How to “Unplug” Without Being Annoying About It
Photo by Louisiana Mei Gelpi

The Verge once paid a guy to “take off” from the internet for an entire year so he could write about it. Short version is that it was great at first; he caught up with friends, rode his bike, wrote a book, looked at the clouds. He embraced the purity of his pitch for a little while, then being human got the better of him and he developed vices to replace his social media habits. It was kind of a depressing read, but I understand the impetus. Our digital world is overwhelming.

About a month ago, at a pitch meeting, Matt Little, Director of Operations, told our team that he does this thing to unplug where he puts his phone on airplane mode when he doesn’t need to use it. It seemed simple, obvious and revolutionary.

Of all the twisted fantasies an online writer could have, escaping the internet is number one. Every week there seems to be a new story along the lines of, “I gave up social media/email/texting and here’s what happened.” Readers of the web harbor similar desires; at the very least, there has to be hunger for this particular brand of voyeurism. Why else would publishers keep hitting publish on the same headline? We know we’re addicted to our phones, that screens are ruining our sleep, that we can’t focus, that emojis are ruining grammar. The majority of us can’t “unplug” — but we all want to know what that alternate universe is like.

I’m no different. I am constantly thinking of creative ways to extricate email from my work life and texting from my social one. There was a week where I was so overwhelmed by incessant pinging information, my iPhone covered in a rash of notification acne, I very seriously considered trading in my 7 Plus for a flip phone. I didn’t do it because you can’t do this job without a handheld computer. I also knew that I’d miss Instagram and Google maps too much. I’ve always secretly felt that should I reach emotional break, I could “pull a Pinterest” (quit my job, buy a plane ticket, move to the beach with no service, never return). Realizing this was not actually a thing solidified my dependence on tech and cemented me into reality. I was stuck with all of it — the red reminders of people whose attention I was neglecting, unread to-do lists, podcasts I’d never catch up with — forever.

Airplane Mode, the idea that I could just flip a digital switch and turn all the noise off momentarily, never occurred to me. I guess this isn’t strange; my inclination is toward the extreme (“NO PHONE, MOTHERFUCKER. SEND AN OWL!”), never the simple solution. I’ve tried Do Not Disturb but it never helps. I can still see the texts coming in, watch the numbers on my inbox rise. Do Not Disturb makes it way too easy to dive back in and disturb myself. Yes, I could just turn my phone off but no, I’m never going to. It takes too long. You have to hold the sleep button down forever until it shuts off, then wait forever until it turns back on. I’m pretty sure my mom, dad and maybe yours are the only people who do this. Airplane Mode, meanwhile, is like turning your phone off for millennials.

Once the Airplane Mode was put in my head, I put Matt’s theory into action. I switched Airplane Mode on at the office, during dinners, before bed. I kept it on through movies, dates and while working out. It is not, as you know, a big deal. When you swipe Airplane Mode off, there your life is. No one wonders if you’re dead or mad at them. Emails, as I’m sure you’ve heard, do not spontaneously combust when left unanswered for half an hour.

It’s the same spiel you’ve read a million times: Everything is fine when you go offline. The internet and your group chats hardly know you’re gone. What Airplane Mode does is allow you to slip in and out the back door. I like that it’s not radical nor a production. I like that it saves battery and that I don’t have to be annoying about it, no explanations needed as to why I won’t be writing back for a week, no briefs to my parents explaining why I can’t call them. Airplane Mode is just something that I do now — sometimes, when I feel like it. Our digital world is overwhelming. I like that this makes it easy to unplug.

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  • Adrianna

    I use airplane mode all the time to save my battery – on the subway, when I’m at dinner or out for drinks with others. I was the only one in my group who didn’t have a dead phone at the of women’s march in DC.

    • Alison

      Same here! My phone lasted the entire time. (Also because I turn off cell data unless I need a map or to text right then. But that’s because I’m cheap.)

      • Adrianna

        I also frequently turn that off!

      • Adrianna

        Also, women’s march – people need to give up and move on when there’s cell no reception

    • Abby

      Yep. I love airplane mode, and I go full bore: airplane mode, battery saver and I don’t like notifications from social media apps or really any apps. My dad, a cell engineer, is always amazed at the health of my cell battery after four years. It also helps that as a teacher, I have a job where I don’t look at my phone most of the day and usually only need to charge it at night. Except in the summer, I’m always scrolling through!!

      • Selena Delgado

        Amen sister. Teaching disciplines me because I must be present for the children, at all times.

