IndustryWhy It’s Essential You Unplug

Ryan Brinks
writes on May 23, 2014

We’re all guilty of doing it – constantly checking our phones for mail, Facebook and Twitter updates or trying to get just one last thing done before you close your laptop at the end of the day. Technology is great, especially for learning, right? But it can also be all consuming which is bad. So how do you know when enough is enough? Ryan Brinks chats to one person who went tech cold-turkey.

She had a nagging feeling — having succumbed to endless evenings on the couch watching Netflix and scanning her Twitter feed after a day of web design at the office — that she was missing out on the wonders all around her Indianapolis apartment.

So last year Julie Nelson took up the challenge of the National Day of Unplugging, and what she discovered was a refreshing perspective on life and technology.

For other web development professionals across the globe, unplugging has uncovered not only perspective but passion, creativity and connection — through adventures as varied and void of technology as whitewater rafting, mountain biking, camping, cooking, vacationing, repurposing furniture, road tripping to the desert, roaming scenic hills, partaking in beer festivities and feeding the homeless.

The unplugging challenge is the first Friday of every March since its creation in 2010 to encourage us to unwind, unplug, relax, reflect, get outdoors, and connect with loved ones.

“Often we use our technology as a distraction. I believe this is out of habit now more often than not, but it’s a habit that needs to be broken every once in a while,” says Nelson, a 26-year-old Nextfly Communications account manager. “Take time to pay attention to the world you live in and embrace your surroundings. The world is an amazing place, and often you are missing out by looking at your screen all the time.”

Julie Nelson, second row in hat, helps feed the homeless as a way to plug from the tech world.

Julie Nelson, second row in hat, helps feed the homeless as a way to unplug from the tech world.

Web development professionals are particularly susceptible to the temptation of spending hours in front of our screens, especially for those of us energized by the excitement of just starting out or learning to code.

But it’s a slippery slope toward problems with your health, relationships and productivity — even for savvy technologists like Daniel Sieberg, a senior manager and spokesman at Google.

“It was in late 2009 that I realized I’d become a terrific broadcaster and terrible communicator,” Sieberg told Treehouse during a recent interview. “I was working as the science and technology correspondent at CBS News and believed I was incredibly connected. But when I went home to Canada for the holidays, I found myself out of touch with friends and family. Plus, my wife was getting increasingly frustrated with my smartphone/computer behavior, as we were thinking of starting a family of our own.”

That revelation led him to blog about his experience and eventually dig into research that answered the burning questions often asked by those of us who feel like we’re consumed by technology rather than consuming it. His work resulted in the publication of “The Digital Diet” by Random House.

“Ideally, [the diet is] for anyone who wants to be more efficient and effective at managing their digital lifestyle. But it’s a diet, not a fast, and more about moderation and awareness than anything else,” he says. “… I completely understand the demands of working in tech — I work at Google and used to cover technology for a living in a 24/7 news cycle. Thanks to the ubiquity of Wi-Fi and smartphones and social media, we’re constantly immersed in the digital world. But occasional separation can allow our brains to function at higher capacity and do a better job of managing our online identity and relationships with those we love. Developers/designers are like so many of us who stare at screens for a large part of the day. But is that really a healthy lifestyle? Should we be more mindful of our choices and their consequences? I believe there are ways to still be connected but not overly so to the point that other aspects of your life are suffering.”

Sieberg's "The Digital Diet"

Sieberg’s “The Digital Diet”

A recent UCLA study concluded technology overuse — and the stress of hectic lifestyles – can lead to an imbalance in the brain and damage to your concentration, attention and memory — and even spawn emotional disturbances like depression. But this digital dementia can be reversed, according to New York City neurologist Carolyn Brockington, by unplugging and using your head instead of a calculator or Google, by reading a book, by learning something new, by playing an instrument or by getting some physical exercise.

For Nelson, the National Day of Unplugging experience was critical in finding a balance between her work and home life. Despite a wave of anxiety from reaching for her phone before even getting out of bed, that day rewarded her with a heightened sense of taste and sound, and in the relative silence, she found peace rather than what she had anticipated: an urge to fight it.

