“Turning off social media, not checking email, and not feeling the urge to immediately respond to text messages removes that ever-present “being connected” weight from my shoulders and allows me to enjoy just being in the moment.” – Garret Pachtinger, VMD, DACVECC, Co-Founder, VETgirl
If you’ve seen me speak or kept up with my blog in the past, you know how important the practice of #unplugging has become to me.
For those of you just tuning in, don’t feel left behind! You should first start off by checking out the #unplugged post that started it all, the exceptional sequel from DVM 360, my shorter stints I like to call #unplugged moments post, and last year’s #unplugged you make your own rules to get up to speed. If you’d rather catch up by watching a video, here’s a Facebook live I gave on the topic as well!
Those pitfalls I mentioned in previous posts, well, they can be pretty serious. Not only has constant online connectivity like social media led to the increasing prevalence of ADHD, but it’s also contributed to increasing rates of anxiety and depression found across society at large. This 2018 report from NBC News reviewed 41 million individuals and found rising depression rates across Americans from all age groups. It also highlights the most dangerous part: depression is rising the fastest amongst both teens and young adults.
Dr. Laurel Williams, chief of psychiatry at Texas Children’s Hospital was interviewed for the study and stated the following:
“Many people are worried about how busy they are. There’s a lack of community. There’s the amount of time that we spend in front of screens and not in front of other people.”
With this study in mind, it’s easy to see the double-edged sword that is our increasing connectivity. On one hand, productivity can be boosted, we gain access to new and convenient technologies and we can FaceTime our friends just by prompting Siri. On the other, these same benefits may be taking a long-term toll on our mental health.
A recent Pew Research Center poll found that approximately 26% of Americans are “almost constantly” online, a figure that’s on the rise.
This leads me back to the importance of #unplugging: a personal ritual that involves disconnecting from technology for either a brief or extended period of time according to personal preference.
Since I’ve written on the subject a number of times, this year I wanted to engage my friends and colleagues about their experiences, to better learn the myths, misconceptions and varied encounters that can come from unplugging.
By sharing what others do, I hope to explore how universal the benefits of unplugging can be and how the experience is different for everyone. It’s important to note that I engaged a wide-range of peers for this discussion. Some work as practice managers, practicing veterinarians, and technicians, while some work in corporate roles, are business consultants, patient care coordinators, practice owners, veterinary students and beyond. I wanted to emphasize a wide range of experiences here to better understand the power of unplugging and how it can lend itself uniquely to different individuals, while still offering consistent positive psychological benefits.
Here are the questions that I asked when surveying my peers:
- Did you hesitate to unplug? If so, why? What excuses did you give yourself?
- Did your clients and/or employer get upset with you when you unplugged?
- When you came back, were you so overwhelmed that you regretted unplugging?
Remember, just like unplugging itself, there is no wrong answer or singular technique. Every individual has a different approach, which is a big reason the answers I received were so amazing. Each response shared a small slice of the power of the present moment, something that’s so often obscured when we’re stuck looking at our phones…
Let’s read on to hear what people shared with me when asked about their own #unplugged to reflect on what we can learn from these experiences:
Mia Cary, DVM, AVMA, Chief of Professional Development & Strategic Alliances
“As much as I love social media and its potential for connectivity, sharing optimism and upside, I also love the power of unplugging. Thank you for keeping attention on this! A personal example – this week I’m working remotely out of my sister’s house which allows me to visit with my mom (Tootie!) who lives in a skilled nursing facility a few miles down the road. Every morning on my way to visit with her I stop by Freeman Lake to capture a picture of something interesting (the sunrise is one of her personal favorites). Before breakfast, I show her the pictures I took that morning and then we look at pics from her kiddos’ Instagram and Facebook accounts. She LOVES it. Sometimes I’ll post messages on her behalf to her friends and family members.
