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How I Learned To Disconnect To Connect

I am used to staying in touch with people and accessing news online whenever I want. But over the last year, when I was writing and launching my new book, Parenting Without Borders, I found myself on my computer more and more. There were edits to see, updates to keep up with; a deluge of e-mails I had to respond to right away. I also used a phone to stay in touch with my brothers and parents and faraway friends, to arrange school pickups and playdates, send quick photos, catch up with people on Facebook, or correspond with colleagues.

Although I loved being able to stay in touch with people so easily, before long my mind started to process anything new—a new message, text, someone’s interesting status update—as stimulation. My fingers learned how to automatically check in without my even being aware of what I was doing. All too quickly I started to feel that I could not live without that phone somewhere nearby.

Then last month we returned to Japan, where we used to live and still return every summer. After so many months of feeling like I was constantly online, I was in for a shock. Here, I can only use my phone with Wi-Fi service, and we only have Wi-Fi in one room of our home. Even there, it’s spotty at best. Random e-mail checks, text messages, using Twitter or Facebook, even looking up a recipe online, can’t ever be done instantly. They now take patience and effort, and are sometimes simply impossible.

At first this felt incredibly inconvenient to me. It had become such a mindless, automatic habit to constantly check in online wherever I was, so automatic that I often didn’t realize I was glancing at my screen. But what felt like freedom back in the U.S.—the freedom to get online wherever I might be—had actually become a burden.

The most humbling moment came when I was looking at something on the computer with my 3-year-old daughter on my lap. She was hugging me fiercely.

“I’m hugging you, Mama! Hug me!” she pleaded.

“I am hugging you,” I said absentmindedly.

But I wasn’t. I was staring at my screen.

How ironic that while absorbed in writing a book on parenting, my own parenting had suffered a lapse. But to change an entrenched habit takes willpower— something that doesn’t come easily to me with a habit this pervasive. That’s why it was helpful to have a barrier— something external that would prevent me from too easily and mindlessly accessing the Internet. For me that barrier was our primitive, hair-pull-inducing Wi-Fi. For others it might be using the application Freedom, which disables Internet access on a computer for a period of time you choose. It might be a vow to stick to an Internet Sabbath—a vow to go completely offline for a day or a weekend or longer. It might be a vacation. The science of habit change suggests that you best set yourself up for success by becoming aware of what triggers your habit and modifying your routine to help you avoid those triggers. Summer—when so many routines go out the window anyway—is a good time to try to take on new, positive habits.

It’s easier to maintain good habits when you can actually experience the rewards that they bring into your life. The tangible proof of how my life would improve by getting unwired was to be found in the daily moments that suddenly blossomed abundantly before me: freedom from those constant, unnecessary check-ins, the way I was able to be more attentive to the family and friends who were right in front of me, the bedtime books I read to my children without feeling an impatient urge to peek at my phone. I felt liberated from the niggling guilt I felt about the distraction I was modeling to my kids, and cherished the childish hugs I was now able to respond to with all my being.

With this new expanse of time to reconnect more deeply with those right in front of me, I finally feel like I can breathe.

A commercial from Thailand, “Disconnect to Connect,” has been making the rounds on YouTube lately. Its wordlessly compelling message is perfectly understandable in any language.

Now I see our primitive, spotty Wi-Fi as a true blessing in disguise. When we return to the comforts of home back in the U.S. at the end of the summer, I know one thing: I’m going to remember how good it felt to “disconnect to connect.” I’m going to stash my phone away more often, turn off the computer, and create more Wi-Fi–free zones in our home. There is nothing that is more urgent than the real life I am living, every day.