Columns , Communication

Power down

Going without your phone, email and other technological connections for days or even weeks can transform your world.

Power down
While technology has forever altered the world around us and comes with truly wonderful benefits, we must control our use of it instead of letting it control us and our happiness.

This month, instead of convincing you about the benefits of technology, I’ll switch gears to an important topic in the world of constant connectivity. While we’re more plugged into technology than ever before — a chapter in human history that has inspired widespread social activism, provided a boon to developing economies and bonded us to friends and family worldwide — constant connectivity comes at a price.

Five years ago, after noticing the profound impact that temporarily removing myself from technology had on my focus and well-being, I published my first #unplugged post. I defined #unplugged as a week or two of vacation where autoreply was turned on and emergency contact information was provided to loved ones. I would travel or do nothing at home and happily go without my beloved iPhone and other technological gadgets. I found that by #unplugging for a few weeks each year, not only did I become refreshed and revitalized, but I often became inspired and had revelatory ideas that I’m convinced I would never have tapped into otherwise.

Oh yes, and the price of constant connectivity? Well, a 2018 report from NBC News assessed 41 million individuals and found rising rates of depression across all age groups. The report stated: “Diagnoses of major depression have risen dramatically by 33% since 2013.” If that statistic doesn’t give you pause, you might want to read it again.

While not all those cases could be attributed solely to social media use and digital connectivity, Laurel Williams, D.O., the chief of psychiatry at Texas Children’s Hospital explained: “I wouldn’t say that social media is responsible for a rise in depression — more the being rushed and lack of connections that we have in the structure of how we live lives now.”

Since #unplugging ritually had such a positive impact on my ability to focus, build my business and recognize when I had had enough, I started sharing tips with the veterinary profession, colleagues and peers. My hope was that they would begin to try #unplugging, too, and realize insights and benefits. Many of them have begun to implement the practice as a powerful tool for combatting the stress and strain of modern life and always being on call, even outside of business hours.

I asked a few of them to share their experiences, including whether they hesitated to unplug, whether anyone was upset they did it and whether returning to the grid after unplugging proved difficult. Their answers blew me away.

1. VETGirl co-founder Garret Pachtinger, VMD, DACVECC

“My smartwatch is connected to my cell phone. My cell phone is connected to my iPad. My iPad is connected to my MacBook. And the more I think about it, the more I realize the addiction is to being connected, not simply an addiction to technology. Many people, including myself, hesitate to take breaks from technology due to their fear of being disconnected.”

Dr. Pachtinger’s quote sheds light on the entire phenomenon. Sure, we like our social media and apps, but we love feeling desired and connected. That is the driving reason for technology addiction, and recognizing it is incredibly important to your awareness of why we use technology.

2. Trusten Moore, student at Western University of Health Sciences College of Veterinary Medicine (Class of 2020)

“I consider myself a huge advocate for the use of social media in the veterinary profession, but as I go along on this journey, I have quickly realized that it has its faults. While getting connected with hundreds of vet students from all over the world on social media, I have found myself in a constant state of comparison, self-doubt and poor concentration. I find myself comparing the content that I create to others on a daily basis. Is it good enough? Will it get views, likes and shares? I try not to do this, but it’s human nature.”

Trusten’s reflection and sentiment is shared by so many of us. By taking time away from technology during a ritual #unplugged, doubt slowly begins to ease its grip over your happiness, and you can select when to participate in social media.

3. VMC Inc. consultant Monica Dixon Perry, CVPM

“The last time I was remotely close to unplugging was when I attended my daughter’s fifth-grade overnight field trip. Because we were in somewhat of a remote place with limited access to the internet and could bring only cell phones, I was somewhat pushed into being unplugged. I felt as if the time with my daughter was actually quality time not interrupted by a Facebook or Slack post or any other of the gazillion notifications I receive on a daily basis.”

Monica shows us that she was able to tune in during her daughter’s field trip and pay more attention to an important personal relationship without the distraction of technology. She didn’t expect to be unplugged but took full advantage of her remote location by diving into an impromptu #unplugged.

4. Veterinary consultant Mia Cary, DVM

“This week I’m working remotely out of my sister’s house, which allows me to visit with my mom, 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.”

