Erika Bitzer, 30, an account director in the Seattle office of the Weber Shandwick public-relations firm, was perhaps the perfect person to work on a PR project for this past weekend’s “National Day of Unplugging” — because she’s exactly the type of person the campaign is trying to reach.
She sleeps with two cell phones plugged in next to her bed, checks Facebook religiously, posts on Twitter, texts with friends, monitors her email, checks in on Foursquare, uploads photos … and that’s just the start.
In other words, if the folks at the nonprofit Reboot project could get Erika to check out for a day, they could pretty much call it a success and go home.
So when we heard she wasn’t just pitching the project but planning to attempt to unplug herself, we were impressed that she was walking the talk, as it were. We called her up afterward to see how it went — and what she learned that might benefit the rest of us who weren’t brave enough to try it.
Continue reading for excerpts from our conversation.
As a baseline, what is your typical weekend like, in terms of your technology usage?
ERIKA: I have two cell phones, one is my personal phone and one is my work phone. I’m usually juggling texts from both phones, and keeping an eye on work mail, and then trying to coordinate plans for Friday night. I’m usually very cell-phone heavy Friday evening. And then, when we’re out with friends, I’m texting, I’m checking Foursquare, I’m uploading pictures to Facebook, Twitter. I’m now checking out GetGlue.com. And using my cell phone a lot for looking up movies, restaurants, stuff like that. On Saturday and Sunday, I sleep with my cell phones plugged in directly next to the bed. It’s like my husband, me and my two cell phones, and the cat.
Sometimes I’ll wake up really early or at random points in the night, and my instinct is to roll over and check my phones. I’m afraid I might miss out on something. (During the day) I’ll keep my laptop open, I’ll have my phones next to me, and then I’ll have the TV on. And I usually catch up on all my TV watching from the week. I DVR a ton of stuff. And then I’m tweeting while I’m watching stuff, and I’m Facebooking comments. In between that I’ll probably stop and make some phone calls and catch up with friends and family. And then Saturday night is sort of a repeat of Friday night.
So what was it like to give all that up for 24 hours?
BITZER: It was really, really hard. I didn’t think it was going to be as hard as it was, because there are those days when you completely turn off your cell phone and go do something. But it’s hard when you try to fit it into everyday life. It was my husband’s birthday on Friday, and we went to dinner at Palace Kitchen, and then we went to Jazz Alley afterward. I thought, well, this is good, because we’re going to be out with friends, and we’re going and doing something, and enjoying live music instead of TV or a movie or something like that. We’re spending time with friends.
The problem is that people were maybe going to show up later, and so I couldn’t turn my cell phone off. I just tried to not keep it out on the table at the restaurant. I would just check it only periodically. I wasn’t going to reply to anybody who texted, but emails would come in, and I would be, like, “Oh, God, I don’t want to look at it.” It was really difficult not being able to just turn my cell phone off. I also realized when I’m not wearing a watch, I use my cell phone to keep track of time. It’s a simple thing, and we don’t realize how dependent we are on it.
When we were at the jazz place, I wanted to take pictures because it was my husband’s birthday. I didn’t have a regular camera, so I decided I would turn my cell phone on and take some pictures, and then I put it away. That was hard, too.
What about the rest of the weekend?
BITZER: My husband didn’t participate, so he had the TV on all day long (on Saturday). I just asked that he put on stuff that I wouldn’t want to watch. So he had on golf, and things like that, that I could easily tune out. Normally I would sit with my computer and catch up with friends and play around. I didn’t do that. I actually read physical magazines, Vanity Fair, Wired, and InStyle. So I caught up on those things. But I like to pull out things in magazines, if I find a cute dress, or a band that I would like to check out online. Normally I would have my laptop there, and I’d go online and I’d listen and decide if I wanted to download. Instead I had paper covering the floor, ripped out from the magazine. Normally I would use Evernote and upload things. So I missed those basic experiences that come along with your everyday life now, that are ingrained in that.
It sounds like it was a struggle. Were you able to accomplish the goal of the day, which was to reflect and reconnect, and have some introspection?
BITZER: Yes, Friday night was that for me. Despite the fact that I did check my cell phone periodically, it was a lot easier to not think about, oh, I’m going to check in now on Foursquare. You start to think in tweets, and pictures for Facebook. Oh, I should get a picture and upload this. Not having that allowed me to be a lot more present at dinner with friends. Then, an in-person jazz concert is so much better than anything you can get on TV, even if you have a mobile surround system.
The whole experience of being there in person. It reminded me how much I enjoy real-world experiences, and that I should opt for those instead of being dependent on using technology to fill those voids just because it’s easy. I started to think differently about how I could spend my weekends. I realized how much time I was losing just screwing around on the Internet on Saturdays, and Facebooking with people. Instead, I should be planning time to go spend with friends, and go for a walk and get out of the house. That wast he biggest awareness for me — I fill my life with things that aren’t really important, and if I were just more thoughtful about it, I could find time to do things that would be a lot more enjoyable and enhancing to my life and my relationships with people.
So what’s next for you? How will this change how you go about your life?
BITZER: I think in general, it’s made me realize how attached to technology I am, and not in a healthy way. Even that, being able to step back and reflect and understand that about my habits means it was successful for me in that respect. And I do have the Reboot app on my phone now, and it will send you reminders to think about unplugging for a day. One of my life resolutions in general is to be more intentional about what I’m doing, and the decisions I’m making, and how I’m spending my time. I think this is just one more aspect of it that I wasn’t really thinking about before.