      • Adrianna

        I also use battery saver and my only notifications are text messages

  • Abby

    When I go to weekend long religious conventions, I put my phone on airplane mode during the day. Saves battery, lets me still use my bible apps and translators (crucial!) and doesn’t mean I’m tempted to look at man repeller when I’m supposed to be thinking about Jesus in Chinese

    • Kristin

      I can’t really wrap my head around weekends of thinking of Jesus in Chinese and sneaking manrepeller on the side—so interesting

      • Abby

        I contain multitudes haha

        • Chay


          • Abby


          • Chay

            Same! Toronto Chinese, you?

        • streats

          I think Man Repeller needs to do a feature on these multitudes! A Weekend With Abby: Airplane Mode and Jesus in Chinese

  • Verhanika

    I long to do this, but I’m always afraid that the moment I turn my phone off is the moment I’m going to get The Call about my one year old or husband going to the hospital. So, it stays on and assuages my anxiety in this way and fosters it in others.

    • belle

      “do not disturb” mode on iphone is perfect for that situation. you can set it for certain times and so that people in your “favorites” (your family, etc) can reach you even when “do not disturb” is on. There is also a feature where if someone calls you twice in a row (like in an emergency) it will put the call through.

  • gracesface

    Having a flip phone makes things easier.

  • meme

    I don’t really feel the need now, mainly because being an expat my phone is my contact to my family and friends back home. But when I was still living at home with a very stressful job, I’d just let my phone die on fridays and wouldn’t plug it until Sunday night. At first it was annoying to some people, then the people I’m closest to would just text my husband if we hadn’t already set out plans before the weekend or would just call the landline (I know!) Nothing happened and I felt liberated.

    • JennyWren

      I’m an expat too, and when people go off on the evils of technology I remind them that without Facebook and Skype I’d miss out on a lot going on with my family. A weekly email or phone call is great but it doesn’t replicate the fluid, spontaneous communication you used to only be able to have with physical closeness. I’ve never actually had a smartphone- we are thinking of upgrading in a few months- and heck yes I’ll be following my sister and my school friends and my cousin on Instagram and sending them emoji messages. I think people get so focused on the fact that we have “too much” technology that they forget how much it has actually given us.

      • Laura Guarraci

        I’m also an expat and totally agree with this. Also somehow after moving away from NY, I don’t feel obsessed with my phone anymore. I use social media to keep in touch with everyone, but I don’t have an anxious, twitchy phone checking habit like I used to. I think it has to do with the change in lifestyle- less life/work anxiety, it’s easier/more casual to make plans, and less FOMO.

  • Ciccollina

    I just turn off all notifications and check my phone at semi-regular intervals, but I am also the person that doesn’t feel obliged to write back to anything really.

  • Natty

    Look up the Forest app – very cute and thoughtful way to help you focus

  • I think what scares a lot of people from unplugging is less the actual thing, but more in realizing that the world will be fine without you checking on it incessantly!

    We recently went on a trip to Santa Fe with an old friend, and were disturbed to find out how obsessed with work he was. We’re literally driving by beautiful desert landscapes painted by Georgia O’keeffe and our friend is on his phone in the backseat incessantly checking email. (It was also Memorial Day weekend, by the way). I get that he’s working for a big tech company, but no one is needed that much! He talked a lot about how much he was doing at the company, and how he was in charge of so many people, but I think the ship would have sailed fine for 2 days. Anyway, it just felt more like he needed the reassurance that he was important, rather than the work really needed him. Know what I mean?

  • streats

    I’ve always had notifications (including badges) turned off for everything, so I have to physically open apps to see if I have any updates. That’s mainly because I hate the unsightliness of unread badges, and the disruption of my phone pinging. I check email once a day, if that (that said I’m not working right now, and I receive very few personal emails).

    The exceptions are Messenger and Whatsapp. Those are the only two things I’d potentially need to respond to right away, but I have mobile data switched off for almost all apps – if I’m out for drinks, that text from my transatlantic friend can wait ’til I’m home with WiFi. I don’t need to scroll through Instagram while I’m grocery shopping, but I might need to check Pinterest for ingredients for that recipe I pinned. This has helped save battery and data costs!

    For me, my problem is mindlessly and reflexively opening apps for no real reason. I’ll open Instagram, check for notifications, scroll through some feed for a while, then close Instagram and repeat with Facebook/Twitter. Then 30 seconds later I’ll open Instagram again, even though I already “did” that. ???? #whyareyoulikethis

    I spend a lot of time at home these days (I’m on sabbatical) and I’ve taken to leaving my phone in my bedroom, unless I’m actively using it (e.g. chilling on the couch reading MR). Like, I don’t need my phone at dinner? Or while I’m doing laundry? It helps a bit to not get distracted but I still have the passive feed problem when I’m sedentary and not focusing on any particular task. I’m crafty and getting into embroidery and knitting again, so hopefully that can be something I can replace my phone with to keep my hands busy while watching Netflix/TV.