What Happens to Writers When They Unplug

What increases your stress, causes aches and pains, and messes with your sleep?

Gadgets. Computers. Tablets. Smartphones.

Overuse of these tools can also lead to burnout, and we all know that writers are especially susceptible because of all the tasks on our plates these days.

There’s no doubt that on the whole, technology has opened up a lot of opportunities for writers. But we can’t go-go-go forever without suffering the consequences.

It’s the holiday season—no better time to try your hand at unplugging, for your health and for your work. Even if you can take just a short break, you’ll likely return refreshed and ready to go.

Not convinced? I’ve got some stories from other writers who rave about the benefits of even a short time away from the screen.

But first, a little more information about what our “always-on” culture is doing to you.

Your Gadgets are Causing You Pain and Suffering

How do you feel at the end of the day? Does your neck and back hurt? How about your hands, wrists, or elbows?

All that time spent typing, scrolling, and pinching takes its toll. “Text Claw” is the actual term used to describe cramps and soreness in the fingers and hands after hours on a smartphone, while “Cell Phone Elbow” refers to the pain and tingling that goes from your elbow to your fingers.

Of course we all hunch over our gadgets, which creates “Text Neck,” the condition resulting from hours of straining the muscles and tendons in your back and neck. According to one study, a whopping 84 percent of participants experienced back pain because of being hunched over smartphones, tablets, and computers.

And then there’s the wear and tear on our eyes. We talked about computer vision syndrome in another post, but eye strain comes from cell phones and tablets too—anything with a screen. Hours of staring at them increases risk of eye strain, blurred vision, dizziness, dry eyes, and can even effect the makeup of our tears, causing them to be less lubricating.

You can try fixing your posture while using these gadgets, but better yet—take a break from them. Unplug for several hours at least once a week.

You’d Be Better to Drink a Double Espresso Than Use a Smartphone Before Bed

Do you keep your smartphone and tablet out of the bedroom?

They emit blue light, which tells the brain to wake up. Blue light also suppresses the hormone melatonin, which promotes sleep and helps regulate circadian rhythms.

In a 2012 study, for example, 6.5 hours of exposure to blue light suppressed melatonin for twice as long as green light, and shifted sleep schedules by three hours, compared to 1.5 hours.

Gadgets like e-readers also reduce the total number of minutes participants experienced that important REM deep sleep, which is critical for healing and a strong immune system.

Did you know that according to recent research, drinking a double espresso before bed would have less effect on your circadian rhythms and sleep schedule than exposure to bright lights like those in smartphones and tablets at night?

Turn Off the Gadgets, Shut Down the Stress

We writers know—we’re always on. When we’re not writing, we’re blogging. When we’re not blogging, we’re guest blogging, or we’re marketing, or we’re at some event, or we’re catching up on social media. On-on-on.

“The increased productivity associated with staying connected to work in the evening hours is often achieved at the cost of mental health,” say researchers Daantje Derks, Heleen van Mierlo, and Elisabeth B. Schmitz of Erasmus University, “yielding higher stress levels which may lead to poor recovery, impaired performance, fatigue, and sleep complaints.”

Even when we use social media just to keep up with friends and family, we’re risking more stress. Researcher Richard Balding, a psychologist in the department of psychology at the University of Worcester, states that the more we use our phones, the more we become dependent on them, “actually courting stress instead of relieving it.” He found in his studies that the more participants checked their phones, the more their stress increased.

“Smartphones put us in an ever-increasing state of hyper-vigilance,” says David Greenfield, Ph.D., founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction, “where we’re always feeling compelled to check our calls, texts, social media alerts, email, and more. This keeps the adrenals constantly activated and cortisol levels elevated.”

What Happens to Writers When They Unplug

Other writers have suffered from all these ailments, and taken action by planning specific “unplug” times.

“I’ve sought out the solace of hiking in the woods almost every weekend as an antidote to the amount of time I spend in front of a screen,” says journalist Michelle V. Rafter. “There’s something incredibly regenerating about being in a place that’s the antithesis of the plugged in world. It’s like a tonic, and it takes only an hour or two.”

Freelancer Tiffany Howard says that regularly peeling herself away from the monitor helps her feel better, physically, and also helps her find new inspiration for writing. Author Joshua Becker says that we “know” we’re over-attached to our technology, and that powering down can encourage our creativity.

“Essentially, most of our time is spent in one of two categories: consuming or creating. Certainly, technology can contribute to creating. But most of the time we spend in front of technology is spent consuming (playing video games, browsing the Internet, watching movies, listening to music). But our world doesn’t need more consuming. It needs more creating. It needs your passion, your solution, and your unique contribution. Power-down. And begin contributing to a better world because of it.”