She spent part of the day with her dad, volunteering for a nonprofit outreach to the poor. “It was great father-daughter bonding time that I will never forget,” she recalls. They provided blankets, clothing and food to people in various homeless camps throughout her city. “It was an amazing opportunity to be able to help others, and it really gave me perspective.”

Helping Others Helps Us Unplug

Martin Wiesiolek of Grand Junction, Colo., has long known the advantages of unplugging. At 49, the veteran web developer and owner of has blended work and unplugging into a weekly routine, rather than a once-a-year vacation, for nearly two decades. After working for the Army on some of the first public websites, he says he started in the business in 1996 “before most people were learning how to spell internet.”

In the winter, he competes in ski racing on Copper Mountain with the Rocky Mountain Masters and serves as a ski coach for athletes with physical and intellectual disabilities on the Colorado Adaptive Ski Team, which develops entry-level Paralympic athletes. “I’m just as passionate about teaching skiing as my own skiing,” he says. “I’ve learned a great deal from my athletes, sometimes more than they learn from us.”

In the summer, it’s hiking, climbing, kayaking — anything outdoors, he says, including whitewater rafting trips for people with disabilities, particularly veterans.

“This is how it’s always been. This business shaped that lifestyle — as a necessity at first, and then I embraced it instead of trying to change it.”

To achieve his lifestyle, Wiesiolek schedules his unplugged activities in a way that’s transparent to his clients, and he chooses places where he is still accessible.

“This is the way I can get away,” he says, noting he is OK with answering email at the ski lodge. “It allows me to be away from the office and yet meet all the needs of my clients. … This is a good compromise for me.”

Chad Ostroff in Costa Rica.

Chad Ostroff unplugs in Costa Rica.

In addition to the benefits for health, fitness and quality of life, Forthea Interactive senior developer Chad Ostroff, 33, feels the adrenaline and personal interaction of sports offer fresh diversions from the bland flavor of problem-solving we can get stuck in.

He participates in several sand volleyball leagues that let him focus on a completely different type of strategy than he does at work; after, he socializes face-to-face over a couple of beers.

An avid sports fan, Ostroff also attends NBA games of his hometown Houston Rockets as often as he can. “The games are how I unwind and unplug — the buzz of the stadium, the cheering, the camaraderie; it rocks,” he says. “… You can gain inspiration from anything around you. The smallest thing you see or think about can totally inspire you to do something different at work.”

For others, like Mike Baustian, that coveted spark of inspiration is more likely found in the solitude of a hands-on personal project.

“I work as the manager of web design and development for a Fortune 200 company by day and am a passionate creator of all things digital in my spare time, from websites to music to digital art,” he says. “Sometimes when I find myself feeling burnt out or stressed out on a digital project, I like to switch gears and step out of the virtual world into hands-on creation. I find that by engaging different parts of my creative brain, I am able to recharge my batteries while often times finding a spark of inspiration for a digital project.”

That was certainly the case when Baustian and his wife were rearranging their Centennial, Colo., condo in 2012 for their first son and had to deal with a discarded, broken old Wurlitzer upright piano he had pulled in from the rain years earlier. “I decided that I could kill two birds with one stone by repurposing my old piano into a computer desk that would be attractive enough to be in the living room,” he says, noting that he made sure he could still close it up for a completely stealth look when visitors came knocking.

Mike Baustian's projects -- like converting a piano into a desk -- help him unplug.

Mike Baustian’s projects — like converting a piano into a desk — help him unplug.

“The process of tearing apart to build something totally new flowed over into my digital work, where I have found a great new way to spark creativity is to tear apart my work and look for a way to make it something completely different,” he adds. “Finding a solution to a question I didn’t ask has resulted in many successful projects in the digital and physical worlds. It also becomes much more entertaining to work on a project when you aren’t completely sure of the outcome, resulting in far less burnout for me.”

