Simplify Your Tech Life,Thoreau-Style; Even an avowed naturalist would have a hard time totally unplugging today. Here’s how to take refuge from banal Facebook posts and incessant phone alerts without retreating to a tiny cabin in the woods

August 9, 2013, 5:49 p.m. ET

Simplify Your Tech Life,Thoreau-Style

Even an avowed naturalist would have a hard time totally unplugging today. Here’s how to take refuge from banal Facebook posts and incessant phone alerts without retreating to a tiny cabin in the woods


YOU MAY NEVER HAVE READ“Walden,” but you’re probably familiar with the premise: a guy with an ax builds a cabin in the woods and lives there for two years to tune out the inessential and discover himself. When Henry David Thoreau began his grand experiment, in 1845, he was about to turn 28—the age of a typical Instagram user today. Thoreau lived with his parents right before his move. During his sojourn, he returned home to do laundry.

“In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness.”

—Henry David Thoreau, 1854

Thoreau’s circumstances, in other words, weren’t so different from those of today’s 20-somethings—which is why seeking tech advice from a 19th-century transcendentalist isn’t as far-fetched as it may sound. “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us,” he wrote in “Walden.” That statement still rings true for those of us who have lived with the latest high-tech wonders long enough to realize how much concentration they end up zapping. “We do not use theFacebook FB -0.10% ; it uses us,” we might say.

But even the average social-media curmudgeon’s views on gadgetry aren’t as extreme as those of Thoreau. Whereas he saw inventions “as improved means to an unimproved end,” most of us genuinely love our iPhones, Instagram feeds and on-demand video. We just don’t want them to take over our lives, lest we forget the joy of reading without the tempting interruption of email notifications, or the pleasure of watching just one good episode of a television show per sitting.

Thankfully, we don’t have to go off the grid to achieve more balance. We can arrive at a saner modern existence simply by tweaking a few settings on our gadgets and the services we rely on. Why renounce civilization when technology makes it so easy to duck out for short stretches?

Inspired by the writings of Thoreau, we looked for simple tools—the equivalent of Thoreau’s knife, ax, spade and wheelbarrow—to create the modern-day equivalent of a secluded cabin in the woods. Don’t worry: There’s still Wi-Fi.

The Just-Simple-Enough Life, in Six Easy Steps

1. Manage your Facebook ‘Friendships’

‘Nothing makes the earth seem so spacious as to have friends at a distance; they make the latitudes and longitudes.’

As your Facebook connections grow to include all 437 of the people you sort of knew in high school, it’s easy to get to the point where the site’s News Feed becomes a hub of oversharing—much of it accidental. (Your co-worker probably had no idea the site would post his results of the “Which Glee Character Are You?” quiz.) Adjusting a few settings will bring your feed back to a more Thoreauvian state.

Facebook tries to figure out which posts will be most interesting to you, but nothing beats getting in there yourself and decluttering by hand. The process is like playing Whac-A-Mole, with your hammer aimed at the irrelevant posts that pop up in your News Feed.

Start by removing serial offenders: On the website, hover your cursor over the person’s name as it appears above a post, hit the “Friends” button that pops up and then uncheck “Show in News Feed” to block future posts. If that feels too drastic, click “Acquaintances” from the pop-up screen instead. This relegates the person to a special “friends list” whose updates will appear lower in the News Feed. (Fear not, the person won’t be notified about either of the above demotions.)

You can go a step further and scale back the types of updates you receive from those you’ve added to Acquaintances (as well as any other friends lists you create). Hover your cursor over the News Feed’s “Friends” heading then click “More” and select the list name. Then click the “Manage Lists” button and, finally, “Choose Update Types.”

Unless you’re in the middle of a fierce match of Bejeweled Blitz, you can safely deselect “Games” and most likely “Music and Videos,” too. Go out on a limb and untick “Comments and Likes” to put the kibosh on musings and shout-outs about other people’s posts. You’ll probably want to leave the mysteriously named “Other Activity” checked, though; while it includes some yawn-inducing updates, the category also encompasses announcements of major life events, like engagements and births.

2. Stay Just Out of Touch

‘I have a great deal of company in my house; especially in the morning, when nobody calls.’

While it would be liberating to dodge emails, text messages and Farmville invites by simply turning off your phone, being an upstanding member of society often requires staying just-reachable-enough.

If Thoreau had tried an iPhone, he likely would have appreciated the iOS’s Do Not Disturb feature (accessible from the settings screen). It silently sends all calls to voice mail and keeps the screen dark, no matter how many text or direct Twitter messages you receive, and it can be scheduled to turn on and off at a certain time every day. If you’re concerned about missing an emergency phone call, you can set your phone to ring whenever someone calls you twice within three minutes. For Android users, the No Disturb app ($4 for ad-free version) offers similar functionality.