Then I put my phone on silent and we enjoy breakfast followed by as many hands of gin rummy as we can get in before my first call of the day. I am so very grateful for this time with her. During my evening visits we might play around with Snapchat filters (cracks us both up) or Snapchat video call with Hubs, then the phone goes away for more hands of rummy and time with Tootie. What great perspective and contentment it brings to unplug and be in the moment with those we love!”
Dr. Cary uses unplugging to spend quality time with family and even occasionally uses technology, in a mindful way, to have some fun with her mom (I can relate)! Since she’s consciously deciding when to put her phone away and to immerse herself fully in the moment, she shows us the power we have over our technology use and our ability to choose what matters most.
Trusten Moore, Western University of Health Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine, Class of 2020
“Social media has been the biggest distraction for me in veterinary school. I can’t even imagine how many times I visit these platforms on my phone each day. It has become a normal reflex to open Instagram and Facebook each time I unlock my screen. I find myself with these platforms open in my tabs while I’m trying to do school work. I often stay up late working on content for my accounts instead of studying.
By going unplugged in the little moments that I have this past week, I have come to realize that there is great value in this. Our profession already faces too many stressors, why should we keep adding to that? Plus, it saves on your battery life!”
While social media can be a useful component of marketing and can be personally rewarding as well, it can also be distracting and a constant source of comparison. Trusten shows us how taking small moments away from technology can help us to gain a bird’s-eye view on our usage to decide more objectively if our technology use is healthy.
Andy Roark, DVM
“I struggled to follow your advice. I simply couldn’t walk away from communications (even social media) for a week, much less a month. They are just part of my job, and when I was away, I felt more anxiety than relaxation. I think it’s also possible that I genuinely suffered from social media addiction. I felt like I was missing things when I wasn’t looking, and the desire to check in nagged at me. Looking back, it was a problem for sure.
The biggest thing that helped me was taking up mindfulness meditation; just sitting without my phone and breathing for 10 minutes once or twice a day. This was a huge step for me in calming my mind and turning off that constant seeking behavior that keeps us looking for stimuli every waking moment. When I started taking time to sit, suddenly I just didn’t have the compulsion to check my phone constantly. The ability to put my phone down and walk away for a few hours at a time appeared, even though that’s not why I started doing these short meditation breaks. It was a total side effect. I have found it really useful to leave my phone plugged in and not put it in my pocket at home or at the clinic. The mild inconveniences when I don’t have it are more than balanced out by the better conversations I have with my staff. I’m just more present.”
Dr. Roark noticed that his conversations and interactions were fuller and more meaningful when he is unplugged. This is a huge observation since our technology use can shorten our attention spans and make daily interactions feel more perfunctory. His initial experience, where disconnecting created anxiety, is actually quite common but can be easily surmounted with practice.
Garret Pachtinger, VMD, DACVECC, Co-Founder, VETgirl
“Although you would expect that unplugging from technology leads to Fear of Missing Out (FOMO), it is oddly liberating! Turning off social media, not checking email, and not feeling the urge to immediately respond to text messages removes that ever-present “being connected” weight from my shoulders and allows me to enjoy just being in the moment.
If you are unplugging from technology, you wouldn’t just fall off the grid. Think about simple steps you can take to make this transition easier. If you have any pending business, send your colleagues a note ahead of time informing them you will not be available during that period. Create an auto-reply email as well as text message letting your connections know you will be unavailable between certain dates. More importantly, let these connections know if the message is urgent to re-direct them to another resource for immediate answers. Re-directing important emails to a colleague while you are away will limit that email inbox stress when you return to the office.”
This insight, which focuses on the practical aspects of unplugging, is too important to overlook. Simple things like re-directing emails and setting up a proper auto-reply can allow you to unplug more easily and avoid that nagging feeling of FOMO, too!
Monica Dixon Perry, CVPM, VMC, Inc.
“I am a work in progress as far as unplugging. I have never unplugged on the level that you do when you unplug, but with the upcoming Memorial Day weekend, maybe I should try it! The last time I was remotely close to unplugging was about three weeks ago when I attended my daughter’s 5th grade overnight field trip to the NC coast. Because we were in somewhat of a remote place with limited access to the internet, decent phone reception and could not bring our devices (only cell phones), I was somewhat pushed into being unplugged.
