When was the last time you had a weekend without computers, cell phones, TVs, and all the other devices that alter the way we experience time?
After I wrote Multithreading and The Complexity of Modern Experience a few weeks ago, I started thinking about the different sources of experiential input in my life and how those inputs chopped up my time in weird ways. It was also about this time that I was getting frustrated with myself for not knowing what to do with my time, so both thoughts converged onto one single thread: it was time for me to unplug for a weekend.
Shortly after this thread dawned on me, I found myself in my office when I had started out going towards my bedroom – few things make you more aware of your habits than recognizing you did something counter to what you were thinking without being aware that you were doing it.
I immediately started the process of unplugging when I woke up from my distracted stupor in my office. It went about like this:
- Is there anything on my calendar that requires my attention this weekend? Nope. Just about like every other weekend.
- Are there any messages in my Inbox that require my attention this weekend? This one was more difficult, as I had stuff sitting there that needed action, but on second analysis, it could wait. Responding to those messages at 4:30pm on Friday only encourages other people to be checking email on the weekend, anyway; they can wait, too.
- Do any of my projects require work this weekend? This was the hardest for me to get real about. Almost everything I do is on my computer. What if I got creative while I was unplugged?
Excuses! If I felt like writing, I could write longhand, so I found my notebook and got it staged. If a design hit me, I could draft it in my design pad, so I got that staged. What if I wanted to record something? Seriously, when was the last time I recorded a video, podcast, or song? I could make do without it.
I had a technique for capturing any way I might want to express myself – I just had to use them. I didn’t need technology to be creative, and many of my preceding explorations had shown me just how much technology got in the way of my creativity.
After running through that list, writing a few things down, and really making it clear to myself that I’d be okay, I shut down everything. I turned my phone off. My iMac and MacBook were both shutdown, and I hid the MacBook in the closet in the office. My unplugged weekend started then and there!
Or so I thought. It took about two or three hours for me to detox. It’s not like I was twitching or anything, but I was getting my mind wrapped around what the weekend would look like. And this time, I wasn’t running away from my home to unplug. Going camping is easy, since you don’t have the option to use your stuff. But what about when you’re sitting at home? That’s where the battle would be fought this weekend.
Friday night went pretty quickly since I was tired anyway.
And Then Saturday Came
I woke up still with the intention to have an unplugged weekend. The morning’s dawn revealed exactly what that meant.
Our clocks were electric. Our lights were electric. My coffee pot was electric. Fans, air conditioners, and basically our entire modern lives are built upon being plugged in in one way or the other.
Clearly, I had to make some compromises here. Lights and appliances were okay. Everything else was out.
What bothered me the most, honestly, were the clocks. As I figured out what I was going to do, I would frequently look at the clock on the DVR since it was right in my line of sight. 7:30. 7:36. 7:44. 7:52. 8:00. Every six to eight minutes, I noticed what time it was. Annoying!
After a couple of hours sitting in a somewhat meditative/reflective state, I determined that the damn clock had to go. I put masking tape over the time so I couldn’t see it. Whether it was the tape or just me adjusting to things, the annoyance with being aware of time stopped.
In those hours, I had also managed to wear myself out mentally. Without having a way to focus my thoughts – I’d resolved to not “work” – all my mental energy went inward. I wasn’t going to make the day at the rate I was burning.
So I started reading. Half a book later, it was lunch time.
Now, Seriously, What Am I Going to Do for the Rest of the Day?
One of the habits I’ve been wanting to change is my reliance on video games as a way to spend my time when I’m not working. Let me express this more clearly: video games became a way for me to stop working, otherwise I’d continue to try to do stuff when I had a little energy, even though I clearly knew I needed to stop. Also for context, I watch maybe an hour or so of TV a week.
Last week, I wrote about time ownership, but why it was so important was because I had vast stretches of the day to claim. As I’ve said repeatedly, time is not the limiting factor on what you can do – creative energy is. That said, it’s a lot easier increase the amount of unallocated time you have available, but very, very difficult to increase the amount of creative energy (or creative time) you have available. For what it’s worth, most research points to 6-8 hours as the maximum amount of time per day that people can remain in creative peaks before mental fatigue sets in.
I sleep six or so hours a day, on average. That leaves eighteen hours unallocated. At most, eight hours of the day is spent doing creative stuff. Four hours or so are for chores and maintenance. That leaves me six hours of “leisure” time.
In the past, I didn’t have that time since it was spent in the overhead of maintaining three different careers. I’ve been trying to own that time effectively and to get out of that weird, non-productive middle ground between work and play. I hate that middle ground.
Video games allowed me to claim that time, since they were fun (enough) and engaging (enough) that I wouldn’t slide back into the middle ground. At the same time, that wasn’t the way I wanted to spend my time, so I found myself frustrated that all my efforts to reclaim my time amounted to me needing to distract myself in order to avoid the middle ground.
