What would happen if we turned off, opted out and completely disconnected ourselves from the technology that runs our lives? For Jim Stogdill, tuning out brought greater productivity, less stress and improved relationships.
Image remixed from Vladgrin (Shutterstock).
I've been on a train to New York City for about 20 minutes and it just occurred to me that I haven't checked Twitter today. In fact, I sat on a bench in the station for 30 minutes without even touching my phone. I watched people walk by, I daydreamed, thought about my plans for tomorrow, stared at the ceiling, and generally just sort of zoned out. That would be no big deal except that later I realised I didn't get that itchy urge to check my phone and do the circuit: email, Twitter, Yammer, G+, Email, Twitter, Yammer, G+…my little socmed treadmill.
That's huge! This is the first time I can remember sitting down somewhere in at least three years without immediately feeling the urge, or more like compulsion, to pull out my phone and twiddle with it. And this was at the train station, for 30 minutes! I feel like a smoker just realising that I forgot to light up when I stepped outside for an afternoon break.
For too long I've been killing time on that treadmill, which would be fine if I had time that needed killing, but that's rarely the case. Plus, once that circuit gets started it tends to keep on going well into time that really should be better used. After a while I began feeling like I was never really present anywhere. Whether I was riding the train, sitting at dinner, watching a movie, whatever…every few minutes I'd get that tug. "See if there's a pellet. Give the bar a push."
Maybe you'll scoff at this, but I'm an addict. I have been for a long time, and I'm sick of it. I'm tired of having the attention span of a meth addict. I'm tired of reaching for my phone at every red light because the urge has been building inexorably since the last one. I'm irritated that my first impulse after any real world human experience is to tweet it. What the hell? Narcissist much?
I'm tired of walking down busy sidewalks full of interesting people and places with my head down staring at a rectangle. I want to be present, in the moment, and the place. I want to experience mental flow by the river full and I want to be more productive. And above all, I want to nurture the relationships I have with people that I actually see and touch in all of their materialized-in-atoms glory.
If you have never experienced addiction, be happy. This post isn't for you. But I'm addicted to those little bursts of pleasure that pile into my inbox, or are prefaced with an "@" in my stream. Each one a new affirmation. "You mean something to someone," they seem to say. Although they needn't even say that to adequately stimulate. A Skinner Box really doesn't take much. Hell, I'd probably reach for my phone if it actually dropped little pellets from a chute.
The Paleo Media Diet
If you've read Clay Johnson's thought provoking book "The Information Diet" you know that he describes his diet in terms of infoveganism. While I get what he means by that, I think it's the wrong analogy, at least as it relates to my addiction. Going vegan is a moral choice. An approach to food designed to satisfy first and foremost the conscience. Which makes a lot of sense in the context of government and political ideology in which he uses it. But my problem isn't one of extremism, or TMZ, or empty calorie media of any kind. Most of the pellets I chomp are just fine, probably even nutritious. It's the fact that I immediately crave the next one so much that is driving me crazy.
So a few weeks ago I decided to take advantage of a mini-sabbatical and go paleolithic. I guess I'll call it the Paleo Media Diet because for me it's not about the content per se, but its medium of conveyance. The medium is the message, and the stimulant.
I'm not doing this to satisfy my conscience, I'm doing it to satisfy evolution. Or more specifically, my evolutionary state. If my ancient and maladaptive wiring, that evolved in a different time, can't resist the lever and the pellet, then I figured I was going to have to get rid of the damned lever. So I did.
Now I own the world's dumbest smart phone. I removed all of the "social" apps — Yammer, Twitter, G+, LinkedIn, Path…all gone. I open up preferences and turn off "cellular data" for long stretches of each day. If there is a specific email I'm waiting for I'll go through the multiple steps to turn it on and check, otherwise data stays turned off. I'll get my mail when I'm at my computer, with intention. But I turn my computer off when I'm not actively using it too, and leave it off for most of each day. The first time I turn it on is at lunch. I don't check anything electronic in the morning — that was the first thing I needed to stop. Compulsively checking messages before brushing my teeth is just ridiculous.
