As I transitioned from the reactive firefighting of traditional IT to the more thoughtful world of DevOps, my work became more and more cognitively demanding. As a result, I quickly got burnt out and my ‘outside of work’ activities suffered. I simply had nothing left to give, which prevented me from being the husband, father, and friend I wanted to be. Not to mention the extra workload I put on myself when authoring a course, writing blog posts, etc… I felt like I was running on empty all the time. I realized that solely relying on willpower wasn’t going to work. I needed to find ways to protect, preserve, and restore my mental energy. The answers started to come from unexpected places.
The first clue came from a book, Essentialism: the Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown, recommended to me by Adam Bertram. The clue was to focus on less things, doing everything will not work. Focus was the key and to get it you have to have crystal clear priorities. This helped me become extremely selective when it came to choosing where my energy was spent. It helped me protect my mental energy, but I still had problems restoring it.
What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains
I got my next clue from reading The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. Which was recommended to me by my neighbor and WOW, I have not read a more interesting and thought provoking book. It starts off by explaining the history and discovery of neuroplasticity. Previous to this discovery it was thought that the adult brain was fixed and unchangeable. Neuroplasticity proves that this is not the case. Not only are our brains changeable, they are constantly changing. They’re busy creating new connections, reinforcing repeated experiences, and weakening unused pathways.
It then takes you through history as new intellectual technologies were developed. Things like clocks and books which lead to the printing press. The author then explains the profound impact these tools had on society. Proving the point that the technologies we use do affect our behavior both as individuals and also as a society. Nicholas Carr goes to great lengths to explain how intellectual technologies change the pathways in our brains. And in turn, change our thoughts and behaviors. To summarize, I’ll use a phrase coined by Marshall McLuhan, “The medium is the massage.” -meaning that the form of a medium embeds itself in any message it would transmit or convey, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived.
“The Medium Is the Massage” - Marshall McLuhan
Fast forward to the end of the book, the author points out the effects the internet has on us. Not only the internet but also everything that comes with a highly connected world; Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, etc… One of the more interesting things I learned was how internet surfing changes your behavior. It turns you into a search engine of sorts, skimming the surface for what you need. The author tells a story of how people read web pages when the internet first came onto the scene. They would read the entire page like a book. I can remember watching family members do this and it took everything I had to not yell “Just click the blue link!”.
It illustrates the point that while the internet can be a medium for text, you read it much differently. Not only that, but the internet also has ads, banners, graphics, etc.. all of which distract the reader. Over time however, you just get used to it but as I learned, there is a cost. You become so used to all of that stuff that you start to skim the surface, looking for only keywords. Deep reading and absorption of knowledge is much harder. Now, I owe my career to being able to use Google to find solutions to problems. I am in IT after all but I also need to learn things quickly and deeply as well.
I took several things away from that book. The first was, using the computer 90% of the day was draining me and I needed to find other activities. The second take away was that social media doesn’t add much value. Using my cell phone for it makes me a consumer, not a creator so I then decided to use it less. I’m currently at 45 minutes a day on average. The third major takeaway I got from this book was what you read from matters. Reading off of your phone is more cognitively demanding than reading from a kindle. And reading from a kindle is more demanding than reading from a physical book. I much prefer a physical book over anything else. It makes me feel like a scholar as I sit down at the kitchen table with my glasses on, my book, and my morning coffee.
It also left me with several unanswered questions such as: What did people do before the internet and were those things restorative mentally? How do I reduce my screen time? Should I delete all my social media? What tasks should I be doing instead of being “connected”? How do I stay productive without a computer? I’m still in the process of answering all of these questions, but after discovering all of Cal Newport’s work, I have high hopes I’ll find some of the answers to these questions.
- How do I reduce my screen time?
- Should I delete all my social media?
- What can I do to disconnect?
- How do I stay productive without a computer?
