I’m going to dispense with the requisite lengthy introduction here. The one where I tell you all the signs and symptoms of being addicted to your device. You can find tons of articles that will give you all of those. Suffice it to say, if you find yourself checking an electronic device before you get out of bed in the morning, while you’re waiting for your coffee to brew, and even when you’re stuck in traffic, in the bathroom, or out with friends, you have an addiction. If scrolling through your messages fills you with a sort of sick dread (is there something good, something juicy, something bad, something sad) and gets your adrenaline pumping you’re addicted.
My device addiction of choice was email. I reached my email rock bottom when I realized it was the first thing I looked at in the morning, and the last thing I checked at night. I did not roll over for a cuddle with my husband, or plant a kiss on the heads of my sleepy children. I did not wake up, stretch, and thank the universe for another day of life. Instead, with eyes protesting painfully against the bright screen, I clicked that little Gmail button and fired up my day.
I’ve tried to scale back on electronics consumption for years, completely unsuccessfully, other than for a few days at a time here or there (and a mandated 10 day break when I was vacationing in Iceland, but only because there was no service). I kept coming back to it though. And the last six months of 2016 were exceptionally intense. I was glued to some kind of screen from 5:30 AM until 11:00 PM. Here’s what I got out of that level of screen commitment: anxiety, stress, depression, more stress, fatigue, social isolation, and my personal favorite, a complete sense of apathy about anything other than work.
I’d like to say that I saw this for what it was. But this blog is not taglined “Leadership Lessons Learned the Hard Way” for no good reason. Instead my email addiction was wrenched from me. That big, busy, work-filled life I was so committed to underwent an enormous upheaval. A change in staff at my farm meant I went from having 24 hour, on-site animal and farm care, to having…ME. When my alarm went off at 5:30 the first thing I thought about was getting down to the barn to feed the horses, dogs, and cats. Email was the last thing on my mind, and the only attention my device got was being shoved in a coat pocket in case heaven forbid, I got down there and had to call the vet.
Spending my morning surfing through Facebook and checking cnn.com repeatedly got replaced by filling grain buckets, moving horses, carting hay around, and filling water troughs. The email went unchecked until after the chores were done, kids were at school, and I’d had time for a cup of coffee. At first it felt weird. I felt like I was doing something wrong. Then I started to see the truth. My email didn’t need me. 99% of it was junk. The things that actually were important got attended to. The rest went in the trash. My Facebook stream got abandoned. I don’t really know what cute baby outfits my friends are dressing their kids in this week, but miraculously, I’m still alive (and so are they). The evening computer time got replaced by more farm chores. And at the end of the day, I collapsed exhausted and happy into my bed.
I realized the other morning, that even though it was a bitter 14 degrees outside, nothing felt better than inhaling some fresh air, connecting with some beautiful mammals, and moving my body a bit. I felt happier, more refreshed, and more creative than I’d felt in months. And that’s when I came to my hard truth: all that electronics time…it wasn’t because I was so important or so needed. It was that I was looking for connection in all the wrong places. I couldn’t feel enough when I was stuck in front of my screen, so I kept sitting there, waiting for something to make me feel. I was far “too busy” to do anything other than work. And yet, what I see now was that my addiction had taken over, and was convincing me every step of the way that I was more busy than I really was. Because when push came to shove, and I had to take over things here on the farm, I found the time to do it. And it wasn’t a small amount of time either. All those years were I had been too busy to do anything other than work were a lie. I get just as much done for work now as I did then. I just get it done in way less time, because I’m not constantly distracted by the ping of the email I just got.
I’ll admit that I still have moments of panic. Moments where I am sure I am not doing what I should be doing, or that I’m letting someone down, or that I will never get ahead with this kind of work ethic. But more and more frequently those are being replaced by feelings of peace, and connection, and compassion, and…did I mention peace? I challenge anyone who has read this far to really ask yourself if you are as “needed” by your electronic device as you think you are. Will the world stop spinning? Will you really let someone down? Will you really be fired? Or is your device just a giant cover up for a life that’s feeling increasingly lonely and disconnected? After all, most of us will fill our time up. That’s the simple truth. What you decide to fill it with though, is what makes the difference.
“In everyone there’s a continuous desire and expectation; deep inside, you still expect something better to happen. That is why you check your email many times a day! “
-Thich Nhat Hanh
Susan McCusker is the co-founder of The Circle Up Experience. She and her partner, Beth Killough, offer people the opportunity to interact with horses in order to learn more about themselves, reconnect with the natural elements of leadership, and transform their human herds.
Come join the conversation over in our Facebook group. We work together every week to deepen our understanding of leadership, relationship, and life. We’d love to see you there!