Notes from a sabbatical…

I took a sabbatical for the past few weeks. Not just from this blog, but from social media too. I’ve returned to tell the tale.

The occasional blogger always has an excuse for not blogging. I’ve got a few. Work. Parenting, Leadership Montgomery. The PTA. The feeling that it’s hard to chase minimalism when you’re chasing your own tail some days. It’s not really all that interesting, nor was it really intentional.

What I did do on purpose was disconnect myself from Twitter and Facebook starting February 1 for a month, adding five days just because. I only used LinkedIn for work, and only once a day or so. I just had the increasing feeling that social media updates were seeping into every last second of my free time and into the spaces between my thoughts.

Sabbatical: why?

I’ve written in this space about how the “ping” of notifications acts like a drug to the brain. (“I’m important! Someone wants my attention!”) So I turned those off, for social media and my three email accounts. The empty spaces still remained. I suppose it’s always been normal to look for distraction while standing in line at the grocery store, otherwise People Magazine probably wouldn’t exist. But what about the other moments of waiting? Looking around at a traffic light to see all the other drivers staring into their laps?

If we’re becoming a nation of zombies, I don’t want to be a zombie. I don’t want my kid to watch me being a zombie and grow up to become one herself — with a device implanted into her head or something.

A minimalism of the mind: there was definitely some stuff getting into my brain that I didn’t want anymore.

During election season, my Facebook feed filled up with an echo chamber of rage with a few bombastic dissents around the edges. If the results of the presidential race reflected a badly divided country, with constituencies badly out of touch with the other’s perspective, Facebook was widening the gulf. I could hardly experience a witty thought without the temptation to tweet it, a conceit that somebody out there really cares what I have to say and right when I have to say it. I’d get hooked on up-to-the-minute quick takes from reporters about what the new administration was doing, at the expense of the deep work that will define my success as an employee, as a husband, as a parent. Hell, even as a blogger.

Sabbatical: how?

You’ll recall we kicked the devices out of the bedroom and the dinner table a few months ago, reclaiming our nightstands and our brains from the days when we’d sit awake in bed scrolling through our separate feeds on our separate phones. It’s easier to spend time together and to fall asleep without the distraction. But it turns out there are benefits to mornings too.

In the past, we swam up into consciousness of our own mood and daily cares, and of our bed partner or whimpering baby or the cat standing impatiently on our chest, perhaps with a gradual news assist from the radio. With smartphones, we are immediately conscious of everything.

I read The Attention Merchants and began to wonder if eliminating distractions throughout the day would be best.

Then I woke up to today’s newspaper (yes, I still receive a Sunday newspaper) and saw a new book review by the author of The Attention Merchants. Thesis: armies of smart and well-paid people are working feverishly to make sure we never put our phones down. Not because this makes for a better society, but because there is money to be made from our eyeballs. That we may wake up one day and realize we’ve gone the way of the opium addicts of another era. Note to self: get that one from the library ASAP.

Sabbatical: what did I learn?

During my month-plus absence from Twitter and Facebook, I did not achieve a dramatic and long-lasting reduction in my resting pulse. I did not have so much extra time and energy to dedicate to running that I shaved 30 seconds off my mile time. I did not have colleagues at work complimenting me on my attention span, my hygiene habits or my posture.

In fact, the biggest surprise of this whole experiment is how normal I felt while it was going on, and how natural it feels to describe it. After both of these services had come to play such a large part in my ordinary life for years, I hardly missed them at all when they were gone. The self-validation, the laughs and yes, the anxiety I experienced through social media barely registered in their absence. I did not find myself twitchy for the first few days, or correcting an impulse to click the forbidden icons. Nor was I champing at the bit at 12:01 a.m. on March 1, eager to go back to the familiar news feeds after my own deadline had passed. It’s hedonic adaptation at its best.

I’m quite sure I missed out on a few important life announcements from people I care about. There’s probably a job change, an engagement, an important family milestone I don’t know about. But I can catch up with folks when I see them in person.

Sabbatical: what now?

I’m not sure I’m ready to go cold turkey and deactivate my accounts, as a good friend of ours recently did in response to uncivil political discourse. There could be a moment or two when something on Facebook is useful: did she have the baby yet? Is there a fellow owner who can help me work this thing in my RV? But I think I’m going to be an occasional user instead of a daily or even hourly one. (Lindy is limiting herself to 5 minutes a day these days.) Notifications will remain off. And I’m going to keep taking a deep breath instead of whipping out my phone when I find myself waiting.

How are you managing your distractions these days?

Also published on Medium.

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