The Attention Slot Machine in Your Pocket
I want to leave you with some actionable items and share how each of them have positively affected me. The first thing I did was remove all non-essential apps from my phone. That meant Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, SnapChat, mobile games, and other social networking type apps. I’ll just refer to them as distractions. What remains on my phone, at least for now, is Slack, PagerDuty, two-factor apps, Overcast, Evernote, Pluralsight, Amazon, my banking app, and some music apps. The goal was to use the phone as little as possible. I spend twelve hours a day on the computer and most of what I did on the phone was a time wasting distraction.
If you’re thinking about doing this, I recommend you download an app called Moment first. It tracks your phone usage and the results might motivate you to do something about your phone time. When I started deleting apps, I had to push past the feeling that I was going to be disconnected and possibly left out. This feeling just confirmed I was doing the right thing. It meant I was addicted.
Reduce Context Switching
I’ve also blocked all social media websites on my work laptop and personal desktop. To block the sites I use a Chrome extension called Block Site. I haven’t yet deleted any accounts. I’m still weighing the pros and cons. I’m okay with deleting everything besides Twitter. I see some valid value in Twitter, but I’m still not sure it’s worth the cost. I can only access Twitter on my wife’s macbook. Since it’s hers and she takes it wherever, it’s like a treasure hunt everytime I feel the urge to check it. This is normally enough of a deterrent that I don’t do it. I check twitter maybe 5-10 times a week and everything else once, or not at all.
How is Life Different
So… how is life different? In a word, peaceful. It took about two weeks but the urge to check my social feeds finally went away. I didn’t realize how much space that took up in my head. I’m a lot calmer, at least most of the time. This low level feeling of anxiety vanished. Previously when I wasn’t working, I was on my phone trying to be “productive”. I was oblivious to this at the time, but it drove my wife nuts! Now I don’t have to hear “Can you put your phone away please?” or getting that uncomfortable feeling then looking up to find her staring at me. I’m also happier because I’m not bombarded by all the content social media shoves in your face. No matter your political stance, way of life, or opinions on things, there is something that is bound to show up that will upset you. Perhaps I live in more of a bubble now but I kind of like it here.
My concentration has also increased. Before blocking social media, any spare minute I got, whether it be waiting for a container image to download, a virtual machine to be built, or a Pester test to finish I would open Twitter and spend at least two to three minutes scrolling. Now I do what I’ve always wanted to do. I read blog posts, pseudo code, or take care of small things like responding to emails. Basically I do the things I was too “busy” to do before. The best thing is I have very few distractions that break my concentration. I get more of the important stuff done.
What have I replaced the time spent on social media and my phone with? Most importantly, nothing. Freeing up this time makes me available to my family. I make a constant effort to be as present as I can when I have downtime outside of work. In the mornings it has freed me up to do more things. I choose to either write as I am now, enjoying a nice cup of mushroom coffee at the dinner table or I read. At the start of this I could only read for thirty minutes, I now often read for at least an hour sometimes up to two hours straight. To put things in perspective, up until this point in my life I was nowhere near what you’d call a “reader”. I used to pride myself on not having read any assigned book throughout high school. I now realize how stupid that was but hindsight is always twenty-twenty.
If I’m not reading or writing, I’m thinking. People closest to me will say, there is always something going on up there for Josh. All the benefits I’ve listed so far are great, but this one is life changing. Being a little bored gives me time to think and to contemplate things. Which helps me connect things and put the pieces together. That thing could be a PowerShell function, the architecture for a configuration management tool, or how I can gain insight for a situation. I gain a much deeper understanding of things by allowing the information to sink in. Without being distracted all the time you can observe. You can observe your behavior, your thoughts, your interactions much better. Ultimately, I feel like it’s making me better and perhaps you’d feel the same way. Why not give it a try?
If this provoked some questions, please ask them in the comments below. If you’re already doing some of these things, I’d love to hear your story! I want to know what habits and routines you’ve establish to stay disconnected.