Screen Time Reflections

The last 6 months have been super slow when it comes to running a retic business and I’ve found myself with a fair bit of time on my hands. Also since January I have had an ongoing muscular issue that has seen me most days in mild pain/discomfort and looking for a distraction.

Since March I have noticed my ‘screen time’ has increased (it was already in the ‘significant user’ zone) and my use of ‘the screen’ (primarily social media) to simply kill time was growing. Alongside that my ability to hold a complex thought for an extended period seemed to be decreasing. Reading was becoming harder and study harder still. I was concerned at where this was heading and while I’d known of the idea of ‘brain re-wiring’ for a while I didn’t like the thought of investing the effort required to get things back on track. So one day two weeks ago I decided to take back some control.

Yeah – it was pretty much like that. ‘Enough of this – time to stop some stuff and recalibrate how my mind operates.’

All the research around this area indicates we are headed for 20 second concentration spans and a life dominated by screens. I’m a fan of technology, social media and the internet. I like what it has brought to our lives, but I’m also aware of its double edged nature and my own seemingly easily addictive personality.

To begin I read a couple of books, the most useful of which was ‘Deep Work’ by Cal Newport, a book that suggests that in the future the ability to think and concentrate for long periods will be a rare (and valuable) commodity and that we need to regain the ability to do this kind of work.  ‘Shallow work’ is low value and easily replicable, but deep work requires extended time of concentrated focus. He offers insights into how we can do this, but that’s for another post some other time.

I have noticed over the last few years that when I sit to write a sermon or to read a book I am quickly distracted by random thoughts and apparently ‘urgent needs’.  I wrote them down one day. The list looked like this

  • ‘check weather for Saturday’,
  • Invoice X’
  • ‘has Y paid invoice? – check bank acc’
  • does Bunnings sell shed door flashings?
  • when is McGregor / Mayweather fight?
  • when is high tide?

All answers are available online so I find myself feeling that ‘this is important NOW’ so I chase down the answer. And what I am doing gets fragmented – smashed actually!

So i’ve put in place some practices to try and establish new patterns and habits. Here’s a bit of what I am doing to reshape my way of interacting with the online stuff. I’ve put these in order of how valuable they have been to me.

Mornings Go Analogue – I often used my tablet for my morning prayer and Bible reflection, but on opening it there were always a million notifications to deal with – so sometimes I didn’t get to the Bible and got distracted down a Facebook dogleg. I regularly gave up on meditation and prayer and just surfed the net. Lately I have been practicing using a ‘book’- a Bible with pages – before I pick up my phone/tablet. Its a small discipline, but it sets the tone for the day.

ALL notifications off – And then it simply makes sense to turn notifications off for EVERYTHING and I have been doing this over the last week or so. It has freed me from the distraction that comes when I am reading a book. Someone liked my instagram post… better check it out… Its just phone calls and text that get thru and often the phone is on silent after 5pm so even then I may not get them. The effect has been quite dramatic on my ability to focus and interestingly I had no idea just how many apps had automatically turned themselves to ‘notifications on’.

Toolbar Bookmarks deleted – on Chrome I had all my primary bookmarks loaded on my toolbar, which meant I would often realise I hadn’t looked at ‘X’ for while and would check in. Inevitably I would get stuck in the ludic loop and emerge an hour later Since I deleted it I have noticed I rarely visit Swellnet or Coastalwatch etc…

Practicing Waiting – more about that here, but essentially not pulling out the phone to kill the 5 minutes I ‘wait’ for a doctor/kids/train etc. I want to have that headspace I used to have as I think it was valuable for allowing ideas to percolate. This is so damn hard! I often feel like I have so much to do, but by practicing not doing it I seem to be re-training my brain and my capacity to behave differently.

