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A Day Unplugged: Frenzied Blackberries vs. Kwai Chang Caine?

I Need a Virtual Break. No, Really. - New York Times

In yesterday's New York Times, Mark Bittman wrote an entertaining and thoughtful article about realizing that his need to stay wired, in-touch, and updated was really starting to eat into him. His headslap moment came on an international flight, as he realizes "the only other place I could escape was in my sleep." He goes on to talk about the difficulty of maintaining even a single day of "Sabbath" from electronic communication and media:

I woke up nervous, eager for my laptop. That forbidden, I reached for the phone. No, not that either. Send a text message? No. I quickly realized that I was feeling the same way I do when the electricity goes out and, finding one appliance nonfunctional, I go immediately to the next. I was jumpy, twitchy, uneven.

But, eventually, he settles in and starts to enjoy things that would never appear on his radar screen on a wired day:

I drank herb tea (caffeine was not helpful) and stared out the window. I tried to allow myself to be less purposeful, not to care what was piling up in my personal cyberspace, and not to think about how busy I was going to be the next morning. I cooked, then went to bed, and read some more.

GRADUALLY, over this and the next couple of weekends — one of which stretched from Friday night until Monday morning, like the old days — I adapted.

Eventually (natch), he returns to the wired world. So it goes.

I liked that this piece was written from a personal perspective, which, to my mind, is the best (and, often, only) place to start any kind of experiment around hacking time and attention. And, I do really like the idea of periodically accepting (enforcing?) days without media and wires. Truly, you'll never realize how difficult this can be until you really make it happen. But, as Bittman notes, once you get over the initial crash, you can see a striking contrast in what your life could look like. Good stuff.

But, like a lot of pieces on wired overstimulation, this one comes close to conflating the axis of "work" with the axis of "electronic media." Which, in my opinion, is an unwholesome confusion to abide, even just in appearance -- especially since it could be seen as blaming inert matter for our problems, while allowing us addicts (and the culture we've permitted ourselves to grow accustomed to) to get off way too easy.


Let's be brutally honest, here -- I can "work" at my computer for 10 hours and do nothing but dick around with Wikipedia and YouTube. Heck, even if I do "work stuff" like email and "research," I can easily trail off in a hundred directions that have nothing to do with my initial task. Is that the fault of the computer and the internet? Maybe, kinda. But, no more so than I can reasonably blame this crappy hammer for that awkward birdhouse I built. Stupid hammer.

So, let's start by admitting that one reason we spend so much time in front of a screen (or hooked up to an iPod or SMSing on the phone or updating Twitter) is simply because we can. Because it's fun. And because it's easy. It makes us feel...connected. Is it the fault solely of "my job" that I have to sit here all day? For me: I'm going to say a resounding no.

Okay, then, so what happens when I go off the grid?

From printer paper to rice paper

Well, first, does it strike anyone else as funny that -- notwithstanding Bittman's desire not to get too "new-agey" -- the main alternative to stressful, wired work appears to be acting like a monk on Kung Fu? I mean, I wonder if it says anything about us that our first response to unhooking (after initial panic) is to pretend it's the 19th century and all we can do is read scrolls, meditate, or walk amongst the trees.

For myself -- once I've had my cup of green tea and carried a cauldron of hot coals with my forearms -- I find there are lots of work-related things I can do without a computer, phone, or internet. Really good and valuable stuff that I tend to forget about or ignore when I'm powered up. Stuff like longhand writing, cleaning out old files, or just making my work area a more pleasant place to be.

I'm not disagreeing with this fine article in any substantial way -- I mean, it's not hard to sell me on the idea that we allow ourselves to be overstimulated, or that it's hard to stop. But, I do think it's very important to be frank about what parts of our problem come from the hammer versus which parts come from our own hands. I think Bittman clearly gets that, but I'd hate for this article to just land on the CEO's desk in the pile titled "The Internet's Killing 'The Enterprise!'"

And, speaking of 'The Enterprise'

So: vaguely (but mostly not) related. Whenever a company proudly announces "No Email Fridays!" I just want to groan, wad up my David Carradine poster, and throw it across the dojo. Because, while I'm sure this kind of rule (or policy or experiment) is well-intentioned, it's about as employee-friendly as ankle weights and morning jumping-jacks.

Email is not the problem, America. The culture around email (and phones and meetings and SMS) is the real culprit. And we're not going to change perverse electronic culture by nailing theses to a door or by social-engineering the crap out of our employees. Plus, I'll just bet you, dimes to donuts, that "no-Friday-email" companies also breed a species of employee who spends most of Saturday making up for the lost time. (Instead of hanging with family or practicing having spears thrown at him by the other Shaolins)

I'd say that if we need anything "enforced" across a company it's periodic, rolling breaks from being accessible to everybody; to create an environment where everyone in the group or company knows the time and day when they will simply be uninterruptible, without exception, consequence, or need for excuse. That's their time to do with as they please.

Now, is this a distinction without a difference from just shutting off email? No way. For one, that email still piles up (even over the eight hours you're commanded to ignore it). And what's to prevent that Friday from being the day someone decides to just hand-deliver all their demands to my cube? What about meetings? And can we still call each other on the phone? Where's the real break? Sane and firewalled time -- yes, even to process email -- is what people really need to have and depend upon.

I'd say the company that wants to solve the "too much connectedness" problem would do well not just to focus on the easy solutions that involve masking symptoms. To really get closer to the root cause, it'll require a much more profound rethinking of a culture that's still 20 years behind the technology it supports.

And that ain't gonna happen with a memo and an "email-free" Friday.

It's not you; it's us

On a personal level, accepting these kinds of radical fasts can be a terrific way to detox or to just reconnect with a world that's further than arm's reach from your keyboard. And it reminds us that (apparently) there are alternative approaches to a morning that don't involve a mouse or a keypad. This is all awesome -- even indispensable. But let's not be lulled into thinking that the medium is always the murderer.

So, yes: take time off from electronics and media, and take time off from work. But, be mindful about which is which -- as well as which it is that you really need the break from. For most of us, the answer is an unequivocal "both!"

And, finally, is it conceivable that what you really need the break from is new demands on your time? What does solving that problem look like? And can it really be accomplished simply by unplugging a few things for a day or two? (My guess: no, it's actually a lot more complicated than that.)

Me? I just want to inch toward a place where I get the problem enough that I can stop work for an hour to enjoy my iPod just as easily as I can take 10 minutes and a legal pad to draft a dull report under a tree. It's ultimately how we'll snatch the pebble, Grasshopper.

About Merlin

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Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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