Research has shown the importance, from a health perspective, of mentally distancing yourself from communication technologies when you're not at work. Studies have also proven that multitasking – for example, updating your Facebook status with one hand while you finish a project in the office with another – is an ineffective way to get jobs done.
Some experts have even suggested classifying "Internet addiction" as a mental health disorder due to its effects on the brain. Studies show excessive use can also cause sleep disorders and depression.
To counter these disturbing trends and take a more balanced approach, an increasing number of people across many industries have begun turning to alternate strategies to force themselves offline. One such strategy is the "digital fast:" occasional planned unplugging from smartphones, email and social media.
Here are some reasons why you might want to follow their lead:
Disconnect to Reconnect
Scheduling time to disconnect digitally can allow you to become more present to other people as well as to your environment. "People who have their eyes on a screen are missing out on in-person connections with other people," says Leigh Steere, co-founder of Managing People Better, LLC. "Observation is a key to learning and to gaining new insights. If your head is always down, you are missing the world around you and what it might teach you."
Diane Gottsman, a national etiquette authority, echoes the importance of disconnecting from technology to reconnect with others. "It's too easy to check the status of our Facebook account during the day, compose a quick tweet, text a friend or two and then take a lunch break," she says. "Unplugging often requires a corporate policy, not intended to disconnect completely but to use good judgment when taking a break."
Clear Your Head
A study conducted by TNS Research and Hewlett Packard determined that when employees are distracted by emails and texts, they suffer a larger IQ drop than if they'd smoked marijuana. Many executives are taking note of such findings to adjust their approach to technology. David Mintz, CEO and founder of Tofutti Brands, picks one night a week to turn his smartphone off completely. He uses this night to clear his head and remove himself from his work life. "Taking a break is a good thing for you – smartphones can cloud judgment," he says. "Clearing your life every once in a while of distractions will make you a better business owner or employee and improve your career."
Another reason to periodically clear your head from social media is to boost your morale. "Everyone on Facebook is always happy and taking vacations to exotic locations with beautiful people," says Richard Moran, a bestselling business author. "Meanwhile, you are slugging it out in a cubicle in the accounts payable department. Unplugging allows you to get those fabulous vacation updates on your terms – or not at all."
Regain Your Focus
Workplace performance depends on an ability to spot problems and create innovative solutions. Doing so requires depth, not just breadth, according to Charlie Harary, partner at H3 & Company. "Depth requires the ability to focus," Harary says. "With social media and emails always buzzing around us, that focus becomes nearly impossible."
Periodic unplugging can help improve that focus. Emma Moore, interactive director at Fundamental, says that although she was among the early adopters of social media, she has since moderated her approach to it. Moore deactivated her Facebook account and decreased her Twitter time to a few times a week for about four months. "It is essential to unplug at least one day a week, as well as take a month off any sites that take focus away from your dreams and interests," she says.
Psychotherapist Lisa Brateman, LCSW, says that being overly tuned in to smartphones and laptops causes over-stimulation, anxiety and stress. "People are often in the quick-to-respond mode, which undermines their ability to calm down and relax, taking a toll on their emotional state," she says. To digitally detox, Brateman recommends "turning off" during dinner and at least two hours before bedtime.
Joel Gross, CEO and founder of Coalition Technologies, agrees with the importance of strategic unplugging – particularly at night. Gross's personal strategy to combat this despite his 80-hour workweek is to take three "unplugging breaks" daily, including a scheduled nap from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m., a CrossFit workout from 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. and reading the last hour before bed.
Reclaim Your Time
After working for Google and DoubleClick, small business owner Irfan Jaffery felt growing pressure to respond immediately to social media requests. To take the pressure off, he began to selectively outsource. "I have others respond to certain messages during scheduled down times so I can spend time with family," Jaffery says. "As much as I want to instantly respond on Twitter or Facebook, it simply is not practical. I live to stay unplugged during the weekends."
The unplugged approach can yield another benefit – one that may help on a more global level. If your online experience leaves you feeling like you're treading water, then cutting the cord, even temporarily, can give you the chance to look anew at your situation, according to business author Paul Freiberger. "Think of it as a vacation, or a brief retreat," he says. "You may come back with a new perspective, renewed energy and new ideas of how to make the most of both your online and offline opportunities."
Robin Madell has spent two decades as a writer, journalist, and communications consultant on business, leadership, career, and diversity issues. She has interviewed over 200 thought leaders around the globe, and has won 20 awards for editorial excellence. Robin serves as a speechwriter and ghostwriter for CEOs and top executives, with a specialized focus on women in business. She is author of Surviving Your 30s: Americans Talk About Life After 30, which is scheduled for publication in June 2013.