Essays on Technology and Culture

Digital Balance

I get an hour for lunch every day at work. That’s more than enough time to walk to one of the many inexpensive lunch places on 7th Avenue, eat in comfort, and take a walk around Chelsea. On a good day, I’ll even get over to Madison Square Park, by the Flatiron Building. It’s important to me to get out and walk around in the middle of the day. It clears my mind of all the stuff I have to do when I’m at my desk. It recharges, provides essential Vitamin D on sunny days, and helps undo the damage I’m doing to my body from sitting for hours on end. I usually do it right in the middle of my 9 to 5 work day.

Lunch is the fulcrum I balance my morning and afternoon work on. A low-tech dividing line (save for my iPhone and Kindle) between hours of HTML, Excel, and reams of emails. It’s easy to establish that sort of dividing line in my work life, mostly because I work a corporate stooge job. Trying to find a balance in my personal life between the things I want to get done, the things I need to get done, and the things I’d rather do (like aimlessly click around Reddit) is trickier. It’s why I hate working from home. The mental shift of being in a different space is enough to mostly silence my distraction-craving lizard brain that keeps me hitting ⌘-Tab every few minutes.

I recently read Ben Hammersley’s Approaching the Future: 64 Things You Need to Know Now for Then. I enjoyed it, though it rehashed things I already knew. The last two chapters are the most important: “Just Enough Digital,” and “The Zen of Digital Living.” Both are about the movement among Old School Internet Users to do things in meatspace, establish limits to where and when they’re connected, and find a balance between digital and real life.

Speaking as a member of the second Internet generation, the one that missed out on BBSes and newsgroups, but was there for the late Wild West of the Web, I’ve hit the point where I need to learn how to do the same thing. My (slightly less than) three week social media sabbatical was meant to be part of that process. By spending time away from the stream of “other people’s moments,” I hoped that I could make some of my own. It didn’t work out, unless you count playing SimCity 4 and goofing off on the non-social web as “making moments.” I didn’t even get any good reading done. I didn’t break my dependence, I merely switched from one glowing teat to another. The idea was right, the motivation pure, but I stumbled on the execution.

Finding a balance doesn’t come unplugging from the ’net, or even just getting away from your desk for an hour. It comes from finding your own limits, and your own weaknesses. These are going to be different for everyone. If you’re distractible enough that you can’t get any sustained writing done unless you’re doing it longhand, or on a typewriter, go do that. If you work online, but are constantly tempted by pleasure surfing, install a blocker. And when any of these stop working, notice it, and find a way to fix it—or yourself. We’re only slaves to our technology if we let ourselves be.