Historical fiction writer Nicole Evelina says that she takes breaks from social media to ease her nerves:

“I need some time to just be a writer, without the constant streams of articles on what I should or shouldn’t do to be successful or the relentless ‘look, I’m wonderful, now buy my book’ tweets and posts. I need time to focus on me, my research and writing, on my life outside of the world wide web. Then, I’ll be in a better place when I am back full-steam ahead.”

Designate Certain Times for Social Media

You may be surprised to find that it’s harder than you expected to stay away from your phone, even for a few hours. If you notice that you’re feeling instantly “bored” or restless, realize that those are signs of addiction.

“I have quit a million things over the years and it’s usually kind of fun,” writes memoirist Gavin McInnes. “But this feels like Wolverine removing those weird steel claw things from his fists. The fact that it’s so incredibly difficult shows how far down the rabbit hole we’ve unknowingly gone.”

The good news is that research shows the more you set it aside, the easier it will become—and the less stress you’ll feel. So you may want to start one day with just a couple hours, and then see if you can grow to leaving the cell phone or tablet in a drawer for a whole day, weekend, or (gasp!) even week.

Dr. Daniel J. Levitin, writing in the New York Times, suggests that for optimal creativity, we break up our social media and email activities into certain designated times during the day.

“If you want to be more productive and creative, and to have more energy, the science dictates that you should partition your day into project periods. Your social networking should be done during a designated time, not as constant interruptions to your day.”

He also suggests leaving your email off until those times that you’ve set aside to attend to it. Doing so frees up your brain to concentrate on what you’re doing in the moment.

“Increasing creativity will happen naturally as we tame the multitasking and immerse ourselves in a single task for sustained periods of, say, 30 to 50 minutes.”

Unplugging may also help us feel a bit more in control of our lives. Writer Madison Feller tried going without for a week, and was amazed at how much more relaxed and well rested she felt.

“It’s easy to feel like we have to respond to everything right as we get it, but really, there’s very little that’s so urgent it can’t wait till the next morning or for another hour. It felt incredible to not be reacting to everyone else’s demand for my time. Suddenly, I was in complete control, and it was amazing.”

If you try it this holiday, let us know how it goes. Will you decide to incorporate regular unplugging periods into your 2016 routine? Or will you vow never to be away from your beloved phone again?

Have you tried unplugging? Please share your experiences with our readers.

Photo credit: Artistic-touches via Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Derks D, et al., “A diary study on work-related smartphone use, psychological detachment and exhaustion: examining the role of the perceived segmentation norm,” J Occup Health Psychol., January 2014; 19(1):74-84, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24447222.

Alan Mozes, “Your Smartphone May Be Stressing You Out,” HealthDay, January 12, 2012, http://www.everydayhealth.com/emotional-health/0112/your-smartphone-may-be-stressing-you-out.aspx?xid=tw_everydayhealth_20120112_smartphone.

Paige Fowler, “New Study Reveals Even More Ways Your Smartphone Is Stressing You Out,” Men’s Health, February 19, 2015, http://www.menshealth.com/health/how-smartphones-stress-you-out.

Olga Khazan, “How Smartphones Hurt Sleep,” The Atlantic, February 24, 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/02/how-smartphones-are-ruining-our-sleep/385792/.

“Blue light has a dark side,” Harvard Health Letter, May 1, 2012, http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/blue-light-has-a-dark-side.

Anne-Marie Chang, et al., “Evening use of light-emitting eReaders negatively affects sleep, circadian timing, and next-morning alertness,” PNAS, January 27, 2015; 112(4):1232-1237, http://www.pnas.org/content/112/4/1232.full.

Tina M. Burke, et al., “Effects of caffeine on the human circadian clock in vivo and in vitro,” Science Translational Medicine, September 16, 2015; 7(305):305ral46, http://stm.sciencemag.org/content/7/305/305ra146.

Tracy Miller, “iPosture blamed for surging back pain among young adults,” New York Daily News, October 1, 2013, http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/health/iposture-blamed-surging-back-pain-young-adults-article-1.1472870.

Madison Feller, “What REALLY happened when I ‘unplugged’ for a week,” Vox Magazine, September 19, 2015, http://www.voxmagazine.com/2015/09/what-really-happened-when-i-unplugged-for-a-week/.

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  1. I love the idea of using technology to create, not to consume, most of the time. I’m going to try focusing on creativity and see how it goes. I’m not much of a social media user, but I do read online A LOT. And I crave constant new information. That’s probably something to work on…

  2. Great advice, Colleen. I tried to unplug for several hours at least once a week, and go completely offline when on vacation. It’s not easy at first, but it’s very freeing and feels great after a day or two.

    1. Author

      Thanks, Jessica! I’m with you during the week, but haven’t managed the vacation complete unplug yet. Maybe in 2016!

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