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.
Maybe it’s because of the move we’ve just made, but I kept thinking “mow the lawn” “garden”. Which isn’t very helpful for one day, but might be worth thinking about longer term.
In fact, that is one of the reasons we moved. Because Mat (my partner) wanted a better balance between intellectual activity (mostly indoors) and manual labour (mostly outdoors). And I’m seeing the benefits of having all that outdoor activity to do. Most of it not requiring electricity or anything, either (though lawn mowing requires gas).
So maybe your “unplugged” weekend is part of a larger reflection on how restricted our lives are to indoors, with our “own” families, etc.
Worth pondering some more. Thanks for posting this.
Ali Hale says
This really struck a chord with me, Charlie – thanks for posting it (I definitely don’t think it’s “noise!”) I was away on holiday (that’s what we Brits call “vacation”) last week – I took my laptop in case I got inspired to write fiction, but I didn’t open it once! I found myself feeling far, far better than usual … relaxed, unstressed, packing lots of fun and refreshment into the week.
Having just bought the Sims 3, I’m not sure I’m gonna spend a whole weekend computer-less 😉 Having said that, I am going to make more of an effort not to simply default to “getting on with work on the computer” when I’m trying to figure out what to do next. Like you, I do better when I have something planned.
Thanks for the food for thought. Perhaps the most significant thing about your post for me is that it’s made me realise how much of my leisure time, my paid work, my coursework (creative writing MA) and my various church committments involve using a computer… The very thought of unplugging for two whole days, without being on an actual holiday away from home, is quite daunting.
Positively Present says
What a great post! I’ve read things about people who have “unplugged” before but I really like the way you’ve written and organized this. I honestly don’t know if I could do it (isn’t that sad?) but I feel really inspired by what I’ve read here and I think I might give it a try…next weekend… haha
What a neat idea! I’ll look for a weekend where we don’t have any electronics-requiring obligations, and see if Kyeli wants to try this with me. (:
A couple of weekends ago, we had a mostly unplugged day, and we spent a large chunk of it playing freeform one-on-one murder mystery roleplaying games that we made up on the spot. It was tons of fun!
Catherine Cantieri, Sorted says
I think the last part of the post really resonated with me, the idea that you can put your “must be busy” thoughts to rest for a weekend. Like JoVE, above, I tend to spend my weekends doing manual labor (yard work, grocery shopping, laundry, cooking). But I wonder what I’d do with 48+ hours of not “having to do” anything; I wonder if I wouldn’t have the same issues you did, Charlie.
Great, thoughtful post, as always!
What an excellent article, Charlie. Your first-person account will almost certainly resonate with the always on and plugged-in culture that is getting so fast even the fastest and most caffeinated amongst us can’t keep up.
I think one reason people have kids is to fill the time. I live with my lady and her 11 year old son, but he goes away for the summer to be with his dad. During the year I feel too busy, and during the summer having all the extra time on my hands brings up anxiety I thought I had overcome. This usually seeks expression in some sort of manic personal growth quest.
Lately I’ve been practicing sitting in the anxiety and just accepting it, but I find it much harder when I’m inside then when I’m on a hike or sitting at a park. I don’t play video games (gave them up when I was a teen because they were a total addiction), but I definitely mindlessly surf Twitter and the net for hours at a time to escape from the freedom of infinite choice.
The easiest thing is the hardest thing in our information age: to just be.
Dave Pancost says
I really like this post, Charlie, because it causes us as readers to think about things we very rarely think about.
About two years ago we had a massive power failure here in Olympia, WA that shut off the power in my house for close to 48 hours. I had no choice but to unplug, because there weren’t any plugs that worked. 🙂
I learned a lot about how dependent I had become on the distractions caused by constant use of the computer, surfing on-line or watching TV. For the first day I actually felt like an addict coming down off his chosen addiction (mine just happened to be electronics). By the second day, however, I began to do a lot of reflecting. I’m really glad for the experience.
I truly think that we feel so lost with out our electronic distractions because without them we have to ask ourselves the hard questions of life, like “For what am I living?” or “Am I really doing what is in my heart to do?” or “Do I even know what is in my heart to do?” Most of us have been trained to be good little employees or to put in our hours. We have spent so little time really listening to our hearts (or genes if you’re a rationalist like me). 😉
Anyway, it was good to be reminded of that experience again. I need to be reminded to listen to my deepest self more often than I do. Thanks.
Paul Maurice Martin says
“Chances are that once your mind is freed from the technological chains that bind it, your creativity will skyrocket.”
I’ve wondered about this. Most of the work I did on my recent book was completed by 1994. (Work was then interupted for well over a decade by health problems.)
The general atmosphere was so different in 94. I wasn’t even using a computer yet. I’ve always had the feeling that the tremendous business of life today would have worked against my getting the book done.
Ginny Williams says
I stopped wearing a watch years ago because no matter how often I checked the time, I would check it again a few minutes later. I realized how my obsession with time was creatign a low level anxiety that followed me all day.
I have a few rituals to help me make the mental shift into weekend mode, but once I’m there, I am fully there…not thinking about work, emails, obligations,etc. The downside to this “being-ness” is that it makes for a jarring transition back to the work week on Mondays.
I spent this past Sunday afternoon with the computer mostly off. That doesn’t sound like a big deal, necessarily, but I am a writer and frequently spend all of both weekend days at the computer, trying to get words and chatting with fellow writer friends.
But from about 1:00 p.m. Sunday afternoon, I shut off the computer. I read, I wrote in my journal — which led to some insights into the work in progress, and only turned the computer on twice, briefly.
I defend those two times by saying I was checking on a dear friend whose dog died last Friday — but I also know that I was feeling a certain kind of restlessness and anxiety at not being online, in my normal routine. Which means, of course, that I need to unplug more often.
Thanks for this post.
If we want to be successful in anything, we get drilled into our heads that we must work, work, work; and work HARD. We must always be tuned in and ready to strike at any opportunity that crosses our path.
I honestly don’t know if I can spend an entire weekend unplugged. At the very least, my sewing machine is electric and cell phone is the only phone I use aside from the fax line. On the other hand, I get more done when I turn everything off or head out to a cafe (without the laptop) and take out my pens and Moleskine and get to work. I still use my Blackberry when I’m planning on paper and need to see a visual calendar though. 🙂