Editor’s note: Shift Your Mindset is a new series from CNN’s Mindfulness, But Better team. We talk to experts about how to do things differently to live a better life.
Does the number of unread messages in your inbox leave you lightheaded? Do your thumbs ache from tiny-keyboard typing? Have you forgotten what your real-life friends look like without an Instagram filter?
It’s time for an intervention, and Julio Vincent Gambuto has just the remedy: unsubscribe.
Thirty-one percent of adults report being “almost constantly online,” according to a 2021 Pew Research Center survey. Americans spend, on average, more than two and a half hours on social media each day. Of the nearly 10 billion emails sent each day in the US, each full-time worker receives a daily dose of 120 messages.
Gambuto, author of “Please Unsubscribe, Thanks!: How to Take Back Our Time, Attention, and Purpose in a World Designed to Bury Us in Bullshit,” says it’s time to pry back control of our lives by silencing the pings, rings and dings of Slack, Gmail, WhatsApp and other alerts that interrupt us all day long.
His book offers practical strategies for stepping back, reevaluating and unsubscribing from the ideas, habits and tech engagements that keep us from happiness. He hopes that by reframing our relationships with our devices we can create the “sacred space” necessary to commit to a life that we really want.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
CNN: Is technology helping or hurting progress in society?
Julio Vincent Gambuto: Both. Advances in health care, like cutting-edge diagnostic tools, are just one example of the incredible benefits of the tech revolution. But it’s important, especially as we enter this chapter of AI, that we question common notions of technology as: the answer, the future or necessarily progress.
As a society, we must interrogate those ideas and bring nuance back into the conversation. If we’re going to build a future that’s beneficial to as many people as possible, we’ve got to wake up to ways that tech is not serving us. It’s critical that we take back our time, attention, focus and cash — our power, really — to evaluate how our lives have changed for good and bad.
CNN: How does technology’s speed impact our ability to pay attention and be present?
Gambuto: Because it moves faster than our bodies and minds can, technology disrupts the natural, embodied instincts we have to take a break, rest and reflect. Our engagement with devices interrupts daily rituals that have evolved over millennia to serve us well, as individuals and as a society. Why am I up answering emails at 11 o’clock at night, subjecting myself to the blue light that means I can’t sleep at 3 a.m.? The crushing pace of technology doesn’t allow for the milliseconds it takes for us to be conscious enough to step back.
Tech’s inhuman pace and its limitlessness have warped us. To bring our lives into better balance, we need to slow things down and reinstitute limits. Any way that you can do that — whether that’s in your calendar, online or in your social interactions — the better.
CNN: How is the marketing and advertising of today different from, say, the Mad Men era, and why does that matter?
Gambuto: What has changed is the sheer quantity of brand messages everywhere. I came up in a world of marketing communications when the “Rule of Seven” was gospel. That maxim, which originated in 1923, said that “a prospect needs to see a message a minimum of seven times within an 18-month period” to be moved to action. Now, with screens everywhere, that idea has gone into overdrive. Some digital marketing experts estimate that we are exposed to more than 4,000 brand messages each day, although there are no official figures.
Today’s ads are also more interactive. Now, a commercial on your phone or TV includes a link to give you a clickable way to buy in immediately. Plus, huge amounts of available data mean that targeted campaigns are no longer constrained by very general categories of information. Today’s marketing data is insidious. The ability of psychographics — which classify people based on psychological variables such as attitudes, values or fears — to gauge even more than your gender, race, marital status, etc. is wild. Technology allows big businesses to push your buttons, almost literally, so that you will push theirs.
CNN: Your book urges “brand literacy.” What do you mean?
Gambuto: It would serve us all very well to educate ourselves and our kids about media and brand literacy, providing the tools to question and understand the incredibly powerful process of branding — which is rooted in storytelling — and the motivations and incentives at play. We should all understand the way these messages are crafted and how photography, animation and video are used to manipulate, persuade and move people emotionally. As we shift toward a much more fully automated, AI-driven society, we’re going to need critical-thinking skills to question what we see and how we digest the media we consume.
CNN: Is it possible to take advantage of technology’s gifts without falling victim to it?
Gambuto: You can absolutely use and benefit from technology. My call is for us to use it and not be used by it. The first step is unsubscribing, which takes our engagement off autopilot.
