Unplug: Create a Digital-Free Zone

Don't call me; I'll call you...

Don’t call me; I’ll call you…

It is an interesting question whether how one reacts to this story is more related to generational differences and/or personality differences (e.g. introverts vs. extroverts). Steven Kurutz in the New York Times interviewed Brian Faherty, the founder of Schoolhouse Electric and Supply, a home decor company with an online site plus stores in New York and Portland (http://www.schoolhouseelectric.com/). Kurutz writes of Faherty:

…he hasn’t adapted easily to the digital world. Nor has he figured out how to resist his smartphone.

“It’s always calling me,” Faherty said. “Hey, you haven’t looked at me for an hour. Three new Instagrams. Things that are insignificant are taking up valuable mindshare.”

Faherty, 49, found himself wanting an escape from the digital, and two years ago when the company moved into a 1910 brick factory building in Portland, he created one. He transformed a boarded-up former foreman’s office at the end of a loading dock into what he calls the Fire and Water room.

“No TV,” Faherty said. “No computer monitor. No line to a computer. I look forward to my time in that room.”

This vignette raises a point about whether ideation and creativity are negatively effected by the presence of digital devices or whether that is a red-herring and it is more dependent on the nature of both the work and task at hand as well as the preferences of each individual when it comes to creative work.

Q: How have you furnished the room?

A: It’s minimal and functional. I have a wood stove. I have a big slab of oak where I can chop wood. I have a huge GE fridge, probably from the ’50s. I have a funky eight-track with an AM-FM radio. I just play the radio. I’ve got a couple of lamps in there. I’ve got a sofa, a few chairs and a coffee table.

Q: You’re escaping from smartphones and computers, not modern life. Why not buy a new fridge and install electric or gas heat?

A: It’s how they designed refrigerators then: how the handle works, the care that went into it, even the look of the GE logo.
The wood stove means it takes a certain amount of preparation to be in that room in the winter. You can’t just pop in for a meeting. I like that I can slow down for a second and do this menial task that is going to provide comfort.

Q: How much time do you spend in there?

A: I’d say two or three hours, two or three days a week, on average. We have an adviser to the company, Mel. Our meetings are usually in that room. They’re really productive. I meet friends down there, too. Like an old friend, it’s so nice to meet them in that room. I won’t show just anyone that room.

Q: Have you found that you think more clearly there?
A: Sometimes. I started to become more productive, and I think it helps my creativity. But sometimes I don’t think at all. I just lay back. Be. I think I’m more present in that room.

Q: What’s been the response from your employees? Do they abide this digital dead zone?

A: There were a few people who thought it was weird. Those are the people I don’t want to hang with, anyway. My wife works here. She just rolls her eyes.
Right away I learned I had to establish ground rules. One guy came by here and he’s a total Portland hipster guy. His phone rang three times. He was a guy seeking me out because he wanted to pick my brain and here he’s taking calls. I thought later about writing him a handwritten note.



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