I love this example because Dr. Cary brings a mindful approach to her technology use. She’ll utilize social media to share pictures of her children, but she has no problem putting the phone away when the time comes to switch gears. This is a wonderful example of our power over technology instead of the other way around. Let your technology be a tool that you can pick up and put down as needed to put your attention where it matters most.

5. Canadian veterinarian Susan Little, DVM, DABVP (Feline)

“I think one key is to set good boundaries from the start. 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 professional lives should be separated. That also makes it easier to unplug.”

Dr. Little makes a crucial point here. Like many of us, she’s found #unplugging to be beneficial, but she has to balance it with her daily work needs. She mentions boundaries as a way to make #unplugging easier. While the veterinary profession is a highly personal business, you are not obligated to respond to each call or email. The right structure can help you separate your professional life from your personal one.

6. Jolle Kirpensteijn, DVM, Ph.D., DACVS, DECVS, chief professional veterinary officer at Hill’s Pet Nutrition

“When I came back [from unplugging], approximately 250 emails were waiting. (I receive 50 to 75 a day.) The nice thing is that some very, very urgent things seem to resolve themselves. Now, I am warning people approximately 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.”

Dr. Kirpensteijn shares an important point: “Some very, very urgent things seem to resolve themselves.” The need to catch up with their workload is one reason people tend to not unplug. I always tell them: Would you rather go full force 24/7 and risk being too plugged in and suffer from the nasty side effects: fatigue, burnout, agitation and mood swings? Or would you rather take time to unplug from it all and schedule a day or two to catch up but be in a fully recharged state of mind?

7. The Social DVM consultant Caitlin DeWilde, DVM

“I’ll admit, I enjoyed the unplugging so much that I extended it another full day when we got back from vacation. I had a full inbox, for sure, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. The key was a little prep work and safeguards: lots of scheduled content, a trusted team member to monitor, setting expectations in advance with my clients, a really great vacation auto-responder message, and a chunk of time when I got back just for clearing out my inbox and notifications. I’ll do it again in a heartbeat. It was worth the effort.”

The glowing review from Dr. DeWilde shows us the pragmatic side of planning time away. She was better able to enjoy her vacation by scheduling posts and delegating tasks to her team. She allocated time to catch up upon her return, something I’d recommend as well.

8. Critical-care veterinarian Christopher Byers, DVM, DACVECC, DACVIM (SAIM), CVJ

“Initially, unplugging was quite stressful. Technology is addicting, and I’ll admit I’m a technophile. But every day I’m developing a healthier relationship with technology, with the internet, with social media. Believe it or not, I’ve largely been able to turn FOMO, the fear of missing out, into JOMO, the joy of missing out. In the words of Robert Frost, ‘That has made all the difference.’ ”

Dr. Byers had an important reflection here because he understands that his relationship with technology is an evolving process. Sure, FOMO might creep in here and again, but he’s able to examine it mindfully and give it less power over time.

9. Vera Lima, hospital administrator and owner of Carleton and Lanark Veterinary Services

“I’ve learned that if people really need me, they can call me directly. Nowadays the only notifications turned on are my regular texts. Employees know that if they need to reach me, they need to call or send a text during business hours. There are no social media or email notifications. I still check them throughout the day, but I feel more in control of when.”

Vera’s notion of control is important since by customizing her notifications and altering her perspective on urgency, she’s gained confidence in being selective about her social media use. Even small changes can make a big difference when it comes to defining when technology use is required.

10. Author, speaker and veterinarian Andy Roark, DVM

“My own happiness is simply greater when I am not ‘on call’ and not carrying my cell phone for large blocks of time during the day is a tradeoff that I have chosen to make. I have zero regrets. 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 shows us this simple yet extremely useful tip. If we just don’t keep our phone on us all the time, we can be more present and in the moment. We can better focus on building stronger relationships with the people we surround ourselves with.

Maintain Control

While technology has forever altered the world around us and comes with truly wonderful benefits, we must control our use of it instead of letting it control us and our happiness.

For more tips about #unplugging, and to learn about apps that can help you to disconnect more effectively, visit https://ericgarciafl.com/unplugged.

Remember that while technology is a wonderful tool, tuning in to the world and people around you can make your life richer. You will realize how much you already have right here in the moment. You don’t even need a charger!

Socially Acceptable columnist Eric D. Garcia is an IT and digital consultant who works exclusively with veterinary practices and speaks at veterinary conferences around the world. Learn more at www.ericgarciafl.com.

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