Get Your “Off” Button Back!

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Most of our electronic devices never really turn all the way “off” anymore. Have you noticed that people are getting that way too?

When “Off” Really Meant “Off”

At the risk of sounding old, there was a time when “off” really meant off. Before the 1990s, if you turned off an electronic device, it became entirely inert, drawing zero watts of power until you turned it back on again. For a while, there was a state between on and off called “suspend” or “sleep mode”. We called it a feature because it allowed users to bring a device back to full activity with a minimum of delay. But lately, “standby” and “off” have become nearly the same thing. For almost all modern phones, the “off” button blanks the screen, but leaves the phone largely on. Only a determined long-press or removing the battery puts the phone in a truly “off” state.

People used to have an “off” state as well. For a fictional, but dramatic example, recall the opening credits of The Flintstones: remember how the five o’clock whistle blows and immediately, Fred slides down the back of his dinosaur-powered digging machine and hightails it for home?

Part of the reason Fred can truly be “off” from work is that he doesn’t have a smartphone or an email account he checks every thirty seconds. But more importantly, Fred doesn’t take his work so seriously he can’t go out for a giant rack of ribs or grab a game of bowling with Barney. For a stone-age guy who is often portrayed as a loutish fool, Fred is being surprisingly smart.

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As for people, also for electronics, the pseudo-off, standby mode that has become the norm comes with serious drawbacks. Standby consumes power. Sometimes that creates an individual-scale problem of batteries that lose charge quickly in devices doing no visible work. Other times the cost is societal, in the form of many megawatts of electricity wasted on devices called “vampires,” like televisions, game consoles and cable TV boxes, that spend most of their days idle but nevertheless draw power.

Human beings in standby mode also suffer power drain. If your body is clocked out of work, but your mind is still on the job, it’s hard to really rest and recover. As much as I like the idea of vacations, I’m concerned that instead of being truly “off” when away from work, the true “off” state is now reserved for a distant beach which many of us reach at most once or twice a year.

I am convinced that human beings need — not want, not desire, not deserve, but need — a full “off” state on a regular basis. Sure, downtime is enjoyable in its own right, but having the time and space to truly relax and unwind is more important than that. My own personal experience, plus many hours working with clients, has taught me that the inability to disengage fully leads to frustration, dullness, and stifled creativity. The consequence of never being fully “off” is an inability to be fully “on.”

Re-Implementing a Human “Off” Switch

If we’ve truly lost, or at least lost track of, the ability to really relax and be fully “off”, then how do we get it back? Like most changes, it requires both internal and external adjustments.

Our electronic devices teach us how to use them. Not so long ago, it was a sign of ignorance not to have read a manual for the latest gizmo or gadget. Now the expectation is that you shouldn’t have to read the manual to get a piece of equipment up and running. We can avoid reading the manual both because we’ve developed a culture-wide set of assumptions and expectations about how devices work, but more importantly because designers have made sure that they prominently expose the most common features and hide the more esoteric ones from view. Doing this work skillfully is part of the profession called user interface design.

As people, we also have an interface, although it’s not quite so obvious. Are you reachable by phone, by text, or by email? How rapidly do you respond to each one? Are there times you do or don’t check these channels? Are there particular kinds of calls you won’t take, or will send to voicemail? The people who communicate with you know the answers and they’ll usually adopt the channel that gets them what they want in the quickest, easiest way — for them, not you.

Part of having an “off” switch is deciding and then declaring what “off” means in terms of how you’ll respond to the rest of the world. You can’t be “off,” and at the same time taking calls, reading emails, or responding to texts. So how to manage it? The same technology that brought us standby mode can give us some powerful tools for building a virtual “off” switch. Most phones, smart or not, can turn off their ringers, or turn off entirely, in response to a daily alarm. In my own life, it didn’t take too many spam texts sent at ungodly hours of the morning to teach me how to implement this on my own devices. And if you really want to get fancy, try linking your electronic calendar to your phone’s ringer. My phone goes silent when my calendar says I’m in session and I can’t tell you how many interruptions that’s saved me over the last couple of years.

Another aspect of “off”-ness is getting the work out of your head, separate and apart from any external triggers. If work is on your mind, even with no-one else drawing your attention to it, then you’re still not really off. Having work on your mind can come from a number of causes. One of the biggest is unresolved, unrecorded commitments in your work life.

On Friday you may say “I need to remember to call Bob on Monday” but that’s not really true. Bob needs to be called, sure enough, but remembering it is optional, and an obstacle to being truly “off.” Far better to give the job of remembering to your calendar or another external reminder system, so there’s no need to have it junking up your head all weekend long.

Implementing technical solutions is great, but it probably won’t work unless some changes happen inside the head as well. There are reasons we compulsively check our phones and our email. Could it be boredom, or some emptiness we don’t know how to fill in a better way? Could it be insecurity about our jobs or our friends? Will be be fired or abandoned if we don’t answer that text in the next five minutes? Turn off the noise and it may be possible to think some thoughts and feel some feelings you’d rather not have. Even the mere stimulation of always-on electronics has an addictive quality that only surfaces when one tries to get away from it. Ultimately, the greatest obstacles to building-in the space to be truly “off” may be in your own head. Yet the need to rest, recover, and unwind is so profound that overcoming these roadblocks could well be worth the effort.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Pat Orner Oliver on .

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