My out of office message directed everyone to the corporate office and I think there was a mention of having limited access to the internet. When things would come through on my cell phone, I forwarded them to my assistant to handle and even one email was forwarded to Mark to handle. I did take advantage of this time and feel good about being able to slightly unplug.”
I love Monica’s example because her overnight experience shows us that the benefits of unplugging and tuning into our surroundings can take place in just moments, it doesn’t have to require entire weeks. This is a great way to get started, with a daily unplug, or an overnight or weekend!
Caitlin DeWilde, DVM, The Social DVM
“I had to actually delete the apps from my phone, so I wasn’t “accidentally” hitting them. Once I did that, it was an official cutting of the cord. I didn’t miss it at all after the second day. It wasn’t an option and I was thrilled.
I remember watching my son play in the pool and looking out on the beach beyond him and then looking over and seeing my two friends and one of their kids sitting next to me, looking at their phones. I was like “what are you doing? Look at how awesome this (our vacation spot) is!” Seeing that hilarious cat meme and crazy case post in the vet group won’t mean anything to me in twenty years. That view and that memory will.”
How powerful is that? Caitlin felt that the moment she was in, without pinning, posting, snapping, tagging etc. was enough. The ability to soak in our surroundings without frequent distraction is one of the most important benefits of unplugging.
Vera Lima, Practice Administrator & Owner, Carleton & Lanark Veterinary Services
“Once my doctor diagnosed me with anxiety, I started to analyze my life and see where I could change, and I noticed that social media was taking up too much of my time and I was too involved in it. The need to have the perfect appearance and IG ready was now bringing me anxiety. Instead of enjoying the moment I was looking to have the IG perfect picture.
Once I turned off all the notifications, I noticed I was more productive without feeling like everything needed my attention all the time.”
Too much technology can exacerbate pre-existing anxiety or even create it, to begin with. Vera’s simple choice to turn off her notifications showcase the profound difference and increased day-to-day enjoyment that eliminating easily preventable stressors can improve.
Susan Little, DVM, DABVP (Feline)
Of course, I hesitated to unplug! My main concern is the amount of work I will have to do afterward to get caught up. It comes down to a value proposition: will I get enough out of being unplugged, even for a few days, to justify working a little harder afterward? The answer is yes! the key was to schedule time – I usually schedule a morning – designated only for getting caught up once I plug back in. That makes it workable for me.
My staff answer client emails when doctors need to be offline or on vacation. They can either handle the query themselves or get help from a technician or another DVM to answer the client. We set up an auto-reply for Facebook which has helped a lot. We only answer simple queries on Facebook – clients are directed to call the clinic or email with anything more involved. That means I can delegate any staff person to monitor Facebook messages when I am offline.
When you came back were you overwhelmed with work and regretted unplugging? I used to be! Now that I schedule catch-up time, it is so much better.
I think one key is to set good boundaries from the start. I think too many vets make themselves personally available (personal cell phones, Facebook accounts, etc.) rather than having everything flow through business communications. That’s an important boundary to set. Your personal and your professional life should be separated! That also makes it easier to unplug.
Annie Wian, Patient Care Coordinator, Veterinary Medical Clinic, Inc.
I decided to unplug for my mental health! My family deserves my time as much as work did and sometimes it’s a harsh reality. When your son comes home and says I can’t even talk to you because you are either at work, talking about work or on the phone texting/talking to work! That’s not okay.
I wasn’t overwhelmed at all. Many of the [work] texts were resolved on their own before I was even able to respond (AND THAT IS OK TOO).
It is definitely a decision you need to make and stick with. I have also introduced meditation into my life to allow me to decompress. Stress can add years on and be so detrimental to your health.