If I'm using my computer to write (like right now) I turn off the Wi-Fi. Sometimes I turn it off at the router to make it a little bit more difficult to "just check that one thing". In fact, maybe I'll make a T-shirt with this on it:
Who knows, maybe it will become the symbol of a movement.
Oh, also, out of a sense of new media / old media fairness I'm leaving the TV off too unless there is a specific thing I planned to watch. No more flicking it on to just see what's on. After all, for the first 30 years of my life we railed against the "tube" as a flood of stupid coming into our living rooms. There's no point in letting it off the hook now just because there is a new even raw'er media that has a pellet bar attached to it.
To fill the time I'm getting back I'm meeting people for coffee, drinks, dinner, whatever. I'm spending time face to face with old friends and making new ones. I'm going to great lengths to try to make my social interactions more "around the campfire" and less mediated by a glowing rectangle. I'm reading, a lot.
The inspiration for this change was simple. First, I was getting nothing done. My productivity had been decimated by my inability to focus for more than a few minutes at a time and I desperately had to do something about it. So when I had the chance to take a break from work I knew I had to detox, and more importantly, change my habits permanently. This can't be a temporary "cleanse". This has to be me taking control of my interactions with media again, for the long run. These new habits have to be ingrained before I get back to work and back in front of my computer all day.
Second, I started a paleo-inspired dietary regimen in December in response to a different set of addictions: sugars and gluten. I started following the Perfect Health Diet because it seemed reasonable that during the bulk of our evolutionary past we ate very differently than we do today. As a result, the way we are eating now is poorly aligned with our biology and is probably killing us. We simply haven't had enough time to adequately adapt to what we actually eat in the mere 10,000 or so years of agriculture. Especially as our recent style of agriculture is being warped by farm subsidies into producing huge quantities of cheap fructose.
With three months' worth of results I think there is something to the theory. It was brutal to give up sugar. It took two painful weeks of feeling like my head was made of wood, but then it passed and I'm eating and feeling better than ever. Energy is up, weight and body fat are down and blood work is trending in all of the right directions.
Once that basic idea — that in the timeline of human history and pre-history we simply haven't had time to adapt to our new circumstances — took root in my brain it seemed natural to apply it to other domains besides food. I think "going paleo" is going to be the catch phrase of an emerging counter culture and it isn't going to mean just diet. For me, at this point, it means a variety of lifestyle choices that recognise the limitations of my physical self to adapt to modern life. My approach now is going to be: "Where I can, adapt to my surroundings, where I can't, adapt my surroundings to me."
I know that we've always worried about the development of new media and what impact it might have on our culture. "The loss of oral culture will devastate us", etc, etc. I know I run the risk of getting lumped in with Nicholas Carr and all of the other internet pessimists. But really, that's not what I'm saying. I just believe that my brain is maladapted to the networked Skinner Box, so I want out. My brain is plastic, but not in a sufficiently adaptive way. In fact it's probably adapting just fine, but in a fashion that creates a destructive feed forward loop.
I'm not trying to get all Walden Pond on you, and many of you will no doubt see this as nothing more than faddish crazy talk, but I'm going to work really hard to be both present and informed. I'll keep taking advantage of networks to live a better and more productive life, just as soon as I get through the part of my transition that makes my head feel like wood, but they're not going to keep taking advantage of me.
And well, if a paleo media diet sounds stupid, do what works for you. We're probably different. But I'm turning off, opting out, and disconnecting as much as I can to save my brain for more of the things I really want to use it for. I'll let you know how it goes.
My Paleo Media Diet [O'Reilly Radar]
Jim Stogdill is the General Manager of O'Reilly Media's Radar. In previous lives he started the big data practice at a major systems integration consultancy (!= bubble 2), advocated open source technology and methods in government and defence, built a reverse auction system for a B2B startup (bubble 1), brought heuristic-based optimisation and online trading to the corporate treasury, and travelled the world as a Navy Officer. Unfortunately from his vantage point it all looked like the inside of a submarine. He spends his free time hacking silver halides with decidedly low-tech gear. On Twitter he is @jstogdill.