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Unplugging from the internet for a month
The benefits of taking a break from social media and email.
It seems MONTHS have passed since my offline break.
Was it really only two weeks ago when I woke up in that cosy cottage in the English countryside, with nothing on my schedule, and no phone or computer in sight?
Time moves slower when you’re experiencing new things, because your brain needs time to process them. That explains why July felt like a very long month to me: I was out and about a lot because there were so many things to discover in North Yorkshire, where I rented a small terraced cottage for a month.
To tune into myself and my needs more, I decided to take a break from my freelance work and more radical: No social media and no email.
Last year I deleted Instagram from my phone for six weeks. Suddenly I had about two hours extra a day to do other things. When I re-installed the app, I saw I didn’t miss anything. Okay, so I missed a few memes and viral videos but nothing life-changing. In the mean time, I was still working and did my emails, so I wasn’t really offline.
This year I wanted to be cut off from all external digital input and requests (let’s be real: an email inbox is just a storage box filled with requests you need to fulfil). To be digitally unreachable for a month needs planning…
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Planning a month without email
We live in a time where some people expect to be able to reach anyone anytime they please. As someone who knew a time before the internet (go on, call me a dinosaur, I don’t mind), I find this unhealthy and unrealistic but alas.
Anyway, you need the set expectations for people well in advance.
I added a line to my email signature in March which announced I would be out of office in July, so clients got the heads up in advance. Whether they realised it or not, they skimmed over that line saying I wouldn’t be available in July over and over for months. I imprinted it on their brain.
Two months before, I started mentioning to clients I’d be away and couldn’t be reached by email in July, so we could anticipate and do work beforehand.
Because I informed my clients so far ahead of my absence in July and it showed in every email we exchanged, they knew what to expect. I received almost no emails from clients in my month off because I’ve been setting expectations for months in advance. I also had an automated response which said when I’d be back.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in almost 25 years of freelancing/working with people it’s to be very clear of what others can expect.
Joys of disconnecting
Knowing I could abandon my email inbox for a few weeks without any worry, the next step was logging off from social media. Specifically, Instagram.
During my offline month, I expected to feel a pull to open the app but it didn’t happen. Whereas I’d usually open the app on a daily basis and find myself scrolling endlessly through reels and posts, going cold turkey worked like a charm.
124 extra hours in a month
What I got back were extra hours in my day. I used to spend anywhere between two to four hours a day on my phone. Mostly Instagram, but also a lot of Googling and using Maps for directions.
On an average work day, I will spend two hours or more on reading and answering emails. In total, that’s over five hours a day I spend looking at a screen.
A whole month without email and Instagram (but still some Googling and Maps, I have to admit), meant I had about 124 extra hours to spend on other things. I also didn’t have to work for a month, so I was able to read four books, hike many miles in nature, visited three seaside towns, meet up four times with friends (which is a LOT for me) and fill half a sketchbook with drawings.
I also watched a ridiculous amount of British detective series, which counts as a screen and some might see as something bad, but: watching telly is one of the rare methods for me to turn off my overworked brain. It’s actually one of the best methods to rest (read ‘The Art of Rest’ by Claudia Hammond if you want to know more).
A less cluttered and insecure brain
Beside the extra hours I got by being offline, another reward was not getting any external incentives. I’m not sure if that’s the right English word, correct me if I’m wrong. In Dutch we had a very fitting word for it: ‘prikkels’.
When on social media, I see so much stuff passing before my eyes. Just ten minutes on IG will show me a dozen memes, wars and deaths, protests, brilliant drawings that make me doubt myself, self-care tips, where others are spending their holiday, prizes or grants other illustrators have won (always the same people it seems *rolls eyes*), and very few things I’m actually interested in. When I scroll and use the old Marie Kondo-level (which means I ask myself with every reel/post/story I see ‘is this bringing me joy?’) I have to say ‘no’ most of the time.
There are people I love following, but most content is not adding particular value to my life. It clutters my brain and it will make me question myself and the work I do. I will start to doubt if what I’m doing is the right thing to do because I see hundreds of other options while scrolling.
Tapping into your true self
When I disconnected from email and social media, I was able to tap into myself and see more clearly what I actually need. The clutter and outside voices were gone, and I wasn’t distracted. I felt so much closer to my core-being.
I imagine myself being made of Velcro, and all outside incentives (‘prikkels’) are little Velcro balls that stick to me. When there are too many balls, I can’t see or feel myself any more.
So, why stay on Instagram?
I ask myself that often.
For me, it’s still a great tool to connect to like-minded people and with people that are interested in the work I create. For healthy use of the app, it’s knowing where your sweet spot is: when you feel connected and inspired, you’re good. But as soon as you notice the scrolling is making you feel down, it’s time to log off.
I make it sound easier than it actually is: social media is designed to make you want to stay on the apps and get addicted to ‘one more scroll’, so it’s hard to break free.
Now that I’m back home and back to work, I already find myself scrolling too much on the app again. I’m restricting myself with the screen time tool (standard on Apple phones) and I’m setting rules: no scrolling before work is done. I put my phone in places where it’s not in eye sight. It sounds silly but it works. When I don’t see the black rectangle from the corners from my eye, it’s far less compelling to look for it. So, I put it in a drawer.
Social media is amazing and horrible
Last week, I did an interview about Instagram and how artists can get the most out of it. I admitted to the interviewer that often I wish I didn’t have to be on social media to promote my work. All those hours spent there I could spend on drawing and painting.
But that’s not realistic: as an artist, promoting yourself is part of the deal. If social media didn’t exist, you’d still have to find other ways to get your work out in the open. In the past, you had to find galleries to show your work, or print a portfolio and go from publisher to publisher to show your work.
Showing your work has always been part of being a freelance artist, and social media has made it a lot easier. We can do it from our homes, even from our beds (but maybe don’t do that).
The downside of social media is that it is addictive and that it can affect your (mental) health. You need to set boundaries for yourself when using it.
When I came home from my holiday, I had one day off and then went full steam ahead again with my deadlines. When I work many hours a day, I notice myself reaching to the phone more. I use Instagram as little breaks, because going out of the house for a quick walk seems too much work (it’s not but it seems that way).
In the next few months I want a better balance in my freelance work, and steer towards a better work/life balance. Take proper breaks, have weekends off and have more time for other things than work. I’ve learned that if I have more hours for living (instead of working), I tend to have a better balance with social media and email too.