If your Android smartphone supports Near-Field Communication (also known as NFC)—a feature that lets two devices communicate if you touch them together briefly—download the free NFC Task Launcher app ( ) and purchase a few NFC stickers. These let you tell your smartphone to automatically change sound settings whenever you tap it on one of the stickers. Put one near your front door to turn off text notifications when you get home, and another next to your bed to shut off the ringer completely.

3. Read Something Longer Than 140 Characters

‘…the adventurous student will always study classics, in whatever language they may be written and however ancient they may be. For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man?’

Computers, smartphones and tablets are perfect for skimming TMZ, but for hunkering down with the sort of thoughtful text Thoreau would endorse, a dedicated ereader is the tech equivalent of a wood-paneled reading room. Although there are fancier models out there, the classic Kindle ($89, ) and Kindle Paperwhite($139) are still tough to beat. Because their screens aren’t backlit, they don’t cause eye strain the way a tablet or color ereader can. While Amazon sells discounted models that display advertisements (each costs $20 less), don’t fall for the trap: The ads undermine the tranquility of the device. (If you already own an ad-supported Kindle, remove the ads for $20 using the settings page.) Also be sure to install the Send to Kindle plug-in for the Chrome and Firefox Web browers. It lets you beam long articles that you stumble upon online to the device, magically stripping away banner ads and other Web detritus in the process.

4. Ditch Your Smartphone, Driver

‘Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things.’

Perhaps one day scientists will figure out what it is about the ding of a text-message alert that makes it impossible for otherwise intelligent and life-loving drivers to ignore it. Meanwhile, a few tools can help you keep your eyes on the road.

One of the most rigorous is Cellcontrol($89, ), a small monitoring device that taps into your car’s onboard computer via a port often found in the glove compartment. After you install an app for Android, BlackBerry or Windows Mobile smartphones, Cellcontrol lets you automatically block the phone’s access to messaging, email, phone calls and apps of your choice whenever the car is moving.

Some stand-alone apps attempt to tackle the same problem by using your smartphone’s GPS or its connection to cell towers to figure out if you’re moving—but the apps can’t tell if you’re driving a car or riding the crosstown bus. A simpler alternative is Safely Go (free, ) for Android, which turns off your ringer and alert tones and sends an auto-reply to people who call or text you while you’re on the road. It also gives you quick access to three of your apps, so you don’t have to swipe through multiple screens looking for Google Maps or Spotify. The only drawback is that, unlike with Cellcontrol, you have to launch the app every single time you get in the car.

Because Apple doesn’t allow iOS apps to block access to other apps, there are no similar solutions for iPhone users. The best bet: Enable “Do Not Disturb” mode to silence incoming calls and messages.

5. Proactively Prevent Procrastination

‘As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.’

Even the most disciplined among us find it hard to resist the lure of unlimited, high-speed Internet access. But you can fight technology with technology designed to kick your late-night Netflix habit.

Free Web browser plug-ins—likeLeechBlock for Firefox andWasteNoTime for Safari and Chrome—let you block specific sites on a set schedule each day. The Mac and PC program Freedom ($10, ) goes a step further and disables your computer’s Internet access entirely for as long as you tell it to.

Quarantining a smartphone is trickier. You can use the kid-safe browser Net Nanny($5 for iOS, $13 for Android; to restrict access to specific sites. The Android version also lets you block apps, like Facebook or Twitter—or even games.

At home, where you probably use Wi-Fi to connect your smartphone to the Internet, you do have one additional tool: your network router. By diving into its advanced settings, you can tweak it to bar an app or Web browser from accessing time-sucking sites. The steps to enable this differ for each model, but connect to your router’s configuration page via a Web browser and look for a setting such as “website filter” or “access restriction.”

6. Take a Walk for the Heck of It

‘An early morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.’

Leave your fitness tracker and earbuds behind. “You must walk sometimes perfectly free,” Thoreau wrote, “not prying nor inquisitive—not bent upon seeing things. Throw away a whole day for a single expansion.”

To find the perfect path, download the free Oh, Ranger! ParkFinder app ( ) and search for nearby national and state parks with hiking trails. No doubt Thoreau would pick the Walden Pond State Reservation, which, according to the app, has “462 acres of protected open space so that visitors from near and far may come to experience the pond that inspired Thoreau.”

Modern-Day Thoreaus

LeBron James, forward for the Miami Heat, stopped using social media and his cellphone during the 2012 and 2013 NBA playoffs. The Heat won the title both years. His final Tweet before the 2013 playoffs: “Zero Dark Thirty-6 Activated! I’m gone.” (The “6” is a reference to his jersey number.)

Padmasree Warrior, chief technology and strategy officer at Cisco, sets aside Saturday as her “digital detox” day. She turns off her cellphone and doesn’t check email. Instead, she takes time for creative endeavors, like painting and writing poetry, mostly haiku.

Susan Maushart, author of “The Winter of Our Disconnect,” and her three teenagers banned the use of smartphones, laptops and televisions in their home for six months. “It’s not like we sat around reading Proust together,” she said. “But the kids were spending time in each other’s bedrooms which they hadn’t done since they were almost toddlers.”

—Monika Anderson

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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