry, which explains why we keep going back for more.

The future is here, and we don’t even know it. We are cyborgs, living in an Age of Technology.

How to counter all of this?  Here is part 1 of my top tips for unplugging in 2016.

1. Control your email
One positive thing that mobile devices have brought us is the ability to stay in touch when we’re out of the office. Sometimes that important message really does have to reach us, no matter where we are – but unless we deal with the onslaught in our inboxes, we can become bombarded.

Worse still, others may see us as ‘always on’, perfectly happy to respond to messages 24/7.

We’d all love to achieve inbox zero and leave our desks every day with a big smile on our face, but let’s face it – that isn’t always feasible.

A great way to keep email in its place is simply to switch off those incessant notifications. Set your phone so that it doesn’t ping every time a message lands, and configure your email client to remove the prompt appearing on your screen when new messages arrive.

Switch off email in the evening

Instead, commit to checking your emails at fixed times every day, and if necessary, let contacts know that you’re doing this.

If you know you’re expecting an urgent communication, fine – keep your messaging on for that, but try not to make it a habit. Switch off email on all your devices in the evening. The working day is over: give yourself a break!

2. Turn off social media notifications
This one is a no-brainer. Unless you urgently want to see friends’ pictures of their dog, cat or other beloved pet, or witness people gurning at a social event, you don’t need your mobile to ping every single time those hundreds of online friends post to Facebook. Alter your notification settings, and check the posts when you sign in.

Moreover, be ruthless on social media: if someone is repeatedly boring you with Instagrams of their breakfast, lunch, dinner or any other snack they’re consuming, unfollow them.

The same goes for Twitter. It’s always on, night and day, and it isn’t going to go away. If there are specific people in your timeline that you enjoy following, create lists and add them. This helps to calm the noise in your feed and allows you to concentrate on the content you do want to see.

Better still, download a free social media organiser such as Hootsuite, and cover all your timelines in one go.

3. Can the spam
Spam is a real energy drainer. I’m not talking about the kind that attempts to sell you off-pharmacy pills, intimate encounters or encourages you out of your life savings.

Unsubscribe to avoid push messages

So much of our online activity these days – whether shopping, downloads, petitions, services, forums and so forth – means we have to give out our email address.

Yes, technically (and legally) this is not spam as we have signed up to receive it, but it is as good as unwanted, often becoming overwhelming in its frequency.

The solution is simple: either unsubscribe or alter your notification settings so that your inbox isn’t clogged with push messages you really don’t need. If those fabulous discounts your favourite outlets offer do mean having to receive marketing messages, it’s a good idea to set up a separate folder and create message rules to filter them directly out of your inbox. It leaves you free to focus on the more important stuff.

4. Check your apps
The new year is always a good opportunity for a spring clean, and the virtual world is no exception.

Try going through all the apps on your phone or tablet and work out which ones are still genuinely useful. Delete those ones you don’t use often: they’ll be less of a drain on your device (and data plan), and see if other apps might be more handy. Better still, ask yourself whether you can operate without them at all.

5. Compartmentalise social media
This is a popular technique among social media experts to ensure you get the most out of online activity. It involves deciding which platforms are suitable for your needs, what you are going to use them for, and sticking to it.

For example, I use Facebook for social contact with friends and people I actually know offline; Twitter for professional and topical interest and marketing; and LinkedIn as a professional presence. (I’m also on Pinterest, 500px and Flickr for my photography, but I use those less often.)

Treating social media in this way means little crossover and repetition. It’s purposeful, helping you to focus your online activity and avoid wasting time.

A great way to streamline your social media is to use tools such as Buffer, which allow you to schedule posts without being present. For me, Buffer is a godsend: I can organise tweets and posts to go out exactly when I want, which frees me up to concentrate on other important things… like work, and unplugging!

I subscribe to Feedly, which curates content in the topics I’m interested in; I also subscribe to a selection of blogs relevant to my work and interests. All it takes is a half-hour each week to keep the content topped up and scheduled on Buffer. Job done.

In part 2 next week I’ll be looking at more ways to regain balance in our lives by staying offline.

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