Since then, Baustian, 32, has also converted a 1960s Magnavox console stereo into a modern entertainment center with built-in surround speakers and an ornate box from an import store into a four-device rapid charging station and USB hub.

And Then There Are Beer Festivals

Sometimes the key to unplugging is simply being intentional, which is what Simon Owen of Manchester in the United Kingdom did when he scheduled a scenic walk and participation in a beer festival for himself and a friend earlier this year after an intense week spent on a big project.

Long hours, frantic schedules, sleepless nights and burnout “are commonplace amongst developers I know,” says the front-end coder. “I started feeling like I wasn’t at my best and so made a conscious effort [that] weekend to not work on the project. … After a decent walk up a hill, some great beers, food and interesting conversation ranging from meditation, isolation tanks, Egyptology and The Human Flag, I felt fully refreshed. Looking forward to our next walk and beer session.”

Simon Owen's friend unwinds on a beer festival trip after an intensive project.

Simon Owen’s friend unwinds on a beer festival trip after an intensive project.

So how do you unplug? If you’re not completely sure which digital habits may be holding you back, Sieberg recommends starting here with the Virtual Weight Index he devised for “The Digital Diet.” It’s meant to provide context around all the devices and logins and weight we can’t see but still carry with us. “Sometimes getting that initial awareness can be enough to make some significant changes,” he says. “The book also outlines other ways people can streamline their digital intake and get a sense of what’s working for them or not in terms of services or social media, etc.”

He also suggests keeping your smartphone out of the bedroom to gain more separation and get better sleep, taking email and social media off your tablet to create a refuge that’s out of the information flow, and keeping the smartphone in your pocket during social events to bypass all the interruptions.

From her experience, Nelson recommends telling others when you’re going to take a break from technology so they don’t get concerned, putting your phone on airplane mode to remove the temptation of checking messages, and planning out your unplugged experiences.

“Don’t get upset if you slip up and use your technology because you get lost or have an emergency,” she says. “It’s all about having good intentions. Just have the right attitude going into it, and try your hardest. Don’t spend all day thinking about what you can’t do or what you can’t use. Find fun in it!”

And Sieberg echoes that advice. “Dive into the digital space when you need to, but don’t feel pressure from others or yourself to do it constantly. … At the end of the day, it’s about loving your technology — just not unconditionally!”

At Treehouse we don’t work on Fridays so that we can relax and have more time with friends and family. We understand that not everyone has this luxury but tell us what you do when you unplug from your computer or phone?

5 Responses to “Why It’s Essential You Unplug”

  1. Great article. We as a website, helping people to get in shape, are guilty of this too. When our writers and bloggers work too much, we can use a digital diet as well. Are there any scientific researches done on hormone levels? this could be interesting regarding on of our articles on

  2. I must be weird – I ‘unplug’ from the day job by learning web development and trying to make stuff with Treehouse in the evenings.

  3. Juli Litchford on May 26, 2014 at 12:56 pm said:

    Great post! I just wrote an essay for one of my college courses on this subject matter. I titled it “Disconnect So You Can Reconnect.” I think a lot of us are instinctively putting down our phones and iPads, so we can spend more quality time with friends and family as well as just enjoy our surroundings. When I want to take a break from technology, I spend time with my family or meditate if I’m alone. I am trying to incorporate regular weekly time into our family routine when we put our phones away and just enjoy time together.

    Thanks again for a great post!

  4. Gill Carson on May 26, 2014 at 12:01 pm said:

    Thanks Scott – we have the same problem in our house too. We ask our boys how long they think they should spend time playing Minecraft and set a timer to go off when the time is over. After that it’s outside play time. Actually they normally come up with a number that is way lower than I was thinking – like 30mins when I was thinking about giving them an hour!

  5. Great article!

    I have been noticing a trend lately about people unplugging and enjoying life,. My wife and I had this discussion a couple of days ahp because we were at my sisters house and my two nephews are adducted to ipads and I am like im here, let’s go outside and play!

    What I love to do when I unplug is spend time with my 10 month old son, go camping, walking in the parks, hanging out with my friends

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