(In case you’re curious, I’m prone to stay up and exhaust myself if I read at night. No, it doesn’t matter if it’s fiction or non-fiction.)
I still haven’t quite got this “problem” figured out, but I needed to show this to put a context to the situation I was running into on my unplugged weekend. I had about ten hours left to the day, and my main time filler was part of the stuff that I had resolved to avoid. I had worn myself out mentally, so reading was out for me, too. Angela was busy with her dissertation, so I couldn’t socialize with her. Phones were out, so I couldn’t call family and friends.
I played my guitar for a few hours, but then I was seriously out of creative energy. Rather than face the stress of sitting there in the living room with the taped-over clock, I buckled. It was time for some Rock Band.
Rock Band is one of the better electronic activities I can do. You may laugh, but the drum tour actually helps me improve my rhythm and feel for timing, so it helps me musically. It helps me exercise and drink water, too – for some reason, I go through about 32oz of water per hour. Lastly, I’ve had my fair share of epiphanies whilst drumming, so that counts for something.
Luckily, after a couple of hours of drumming, Angela had completed all the work she was going to be able to do. We caught up, made dinner together, talked some more, and watched a movie. Just because I decided I was going to use my time unplugged didn’t mean that she was, so the movie was one of those connective activities, and to be honest, it was nice just to sit with her. That’s always the bright spot of my day.
Sunday: The Day of Rest
Angela took the day off Sunday, more because she had worn herself out the six days prior and couldn’t do any work anyway than because she wanted to. Luckily, she had also crossed a milestone and her work was out for review, so there wasn’t much she could do on that account, either.
We went out to our favorite place for brunch, napped, hung out with each other, slid in a few family calls (I buckled on the phone, but it was more important to talk to family), went for a longish walk, ate leftovers, and went to bed somewhat early.
Sunday went a lot better because I had my main squeeze to spend time with and didn’t really need to fill space like I did on Saturday. Therein lies some insight: it’s much easier when you’re not trying to figure out what you’re going to do. Part of the reason I wore myself out Saturday was because I was trying so hard NOT to do certain activities, and I didn’t really have the headspace to just sit on the couch and nap. Or to spend many flow hours connecting with Angela. It was just me and the taped-over clock, having it out.
What’s the Point of This Post?
Jonathan Mead has been busting my chops lately with his whole “stop adding to the noise” thing. (Sidebar: Congrats for being able to quit your job, Jonathan!) Granted, he hasn’t been saying it directly to me, but it still stands. There’s this little Jonathan-faced dude on my shoulder saying “Charlie, why are you telling people about your struggle to unplug and have some peace?”
Because I don’t want you to fall into the same hole I did.
As I’ve continued to figure out how to use more and more of the time I’ve freed up, the thing I’ve noticed most is how often I bump up against the limits of modern life, especially with regards to communicative technologies. The very tools that have enabled our freedom in some areas are the very tools that enslave us in others.
And I should be clear here, too: a lot of my insecurity about being able to unplug springs from the fact that I’m afraid I’m turning into a hollow person that can’t sit with himself. This isn’t some misplaced desire for authenticity, either. It’s just that I understand how easy it is for counter-to-self habits to form when you’re busy looking at other things.
That said, I think it’s an experience that a lot of us need to go through just to see how much of our lives, habits, and orientation to the world is governed by technology. The hardest thing to articulate is how the experience of time changes.
I would normally write a post like this on Friday, since there’s a bit to think about, but the reality is, if you wanted to give it a shot this weekend, you’ll probably need the day to prepare for it.
Here are some tips for making your weekend more sane than mine:
- Before you decide to do this, think of a few unplugged activities that you’d like to do before hand so that you’re not being harassed by clocks.
- Do a Weekly Review, a brain dump, or whatever you do that lets you see that there are no fires you absolutely have to put out for the weekend. Make sure you cover as many bases as possible or your mind will wander.
- Have a backup plan for how to capture your ideas and creativity. Chances are that once your mind is freed from the technological chains that bind it, your creativity will skyrocket.
- If you live with people, talk to them about this decision and see if they’d like to do it with you. It’s a lot more fulfilling (and easier, to boot) to spend the time with the people you’ve been missing already.
- Pay attention to yourself and your experiences. Notice how you drift towards your computer and have to intentionally change directions. Notice how quiet and still your house is. Notice how you mark time without clocks. Notice that you see the spots on the carpet you didn’t see before, or how the sunlight makes a cool shape on the wall.
- Be gentle with yourself. The point of this is not to beat yourself up about, but to make conscious choices about how you use your time. If you decide you actually want to watch TV, watch some TV. But just notice how and why you come to that decision.
And before you write off the experience as either unnecessary or easy to do, try it. I’ll bet you’ll learn enough about yourself to make some positive changes in your daily habits.