 Mono-tasking This was one of my biggest struggles – watching TV without surfing the net or firing off a few emails and invoices seemed like wasted time… Why not kill two birds? Well… Because I can’t do it very well and I end up not remembering what I have watched. It also fuels an addiction and seems innocuous at first, but when I found myself reaching for my tablet every time the TV was on I realised I was settling into a new pattern that wasn’t going to be healthy.
Going Phoneless – when I walk the dog I used to take the phone and listen to a podcast / take photos / maybe even just skim social media. The same when I’d go to the shops, or drop into see a mate. Now I try to leave it at home when I can unless I know that I’ll need it for a call. I do feel a bit naked without it, but maybe that’s just an adjustment that needs to be made.
Not in the toilet – yeah… I am one of those people… I guess its like reading a magazine, but lately I found myself grabbing my phone each time I went to the toilet – again its just a simple practice, but one that needn’t have crept in in the first place. I can stop doing that very easily and it is another small step back to sanity.
Car Ban – I am one of those people who will read texts when stopped at lights and enter GPS stuff on the go. I am guessing that is only a hop and a skip away from engaging in other stuff. I find it hard to ‘not touch’ when I’m driving, but the last two weeks have shown it can be done if I am conscious of it.
Not in company – This was a hard & fast rule for me that I stuck to pretty rigidly for a while, but then I noticed others doing it – checking in and ‘checking out’ of the conversation, so I began to do it too when I was getting bored, even though I didn’t like it. Its pretty rude really, but it seems to have become the norm. Now I’m the self righteous one tut-tutting while others do it… ha…
Logging Activity – I began by doing this manually in my notes, but have now downloaded a couple of apps for my devices that track my time in them. I imagine that feedback will be valuable as I like to see stats and that often helps me know if I am ‘winning’.
I’m a long way from completely giving up screens and internet activity as I think its a part of our world and we just need to figure out how to do it wisely. When I’m not digging holes and laying turf, I spend most of day on screens, some of it work and some of it play, but it is unavoidable. I watch Netflix on a screen, I edit pics on a screen, I read the newspaper on a screen. I rarely buy real books now so even ‘reading a book’ involves a screen.
How has it been?
Trying to re-train myself has been quite challenging – certainly not as simple as flicking a switch. I have had days when I have done it easily and then other days when I have been weary and turned to a screen to zone out. I’m interested to see what develops in terms of increased concentration span and renewed ability to focus, because I believe Newport is correct that these are key skills that we need to cultivate.
One immediately observable change was in how I prepared my teaching for Sundays. For the last few years I have been doing a couple of hours of reading and thinking on Monday and then doing other things Tue-Thur. I always found that when I picked up the computer on Friday morning I could jump right in and write a sermon quickly and easily – because over the week there had been ‘background processing’ happening. The raw ideas from Monday were ticking over in there even if I was unaware.
This year as my screen time has increased I have found preaching hard every week. I have rarely hit a Friday where I have been able to sit down and smash it out like I used to.
Last Friday after just two weeks of trying new things I woke on Friday at 4.30am – not my usual practice – but felt awake enough to jump up and get started on work. I turned wifi off and managed to get a 25 minute sermon – 9 pages of text – written and edited in 3 hours. I didn’t have any fantastic ideas to work with when I sat down but as I began, the ideas flowed and it all took shape. Maybe it was just the difference of having mental processing space?
Either way – I’m on a mission to re-capture a less screen dominated life and a less zombie-like existence. I’ll let you know how I go.


Practicing Waiting

I’ve been in the process of reviewing how I use screens and tech stuff and one of the things I have been doing as a result is ‘practicing waiting’.

That might sound a little weird so I’ll explain.

You go to meet a friend for coffee and get there first – 5 minutes early – so my normal procedure has been to crack open the phone and check email/ FB/ Instagram/News etc until my friend arrives. I’ll do the same when stuck in a long queue or when waiting in the school carpark to pick up my kids, or in the Doc’s waiting room – in fact any time I am in danger of being bored or mentally unoccupied.

Now I’m that weird guy who is just sitting there… without a phone, or at least without using it. And I dunno how you go with this, but I find it hard… It feels like wasted time – when I could be catching up on the inevitable info-barrage that awaits.

