Unlocking Human Experiences by Neglecting Your ‘Online Presence’

Putting people first, strengthening relationships and beating FOMO.

Photo by Joshua Ness on Unsplash

People first?

When was the last time you had an evening with friends or family, and were so invested (or were enjoying it so much) that you neglected your phone from dinner until bed time?

Hard to remember?

I’m willing to bet that’s the case for a majority of folks, including myself from time to time.

Our devices often take the spotlight — become the apple of our eye — and are prioritized above the people we love the most. Don’t think so? Every time someone’s talking to you and you look at your phone just to ‘check something really quick,’ you’re sending signals that someone or something else is more interesting to you in that moment.

We’re all guilty of it, and the best we can do is to be aware of it and make incremental changes towards healthier habits — changes that put those who are present first, and not the tech we’ve created.

Some personal history for color

Three years ago, my wife and I had a huge life transition that moved us from the Cleveland-Akron Ohio area to Orlando, Florida, where my company’s HQ is based. It was a work-related move, as the new position I was taking required me to work out of our home office.

In the transition, we left everything that was familiar to embrace the unfamiliar together. For us this meant finding a new church home, new friends, new employment (for her), new favorite places to eat, new favorite coffee shops, new doctors, dentists, auto-shops, et cetera, et cetera.

Not terribly long after our move, I found myself browsing social media a lot, but realized the darnedest thing: Seeing pictures, posts and updates from my friends and family back home didn’t help me feel closer to them. It lacked the personal touch, and the passive interactions through the proverbial online street corners wasn’t cutting it for me.

I offer this background as commentary to set the stage for this post, and to provide additional context for my recent post, “How Digital Minimalism Could Enhance Our Quality of Life: An Unsolicited Digital Commentary”. If you’d like, head back ^ to read about what my experience stepping away from social media looked like. The article also skims the surface of the process Cal Newport outlines in his book, Digital Minimalism, which you may find helpful if you’ve not yet read the book.

This post’s primary focus is one of digital minimalism’s main benefits: You’ll find more effective, meaningful ways to keep up with the people who matter to you most, and those relationships will deepen with persistent intentionality. I’ll also elaborate some on the other benefits listed in the previous post. Should be a good ride! Thanks for coming along.

I want to tackle this conversation in four main segments: Relationships, presence, the Joneses, and intentionality/mindfulness (I know, we all hate that word).

How leaving digital social networks strengthened my real ones

OK, picking up the story from “…passive interactions through the proverbial online street corners just wasn’t cutting it for me.”

I’ll be honest… My initial implementation of leaving social media wasn’t as cold turkey as I’d hoped it would be. There were many times that I deleted and subsequently created new Facebook and Instagram profiles, multiple times I just barely saved my Twitter account from total deactivation in the first 30 days, and I created and shut down multiple blogs in the first few months.

Detoxing from online connectivity is easier said than done.

Once I did force myself to take a real break and to create the space to form new habits (reading more books was a big part of this), I found I wasn’t as dependent on social networking as I’d previously thought.

I sent texts to initiate conversations with old friends I actually wanted ‘status updates’ from. I wrote emails to catch up with folks who I thought might have a story to tell, and I called people I missed in order to catch up on the latest and greatest happenings in their lives.

Social media became an afterthought in the wake of richer, more intentional communication and relationships.

The best part about this experience was that when I reached out to friends to catch up, I had no idea what had been going on in their lives since the last time we talked. Due to this, our ‘catching up’ was completely genuine, as we didn’t have to dance around previous knowledge from status updates, comments, or other shallow online interactions. Conversations began to feel more organic and sincere because of it.

Giving attention to what (or who) you value

I’d like to re-visit my opening question,

When was the last time you had an evening with friends or family where you were so invested (or were enjoying it so much) that you neglected your phone from dinner until bed time?

I can accomplish this most effectively when I put my phone in another room, and actively engage my family or friends in conversation (or whatever activity we’re doing, whether it’s a game, telling stories, dinner, or what have you). I don’t know about you, but when I have my phone on me, even if it’s not vibrating with notifications (these are for the most part turned off at all times), I’m much more likely to lose focus or interest in the things happening right in front of me.

This is an addiction of sorts, and all of us have it to some degree. (Those defensively thinking “I don’t!” are in denial).

In most cases you’re with people because you value them above all the other people you could be spending time with or things you could be doing. Don’t let a piece of glass, metal and plastic distract you from those invaluable moments; the people on the other end of the internet can wait.

