Powering down technology can bring people back into nature to recharge.
Jennifer Dineen spends a lot of time with technology. As a social media coordinator for UW-Madison’s Office of Admissions and Recruitment, she’s with her technology between seven and nine hours each day, over half of her waking hours.
One afternoon, she unplugged for an hour and spent time surrounded by nature, walking down Lakeshore Path towards Picnic Point in Madison. It was one of the first days of fall. The trees were just starting to change color. But despite its beauty, this walk was anything but relaxing.
“I kept thinking about how it was supposed to be feeling relaxing, but it really didn’t. I kept wanting my music or thinking about how I would take a picture for Instagram, for my job or for my personal Instagram, what filter I was going to use,” Dineen says. “It kind of created anxiety that I couldn’t check my phone.”
Dineen is not alone. People are now, more than ever, constantly plugged into technology. Inevitably, we miss what’s going on around us in the natural world when we are so tuned into our devices. But it is possible to break this addiction.
Unplugging removes us from our stressful, technology-filled lives, allowing us to experience nature on its own, outside of a phone’s camera, and clear our minds and relax.
Joanne Cantor, professor emerita at UW-Madison and outreach director for the Center for Communication Research, has been researching the effects of technology since the early 1970s, and multitasking and information overload since the late 2000s. What she has found is that in order to benefit from our technology, we need to be conscious of how we use it. Responsibly engaging with technology allows us to think and work better. However, responsibility and time management are key.
“It gets harder and harder because our devices [get] more and more clever … you lose the ability to do all the good things that you’re designed to do, including accomplishing something and also having good personal relationships with people around you,” Cantor says.
According to Cantor, as people become more and more dependent on technology, they begin to use screens as a substitute for two healthy habits we’ve developed over time: interacting with nature and other people.
“Although these devices are really good for us in some ways, they have to be used selectively so we can get the benefit out of them without losing [everything] that our bodies and minds have been evolved to really thrive in,” Cantor says.
Nature is beneficial for not only your health, but also for your ability to focus, Cantor says. It clears your mind and allows you to develop insights that might not make it through a wall of technology.
“If you’re overloaded with information, it’s hard for your brain to make connections, and, really, creativity is making a new connection between two things that haven’t been connected before,” Cantor says.
Rob Sepich, stress management specialist for University Health Services at UW-Madison, says constant connectivity not only clutters our mind. By removing us from our environments, it also creates stress and anxiety.
“We’re so much involved in ‘Oh, this looks cool I want to share it with everybody’ and perhaps we miss how great it smells or how great it tastes,” Sepich says. “I do feel like it creates a division between what we’re actually experiencing.”
Panicking when our phones dies, itching to tweet a funny moment or obsessively scrolling through Facebook are just some ways our need for connectivity manifests in day-to-day life. Like Sepich, Cantor says this growing need for constant connectivity increases our stress level.
“The stress levels are so huge, being constantly interrupted like we are,” Cantor says. “We’re not only following a story on Facebook. We’re being interrupted constantly by pings and blips and flashes, never focusing for more than a few seconds on anything, and that’s really stressful.”
At Tall Timbers Resort in Iron River, Wisconsin, there are no pings, blips or flashes. There is rustling wind, splashing canoe paddles and people engaging with each other. Surrounded by trees, water and wildlife, Tall Timbers’ rural setting is a way for people to reconnect with nature by disconnecting from technology.
This is why Tall Timbers owner Barb Anich and manager Jan Lee made “Unplug and Reconnect” their resort’s philosophy. As a Wi-Fi-free resort, Tall Timbers caters to a plugged-in audience needing time away from their devices.
“We’re constantly trying to balance nature and comfort to give nature the edge [at the resort],” Anich says. “It’s been incredibly successful to have people come up here and just spend time with each other.”
The chance to turn off technology provides a welcome break to those who choose an unplugged vacation. Being immersed in nature has a way of bringing people together.
“We had some people come up here for their 40th wedding anniversary,” Anich says. “[They] were supposed to go to this nice restaurant in Bayfield and ended up cooking hot dogs down on a bonfire because they just didn’t want to leave.”
However, not everyone is thrilled with a lack of connectivity, namely their younger guests. Many children and teenagers grow up with unlimited access to technology. Being unplugged is completely foreign to them.
“Listening to kids talk to each other when they get up here and watching them from the minute they arrive, they don’t quite know what to do or what to make of it all,” Anich says.
Younger generations learning to spend time away from their technology reveal just how connected we all are. According to Anich, many of the children who come here have rarely spent time in nature. Their stay at Tall Timbers is the first time they canoe up a river, paddle board on the lake or hike through a forest.
“Last summer we did have a grandfather come up with six of his grandchildren. When they got here he gave them about 15 to 20 minutes to connect with their friends to let them know that he was taking their cell phones,” Anich recalls. “They weren’t real happy at first, but he put them all in a Ziploc bag, wrapped them up, threw them in his car and locked it. They spent their entire vacation unplugged.”
This story is one of many that Anich has about children separating themselves from their devices to enjoy nature and each other. After their first full day outside, children didn’t miss their cell phones. Siblings quietly talking on their paddle boards instead of bickering. Kids painting rocks to take home.
“Maybe we’re forcing people to go backwards,” Anich says. “But I think there’s so many kids in the city … that just don’t have enough outdoor time, enough fresh air time, enough greenery time. When you take away the things that interfere with that, it enhances their experience tremendously.”
Putting down our devices and immersing ourselves in nature brings about a peace of mind. The quiet of nature has a way of “getting under people’s skin,” Anich says.
“Sometimes nothing is the nicest thing to have when your mind gets to create its own good time.”
Re-immersing yourself in the world around you doesn’t necessarily mean isolating yourself in an unplugged resort in the woods. It can be as simple as engaging with your everyday surroundings.
“Just notice what you experience,” Sepich says. “There’s sometimes some pretty surprising observations that we otherwise would have been oblivious to.”
Dineen plans to take that advice. After her brief experience unplugging, she wants to do it more often. Her goal is to feel comfortable without her technology, not the anxiety she felt during her experience on Lakeshore Path.
“Once I was sitting out there, and it was completely quiet just listening to the wind, it felt a little more relaxing,” Dineen says. “After even longer, I thought ‘What if someone is trying to get ahold of me right now?’ Then the anxiety just kind of came back.”
“It’s kind of scary. You shouldn’t have anxiety about not checking your phone.”
Unplug in Your Everyday
Information from Rob Sepich, stress management specialist for University Health Services at UW-Madison
Here are three things you already do everyday that you can turn into a moment to unplug, refocus and return to the nature surrounding you. Try doing one of these three things without doing anything else. No phone, no music, no computer. Experience the world around you and enjoy a moment of peace and quiet. You might just find yourself less stressed, more focused and ready to take on what’s coming next.
Try eating one meal, or even one piece of fruit, without doing anything else. Focus on the taste of the food and appreciate the experience of eating something the world produced.
Instead of focusing on everything you need to do, try to focus on the little things, like how the water feels like rain coming down.
For one walk during your day, take out your ear buds and put away your phone. Take a moment to notice the birds, the faces of the people you pass or the leaves on the trees.