Powering Down For Reflection

We’ve just passed the season of the break for most of us academic librarians. It’s common for our institutions to give us a nice bonus this time of year – a week off between Christmas and New Years. What did you do during your break? Did you have a list of projects to work on during those days off or did you just try to relax and leave the work behind? And what about your digital life. Did you take a break from e-mail, Facebook and Twitter? Based on my observations the majority of us stayed active with our electronic lives, though perhaps to a lesser degree than during a normal work week.

I certainly didn’t take much of a break. For me, no suits and ties sure makes it feel like a break. I usually look forward to the break as an opportunity to get a bit ahead on projects, a desirable thing when you have a weekly column to keep up with. And proposals for ACRL’s conference will be due before you know it. The break is also a time when I try to write at least one fuller length article or essay. So while I spent less time online than normal, I would hardly say I was powered down. That only happens for me once a year or so, mainly when I go camping as there is no connectivity and I don’t bring along a computer. On family vacations I don’t bring along a computer and only check email once a day. But for this most recent break I didn’t even bother to put a vacation message on my email because I knew I’d be checking it a few times each day.

There is one anecdotal indicator that suggests to me that many academic librarians took a break from some of their familiar routines, such as checking the online news. I say this because there was a significant drop in traffic over at Kept-Up Academic Librarian during the break week. KUAL averages close to 300 visits per day but starting with December 24 it dropped just below 100 and never made it back above that mark until Monday, January 4, 2010 when it jumped back into the 200 visit range. That drop has to be more than a coincidence. I suspect the academic librarians who regularly read KUAL were off doing more entertaining activities. Some may have expected there’d be no higher education news to keep up with that week (there was less). But perhaps some just took a complete break from the Internet during their time off – and if they did would that be a good thing?

KUAL traffic between 12/24/09 and 1/3/10
KUAL traffic between 12/24/09 and 1/3/10

It just may be. During the break I came across a NYT article about a college where the President took the unusual step of holding a one-hour no technology meeting where the students focused on silent reflection. From the article:

Dianne Lynch wanted to give the students of Stephens College a break from the constant digital communication that pervades their generation. So she asked them to put their phones and computers away and revive the 176-year-old school’s dormant tradition of vespers services. On a bitterly cold December night, with the start of final exams just hours away, about 75 of Stephens’ 766 undergraduates grudgingly piled their cell phones into collection baskets and filed into the school’s candlelit chapel, where they did little but sit, silently. For an hour, not an iPod ear bud could be seen. There were no fingers flying on tiny computer keyboards, no chats with unseen intimates.Several other schools are encouraging technology-free introspection…Amherst College in Massachusetts hosted a ”Day of Mindfulness” this year, featuring yoga and meditation and a lecture on information technology and the contemplative mind.

I do get the value of unplugging – if not for days on end – at least for specific periods of time during the day. I set aside several periods where I unplug. Any time I go to the gym, usually two or three times during the work week, I leave my cell phone behind so I’m not checking email or keeping up with social networks. I do listen to music which helps me contemplate. During this time I often find myself coming up with solutions to work challenges or ideas for new blog posts or essays – or they come in the post-workout shower – which is actually a fairly common phenomena. Studies have found that when we free our minds from any complex thought activity, some of our best ideas will emerge from the ether. I also unplug at breakfast and dinner and just take time to read the daily paper. But I know I should probably be setting aside additional hours for powering down.

Disconnecting from the Internet also has to be better for our physical and mental health. As one blogger recently put it, “Sitting in front of these glowing screens (as most of us do) for around eight hours a day for work and additional hours for leisure can’t be good for us as living, breathing organisms.” You can get me to do just about anything if you can convince me it’s going to improve my health (except eating cauliflower or brussel sprouts – even I have my limits). One academic librarian who shares when he is going offline for multiple days is Kenley Neufeld, which I always find interesting since he is one of the most socially-connected academic librarians I know. So we certainly have good reasons to unplug and power down – for all important contemplation, to improve our health and mental sharpness, and to provide times during the day when we can concentrate on sustained reading and writing without the constant interruption of email, status updates and tweets.

Did you power down during the break? Are you setting aside times each day for connection-free activity? Use the comments to share your story about how powering down helps you.