But I’ve been reading and learning about the importance of being ‘bored’, about the need for ‘brain down time’, to allow fresh thoughts to percolate and generate. I used to have lots of fresh and fun ideas, but in recent years they seem to have diminished and I am fairly sure its at least partially because my brain never gets a rest. I am always grazing on some form of information so the possibility of my brain firing a new spark is limited.

Its both very difficult to wait and yet also very easy.

You just sit there… and keep on sitting… until your friend arrives, the doc calls you in, or your kids turn up. Its not fun, but I get the sense that it is good for the mental health and may be another piece of the puzzle when it comes to changing up my mental habits.

The End of Semi-Tasking

No – I haven’t got it wrong – that’s what it is.

For a while I thought I was onto something with so called ‘multi-tasking’, watching a movie while clearing emails, or sending invoices only to discover that I couldn’t follow the storyline or even remember the movie when it was over. I gave up on a number of movies because they didn’t make sense, but in hindsight I wasn’t actually paying attention.

‘Semi-tasking’ crept into my life fairly innocuously – it seemed silly to watch TV and not do something ‘productive’ at the same time, but as time went on I realised I was losing my grip on either or both of the things I was doing. Then it went from doing something productive, to just doing something else, so I’d surf Facebook or Instagram, or eBay while ‘watching’ a movie.

I discovered it became a habit to surf and watch, but a dissatisfying habit and I’d guess even a destructive one.

Maybe its just me, but I get the sense we can either do one thing well or multiple things at a fraction of our capacity. I’ve decided to return to old fashioned mono-tasking and see how that goes.

I’m doing some personal reflection on the place of screens in my own life and this is the first shift. One thing at a time… seems so ‘last century’… but I think I’d like to go back there.

Loving Lucy

Back in June we almost sold our dog Lucy. She had been driving us mad for over a year with her constant banging on the door during the night and I had grown to really dislike her.

In speaking to her, I called her ‘dog’ or ‘stupid dog’. Some days I would just look at her and say snarl ‘Gumtree’ in a menacing tone… I think she knew she wasn’t my favourite ‘person’. Eventually she played up enough that I was able to win the argument to move her on. However, when the time came to do it I was overcome with a deep sense that it was a wrong decision. It was one of those internal gut responses that I can’t easily articulate, but after making the decision and finding a new owner I woke up several times during the night disturbed and regretting it. If you believe like I do that God speaks into our world, then I would say ‘God was getting my attention.’

So I not only relented on selling her, I made a decision to love her and treat her well – to make sure she felt loved and part of the family. Its meant giving her much more attention than previously, speaking to her kindly and allowing her to be around us much more rather than locked outside.

Immediately after we made the decision to keep her she had a bad night – crashing and banging 3 or 4 times before I eventually had to tie her up. But since then she hasn’t misbehaved at all. She sleeps thru the night and doesn’t disturb us. She doesn’t get panicky and wired. She’s like a different dog.

Danelle tells me its because she now feels loved by the ‘head of the pack’ and as a result she feels secure. Maybe she’s right… maybe its as simple as that. And what’s interesting in all of this is that over the last few months I’ve started to like her again. I’ve looked forward to seeing her when I come home and I have enjoyed having her around.

Is it as simple as knowing you’re loved and feeling secure? Maybe it is…

That said I went out last week to drop the kids to school and left Danelle in bed. It was a cold morning so I left Lucy on her bed in the lounge room. When I came home I noticed the covers on the bed in the spare room had been well and truly ruffled up. I thought Danelle must have been sitting on it or been doing something in the room, but a brief discussion had us both realise that this dog now felt loved enough to make herself at home on the bed…

That’s still a bridge too far for me.

The Long Road

This is the road I drive every day either to or from home.

There is a faster road… by about 30 seconds… It cuts thru the streets and gets us home that little bit quicker, but really, why would you take the 'fast' option when for 30 seconds extra you can drive past this ocean every day?

Sometimes in life – maybe even often – efficiency is over-rated and beauty is minimised. I'm pretty utilitarian and practical by nature, but I also know it's important to enjoy moments of 'pointless beauty'.

It enriches the soul and shapes identity in an intangible way, but in a way that matters very much.