Let’s take a road trip back in time to, say, 1999.
It’s the start of your summer beach vacation. Upon arrival, you unpack, slather your sexy self in sunscreen and head to the beach. You bring a paperback book and a fancy new yellow Sony CD player. You have a drink, read a little and relax.
When your friends show up, you snap a few group photos with your disposable film camera (there’s no such thing as a selfie yet) and hope they turned out O.K. It’s heaven.
Fast forward to our vacations today.
You set off on a much-needed summer break. The second you land, you check your cellphone and are greeted by a flood of messages. After an hour sitting in your hotel room replying to work emails, you finally go to the beach.
You pull out your iPad to read a book and, oh, look: You have a message on Facebook, not to mention WhatsApp, Snapchat and Twitter.
And because the beach is so beautiful, it’s probably a good idea to take an Instagram. After a hundred attempts to capture the best and most original photo of a beach ever taken, you spend another hour seeing how many “likes” your photo got.
More messages come in. You end up getting stressed about all the work emails you have to respond to back at the hotel.
One obvious solution is to leave your smartphone and tablet at home. But that ignores the fact that our devices have replaced some vacation essentials, including physical books, magazines, music player, cameras, maps and in-flight entertainment.
Believe it or not, there are ways to unplug that don’t require you to downgrade to a CD player.
The simplest solution is to put your phone into airplane mode the moment your vacation begins. This way, you can still listen to music, take photos and read, but you can’t connect to the Internet and get sucked into the black hole of wasting time.
If you have legitimate travel-related reasons to access the Web — for, say, driving directions or restaurant recommendations — go to your phone’s settings to enable (or disable) the cellular data capabilities for certain apps. Turn on maps and apps like Yelp and Foursquare; turn off email and social media apps like Facebook and Twitter.
For those who are inclined to cheat, I would tell them to delete the most tempting apps from their phone, whether it’s Instagram or Snapchat. And rather than bringing an iPad on vacation, try a print book or Kindle.
I know what you’re thinking here. What if someone from work or home really needs to get hold of me?
Danny Cohen, director of television at BBC, told me that once a year his entire family sets off on a two-week vacation and they all leave their smartphones at home. When I asked what happens if there is a work-related emergency, he said a limited number of people have the hotel name and room number where he is staying, and can call if need be.
And guess what? No one calls. It turns out, most work emergencies aren’t really work emergencies. Picking up the phone to disturb a colleague’s vacation is a lot harder than firing off an email.
Still, for some, resisting that urge to check the phone or open the laptop while on vacation can be too difficult. For this group, I recommend paying to unplug.
There are places that not only advertise zero Internet access, but also have a strict no-gadgets policy. Camp Grounded, in Anderson Valley, Calif., for example, bills itself as a summer camp for grown-ups. While archery, potato printing and stilt-walking all sound like fun, the best part of this campground is that you have to hand over every piece of technology you have before you enter. This includes watches, phones and computers.
The Renaissance Pittsburgh hotel offers a Family Digital-Detox Package for entire families that want to unplug. According to its website, “Prior to your arrival, the television, phone and iHome dock station will be removed from your guest room and replaced with board games and playing cards.” (It sounds like a scene out of “The Shining.”)
A slew of campgrounds and beaches around the world are deliberately not providing Wi-Fi or cellular coverage, including those on Tristan da Cunha Island, a far-flung group of volcanic islands in the south Atlantic Ocean. The Sahara and the Grand Canyon are so vast that you can get no bars on your phone for miles (though you may need a device to find these places on Google).
Another option, which could induce its own share of anxiety, is to charge your devices before leaving home, but don’t bring any chargers. This way, you know you have a limited amount of battery life, and won’t squander that time looking at Vine videos.
But I don’t think people should wait until vacation to unplug.
In recent months, I’ve started to delete some social media apps from my phone on weekends. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat are removed entirely on Friday afternoons. Then on Monday morning I reinstall everything for the workweek ahead.
If you still can’t stop yourself from logging on and checking in after all this, I have only one piece of advice left. Dunk your devices in water and replace them with an old yellow Sony Discman.