Today I re-enabled a computer program called Time Out, which prompts me to take physical breaks during long sessions of screen time. Years ago my physical therapist suggested I pause frequently to stretch to relieve neck and shoulder pain from over-use and bad ergonomics, and an IT colleague suggested the software. But I found the program’s gentle messages to pause annoying because they interrupted my concentration, which can be intense no matter what I’m doing. I found myself constantly hitting the “skip break” button and feeling bad that I wasn’t taking one. So I disabled the tool about two years ago.
What changed in the interim has been a long time coming. After decades of being somewhat near the forefront of the tech revolution (we’re talking since the DOS days) –teaching myself tools with the pride of an explorer and sharing my knowledge with others — I chose to stop and examine my practices. And I didn’t always like what I saw. Sometimes using tech tools, I felt agitated or distracted. Networks didn’t work efficiently or people didn’t respond respectfully. Email messages dragged away my focus. Eye contact got the shaft during conversations while I was typing. Tasks on my to do list hammered down my desire to be creative. Everything felt harder than it should be, whatever that means. So I began to trim the pathways of technology that felt easiest to avoid: I don’t always check my cell phone or email, I leave my laptop home when I travel, I don’t tweet … no smartphone, yet. I’m not saying these are virtuous or necessary choices, they are just some I made.
My choice to try timed physical breaks again relates to my summer of tech limitation and to what is described in this article about contemplative computing and the monkey brain by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang for Salon.com. The article lays out some research on the brain and technology and, coincidentally, explains through someone else’s lens my choices to avoid smartphones and to take a break from Facebook. As Mr. Soojung-Kim Pang explains: I need to keep my monkey mind under control or it could take over. The enticing little red number on my email or news feed icon could tempt me to distraction by whatever messages lie unopened therein. The sound of incoming texts (my phone mimics frogs and crickets) might lure me away from the present moment and the person sitting across from me — if I let it. Like most things in life, it’s about choice. And to some degree, the expectations of others. But even where others are concerned, we have choices and we can manage expectations.
I told my family I was taking a break from Facebook and would not see their posts and photos. My mother has kindly obliged by sending me family photos via email. My siblings continue in their patterns of posting on Facebook — ranging from daily to rarely — which is fine. I made a choice not to see every dog pose or kitchen concoction when I abandoned Facebook for the summer. I figure if someone really needs my comment on something, I can be reached by other means.
And something remarkable happened this summer. I found out that I do not need the constant stream of communication and validation that social media provides. I don’t fear I’m missing something, a trap Mr. Soojung-Kim Pang points out. That part of my monkey mind is quiet due to inactivity. And I feel such relief and calm. After a week sitting by lakes in the mountains — being present, doing nothing, out of range of all communication other than face-to-face — I didn’t need to fire up my computer the instant I returned to wifi. I can (and will) check in on social media when I feel the curiosity, or I’m bored, or I’m isolated in my work for too long (four days of mid-semester comment writing come to mind). But I don’t need it. At least for the summer, the habit wasn’t so hard to kick.
[Aside: I just took my first 15 second mini-break after 45 minutes of work. My body thanks me for the stretch.]
And not everyone needs to kick it. Like social drinking, some people may indulge more often and in greater quantities than others. Some may get addicted and others not. And that is, to a certain extent, their choice just as it is biology. It also depends on what they want or are physically able to tolerate. But when I hear people complain about the distractions and fast pace of contemporary culture, as if there is no escape, I have to pause to examine how much of it is compulsory. Just as some choose to go beyond cell and wifi range for vacation, one can turn off some or all devices to avoid the monkey mind. It’s as simple as flipping a switch. And as with any choice, there is a loss as well as a gain.
One counter-intuitive challenge to my particular choice is the constant maintenance required to remain a step behind in tech gadgetry. I have to let others know my limits (I can’t get photos on my “dumb” phone, but I do finally have a QUERTY keyboard for texting). I have to check resources to keep up with current events. And I do miss some things that “everyone” else sees, unless I seek them out in the second wave of sharing. Yet a positive flip side is that I read interesting news stories that are not selected by my Facebook friends or mocked by Jon Stewart … which brings me back to the Salon.com article.
[Aside: While editing, I took my second mini-break.]
Mr. Soojung-Kim Pang points out in Buddhist metaphors the dangers of tech addiction. And he offers suggestions for using computers and their portable cousins more mindfully. I embrace this approach: I have chosen to avoid certain tools, but I am not against technology. I’m drawn to the newest googaw or widget as much as the next monkey. And sometimes I like to see how it all plays out, then consciously choose my level of participation. But whether you typically stand in line at the Apple Store for the latest release or bide your time in hopes the price might drop, you can choose to live with your devices in balance and harmony rather than letting the monkey mind run your life. Read what Mr. Soojung-Kim Pang has to say. And then choose where to click.
Are you sure you want to shut down? Just say yes.