Don’t send the signal to friends and family that you have somewhere better to be, or someone you’d rather be with (especially kids). We’re all guilty of it. Can you imagine how much better our personal relationships would be if we gave them our full attention and presence?

Keeping up with the who, now? (Not the Joneses.)

Fear Of Missing Out. FOMO. (I met multiple millennials who didn’t know what this acronym stood for yesterday. I’m not sure if that should be disappointing or cause for admiration.) This is the acronym that hooks users and drives much of the world’s involvement online.

Our attention is tied up in so much miscellaneous online activity that it seems many of us would crumble in anxiety over a few short days of device separation (though, this would be a great way to start a detox).

When was the last time you went a week without posting something to Instagram, or a month without making your opinion known on Facebook? When was the last time you saw a friend complain or share about something on social media, and actually called or showed up unexpectedly to see if everything was alright or if there was something you could do? Our assumption is that these tools will help us ‘stay close’ to people, but that’s not typically the case.

In all reality, they’re our modern day Pit of Despair.

What ends up happening is that we default to these timelines, streams, stories, and feeds when we’re bored. This leads to us seeing curated posts about (mostly) only the good things happening to friends, family and acquaintances, and gives us the illusion that we’re the only individual with what is actually a fairly common human experience: Many mundane moments with highlights plotted here and there. Some chapters of life contain more concentrated or dispersed highlights than others… but no one’s living in a reality that actually matches their Instagram story.

All that said, taking time away from these sources of entertainment (and let’s face it — that’s what social media really is) can and will lead to more contentedness, less anxiety and a more organic human experience. If you find yourself feeling burnt out but you’re having a hard time pin-pointing things that are causing you stress, eliminating the Pit of Despair can be a great place to start.

Next time you feel an itch to pull out that device and see what all your friends are doing, how about leaving it alone and replacing that activity with something that will bring you life and fulfillment? Like a hobby or a phone call to a friend or family member?

You’ll thank yourself later; these kind of activities will lift your spirit and help you make memories of your own. I can guarantee it will be more life-giving than trying to feed off the superficial joys of your favorite social network feed like an internet vampire.

Finding Bae

My wife hates that word. Honestly, I think it’s stupid, too. But, it works in this context: Before Anything Else, choose a hobby or activity (with someone or by yourself — you’re a person, too) that you’ll invest time in before (or better yet, instead of) jumping into your old habits of mindless scrolling, clicking, commenting and liking photos from some acquaintance’s vacations this summer.

Hopefully this is a life-enriching activity, rather than the life-draining ones we typically fall into online. I’ve already suggested a couple, but for those paralyzed by decision fatigue, I’ve created a short list you can use below.

Just close your eyes, point on the screen, then jump into it once you’re done reading this article! Most of these are well-enjoyed with or without a partner, but one might argue that shared memories are typically more valuable than the ones we create alone. (I’ve *’d my current go-to’s.)

  • Play with your kid(s)*
  • Practice another language
  • Do some overdue yard work (or make a list of things you need to do said yard work)
  • Write a poem*
  • Work on your first blog post*
  • Get a new book from the library (you don’t have to go out for this — use your library card + Overdrive.com to rent eBooks on the fly… this has worked wonders for me)
  • Journal*
  • Take a walk*
  • Call a friend or family member*
  • Watch a documentary about something you don’t understand
  • Play (learn) an instrument*
  • Think of questions to ask a significant other so that you can connect on a deeper level
  • Buy a gift for an upcoming birthday (not yours)
  • Pick up a course on something your interested in through Udemy or LinkedIn Learning*
  • Draw or doodle (even if you’re bad at it)*
  • Organize a junk drawer
  • Make a list of compliments you should pay people
  • Go hunting
  • Adopt a pet deer
  • Clean out your garage
  • Pick up a coffee or treat and take it to a friend
  • Find somewhere to volunteer
  • Go for a drive
  • Go for a bike ride*
  • Learn to bake something
  • Grab a coffee or a beer with a co-worker*
  • Build a fire (outside, responsibly)
  • Paint a room
  • Make a list of things you’re thankful for
  • Practice axe-throwing

The idea is that having a list of alternative options handy and ready to go will help you create your own memories and enrich your life vs. trying to find fulfillment by living vicariously through others online.

Remember: Activities that put people first are always a great way to start.

What else would you add to this list, and what will you do next? Comment below!

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