Jolle Kirpensteijn, DVM, PhD, DACVS, DECVS Chief Professional Veterinary Officer, Hill’s US
To be honest, I was not scared to try it. I was on Phuket in the most amazing surroundings ever, it was a last minute decision, set it up in 5 minutes (let my partner know) and added it to my calendar. It was only for 3 days and most of my colleagues knew I was abroad.
Some [of my colleagues and friends] were surprised, as I am a social media junkie. The cold turkey withdrawal thing was a bit unexpected.
I felt awesome! I only used my phone for pictures and listen to my audiobooks, while on a white sandy beach sipping adult beverages.
When I came back… there were approx. 250 emails waiting (I receive approx. 50-75 emails a day) and your wise words to plan one day for just catching up is a good one. The nice thing is that some very very urgent things seem to resolve themselves. Now I am warning people approx. a week in advance that I am offline. I let the people that absolutely need to reach me know to text or set your phone to accept when your mother calls. Insider tip: A cruise is the best excuse as you do not have internet.
Amy Laferte, Veterinary Technician
I have a personal goal of getting out in the mountains at least once a week. I can’t always get out there, but when I do it’s +/- 8 hours unplugged. The only thing I use my phone for is to take pics. For me, spending time alone in the woods is essential for my mental and emotional well-being. There’s just something about raw nature that cleanses the soul. And of course, I turn my phone off at night. But why would you want the ugliness of social media when you have this [photo to the right]?
Rebecca May, Practice Manager, Town ‘N’ County Animal Hospital
I am an overachieving, overextended mother, student, volunteer, and practice manager. I was also the sole admin of all of our practice’s social media channels at the time. I knew I had hit rock bottom when my phone buzzing began to make me jump like an alarm clock waking me from a dead sleep. Whether it was a negative review at 1 am or an “I love you” message from my husband, all of it just made me cringe. I was overdue for a break, so I enlisted the help of one of our doctor’s and I powered down personally and professionally for a few weeks. I want to serve my clients and my staff well but I let it get out of control by not setting healthy boundaries. During my cleanse, I realized that I was more loving and patient in all aspects of my life. Now I know to take a day or two off before it gets that bad. Usually, I pick weekends for this unless it’s my week to work Saturday.
Cherie Buisson, DVM, Owner, Helping hands Pet Hospice
I have mini unplugs. I’m trying to leave my phone in my locker at the gym. That’s 2-6 hours a week. I have my phone on do not disturb except for family every night while I’m sleeping. On weekends I try to only check it every hour or two. It makes a big difference when I make a conscious effort to put it down.
Dr. Buisson is right! Mini unplugs are amazing. To learn more about the benefits of shorter mini unplugs check out #unplugged moments.
Nanette Smith, Med, RVT, CVT, LVT
Every night I unplug. I plug my phone in the kitchen with the ringer off. It is not in my room, not even close! I learned I had to do this. At one point I found myself answering calls at all hours for work. I’ve also found that even the ping notifications can wake me up if I’m not in a deep sleep. It took some time to get used to it but is very relaxing now. There are times I’ll put the phone in its place early when it’s been one of those days to start that cycle early.
These quotes, ranging from #unplugged experts to those trying it for the very first time, show us firsthand the huge range of experiences available to those who are willing to examine and temporarily reduce their technology use. At every stage, beginner through expert, there are different obstacles and lessons to be learned.
While withdrawal from technology is real and can be difficult at first, the benefits of experiencing the calm, present mind without technological dependence can have lasting benefits ranging from the temporal (fully enjoying the last rays of a gorgeous sunset) to the long-term (learning to control breathing and monitor anxious tendencies).
Technology comes with its own long list of pros and cons, but it’s important to keep in mind that we ultimately control our use of it, instead of the other way around.
Polished iPhones and cutting-edge apps can definitely be engaging and fun, but if this constant connectivity makes us lose our access to the present moment, that’s a steeper cost than many of us might realize.
#Unplugging isn’t something that you need to buy or even have shipped overnight from Amazon. It’s a tool that can make your life richer simply by helping you to realize how much you already have, right here in this moment.