The Importance of Being Unavailable

Sixteenth century English poet Sir Thomas Overbury once wrote: “Absence doth sharpen love, presence strengthens it; the one brings fuel, the other blows it till it burns clear.” Strong, healthy relationships are built on periods of presence and absence, and as Overbury points out, both are interwoven together. Too much presence can reduce the value of the time present. Too much absence can dilute the relationship-building done during times of presence. But is it still possible to be absent in today’s always-connected, always-reachable digital life?

In a recent article for the Wall Street Journal, tech writer David Pierce calls for an effective way to tell people trying to reach us through our phones that we are currently unavailable. Pierce looks back at AOL’s Instant Messenger away message feature for inspiration.

Away messages helped users understand why their buddies weren’t responding. More important, away messages offered permission to actually go away. If someone needed you urgently, they would try another route, but mostly they would leave you alone. You weren’t ignoring them on purpose; you were just gone.

As Pierce notes, AOL’s away message served two purposes. First, it alerted people that you were unavailable. And second, it gave you peace of mind to actually BE away. Of course, the easiest way to stop people from trying to reach you is just to turn your phone or tablet off. However, as with the still oft-used email auto-responder at work, the ability to tell people we are gone and even why is a helpful reminder that it’s a good thing to be unavailable at times and promotes healthy boundaries. It also helps us reconsider whether the reason for reaching out to you is as urgent as first thought. Usually, it isn’t!

There are some communication apps that currently allow you to toggle your status to unavailable, such as Slack, WhatsApp, and even Apple’s Do Not Disturb While Driving feature, but it seems we have a way to go before a universal away message materializes for our mobile devices. The Big Tech companies promise updates later in 2018 that help users better manage the time they spend on their devices, but in the end, it is us as the users who must decide how much time we are going to allow ourselves to use technology, and how much of our daily thinking we are going to source out to an algorithm or machine.

My advice? As a first step, consider turning on the Do Not Disturb While Driving feature to prevent messages and alerts from breaking your concentration while driving. Secondly, to enjoy a short break from your phone during the day, turn on airplane mode to shut off all wireless connections to your phone. Or just turn it off and put it out of reach for a while. And if you’re headed on vacation, set up an email auto-responder and post a message to your social media timelines (visible to friends only for safety reasons) giving your peeps the heads up. You might also send a few texts to close friends and family saying you’ll be out of pocket for a time.

When we’re almost always within reach of our Me Machines (smartphones and tablets), it can be very challenging to set healthy boundaries with your time and attention. But with a little foresight and determination, it’s doable, and you’ll feel all the better for it!

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