Hello, my name is Sandy, and I’m a screenaholic. I’m incessantly plugged in and over-absorbed in my smartphone. Who texted? Who emailed? What might I miss if I’m not constantly connected to a five-inch touchscreen?
Like many of you, I’ve succumbed to our culture of screens and “now, now, now.” I’m moving at an unsustainable speed to bulldoze through tasks. My interactions with graphical interfaces are replacing interactions with actual people. Phone calls, handwritten notes, and face-to-face conversation are sacrificed to the screen gods. Instead of using people skills, I’m learning to send perfect strings of emojis. Instead of giving undivided attention to one person, I chat by text while simultaneously paying attention to everything else. I’m unable to be still. My relationships suffer because I’m distracted, and what I’m doing deteriorates because I’m rushed.
What if I put down the touchscreen? I tried it for one glorious week. I hopped a plane to the Virgin Islands and went off the grid. I learned that dolce far niente, the sweetness of doing nothing, is the antidote to our “hurry up” culture.
I relished the lulling roll of waves rocking the catamaran as I contemplated the water’s shifting shades of turquoise. I awakened and did nothing but stare at morning light dancing on the sea while sipping a cup of coffee in silence. My head was clear of all details except what my eyes could see — sailboats skating toward the horizon, islands bursting out of the ocean with their kaleidoscopes of roofs, the sunset setting the sky on fire. My feet, rather than hitting the ground running, were propped up on the bow of the boat, swaying in a hammock, or floating behind me in flippers. Dolce far niente under the Caribbean sky was the antithesis to my plugged-in reality.
No wrong choices
Being off the grid did wonders for me. It gave me the gift of freedom. No one was clocking my every move and putting my average wait time on billboards. Free of the frazzle of schedules, I chatted when I wanted, sat quietly when I wanted, read when I wanted, and slept when I wanted. I enjoyed bona fide naps during the day after I’d slept all night, not “naps” between shifts. I was free to make decisions without it being my responsibility to justify them to patients, nurses, consultants, coders, administrators, or (on a bad day) lawyers, all critiquing my every move. There is no wrong choice of which island to hop to next or which reef to snorkel.
A week away restored my mind. My musings weren’t interrupted by tasks or questions, except maybe, “Would you like another drink?” They say no one can control your thoughts, but in daily life, my mind is hijacked by responsibilities and it’s hard to follow a train of thought. If life isn’t interrupting me, I’m interrupting myself. Putting the phone down uncluttered my head and opened a vast trail of thoughts where I could meander at my leisure. The restful reflection I achieved was like a reset button for my brain.
Unplugging also nourished my innate human desire to connect with other people. Instead of checking my phone, I focused on the person in front of me. Catching up with friends is usually a brief window of fun, like a meal, and then it’s back to responsibilities. Off the grid, we had nothing but quality time. Sharing fun away from ordinary everyday activities promoted positive ties and bonding. The only thing the people around me wanted were shared memories.
I returned from my week off the grid recharged and reconnected with my inner peace. I was able to carry that peace into the maelstrom of my daily grind. EPs all need to carve out protected downtime for self-rejuvenation. We’ve chosen a lifestyle of sacrifice and delayed gratification. We work at maximum intensity without mental rest, and are used to putting off indulgences. But vacations are not indulgent. Occasionally flipping off our “on” mindset is integral to wellness, as important as eating well and exercising. Too often we feel self-reproachful when we’re away even though it’s time we’ve earned and need. We have to change that mentality. Our time for rest should be respected by others and by ourselves without feelings of guilt. Sometimes we have to say yes to our own needs and no to everyone else.
My initial intent was to write that we can do things at home to capture the vacation mindset, but some Pollyanna-esque platitude about putting your feet up at home would undermine a legitimate break. Breaks of any size are good, but I would be doing wellness a disservice by implying that just clearing my mind could recapture the bliss of a week in the islands. We need true vacations, away from our homes, so there is no laundry to do. We need to escape connectivity so we’re not chained to our screens and can savor our days off. Phone calls, texts, emails, and paperwork can wait. Kindness toward ourselves can’t.
We all need chances to breathe, reboot, and remember what matters. We’ll not only be happier but better physicians, parents, and partners if we take real time to leave it all behind and reconnect with ourselves and the universe. If you never take real downtime to be still and listen to the needs deep in your soul, you miss out on the richness of life. Stop fixating on what you might miss if you unchain yourself from screens. Take a whole week or two to unplug, live in the moment, and drink in the here and now. What you will gain is the sweetness of peace in the middle of this beautiful chaos we call life.
Sandra Scott Simons is an emergency physician. This article originally appeared in Emergency Medicine News.
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