CNN: How do we benefit by unsubscribing?
Gambuto: When we consciously decide whether we want something in our lives, we give ourselves the opportunity to disrupt the momentum that keeps us in an infinite loop of digital engagement. We can apply this to our work calendar, spending habits, social relationships and many other parts of life.
By unsubscribing from everything for a short time and going analog wherever possible, we become more aware of our behavior and consumer habits. With that insight, we can mindfully add back whatever tech is serving us well. The primary benefit is the ability to make intentional decisions rather than simply following the status quo, driven by societal pressures or habit. This shift allows us to stay present so we can catch ourselves slipping into default mode and, instead, switch up our approach.
CNN: Your book frames unsubscribing like an elimination diet for tech. What strategies do you suggest?
Take a “digital detox.” Maybe you go back to using cash for daily incidentals or writing paper checks for your monthly bills, stop shopping online — including ordering takeout — and stop using social media.
Mute every possible notification on your phone and computer. Turn off your phone, at least for periods of your day, or leave it behind when you go out for 15 minutes, then 30, then an hour.
Reclaim your laptop and phone by deleting apps, limiting yourself to just 10 in your laptop dock and 20 max on your phone.
“Down-tech” your devices. Instead of succumbing to the constant push to upgrade, I replaced my iPhone with a low-tech “simple smartphone for seniors.”
Unsubscribe from all automated emails. Set rules about how you will use email to make your life or work better and easier, so your inbox is not just a digital dumping ground without any order or intention.
Use your email autoresponder and outgoing voicemail message to set expectations about your work hours and communication response times
Decide how you want to use texting. When I discovered that too many of my friendships took place only on text threads, I stopped initiating text conversations and called people instead. It freaked them out at first but hearing one another’s voices does wonders for a friendship.
Unplug smart speakers and virtual-assistant tech to make your home as quiet and brand-free as possible. Turn off your Wi-Fi for periods. Try an old-fashioned alarm clock in your bedroom so there’s nothing beeping there. Return home to a place of solace and restoration.
The goal here is to give yourself the space to make intentional decisions about how you want to use devices and apps to better your life.
CNN: You urge readers to stop apologizing about response time. Why?
Gambuto: Apologizing for not responding to an email immediately is indirectly saying we should all agree that emails must be replied to within a day. It’s time to stop putting pressure on each other to buy into these expectations when none of us ever signed on for that. We can help change collective norms by altering our language. Instead of “sorry,” we can simply say, “It’s great to hear from you.” We need to push back against the culture we’ve adopted of apologies, shaming and pressure about communication expectations.
CNN: Your book provides multiple helpful “scripts,” suggesting language for unsubscribing-related conversations. You also advise: “Stop saying the word yes.” Why?
Gambuto: I spent my 20s in “say yes to life” mode. But that’s not sustainable. It’s crucial that we remind ourselves that our time, energy and focus have limits.
Recognizing this is incredibly freeing, because it allows you to create operating structures that relieve you of pressures.
For a silly example, during my book tour I challenged myself to only post one photo per city on social media. That completely changed the way I interacted during my events and lightened my workload afterward. This simple constraint transformed my experience because I got to be present talking with people without the pressure to record every minute.
CNN: The promise that undergirds your advice is the creation of what you call “sacred space.” What is that?
Gambuto: For decades, I had coaches and therapists and dance teachers who would say “find the quiet” or “practice meditation” or “get out of your head” or “let it go.” I never knew what they meant. My life was never quiet. Even while alone in a room, I couldn’t get to that quiet given all that was on my screen, pinging on my phone and running through my brain.
Now I do, and I find that sacred space allows me to hear my actual, genuine inner voice. We spend a lot of time in our society running away from that, covering it up, crowding it out with noise, external or internal. This is a tall task, but I believe the more people can hear that voice, the healthier our society will be. The underlying premise of this book is that by challenging ourselves to find the quiet and hear our authentic voices, we can be healthier and happier, individually and collectively.
Jessica DuLong is a Brooklyn, New York-based journalist, book collaborator, writing coach and the author of “Saved at the Seawall: Stories From the September 11 Boat Lift” and “My River Chronicles: Rediscovering the Work That Built America.”
For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at CNN.com