summer and tech: primal screens & how to respond

It’s July 6th and summer is, quite officially, here. With how quickly time passes, I know I will blink my eyes and the crush of back to school will be upon us. For this reason, I invite you to stop whatever you were doing before you stumbled upon this post. I encourage you to bring your full attention to the ideas here rather than simply skimming through them on the way to your next web destination. Perhaps you can close your eyes (after you read this sentence), take a few deep breaths, and find center. Here in the U.S. we have about 6 - 8 weeks of what we call summer. Let’s take a few minutes to think about them with intention. 

(Take that break here. Really.) 

I recently shared a popular U.S. “destination city” and a few airplane rides with a lot of folks who were, as my Irish friends might say, “on holiday.” Not surprisingly, everywhere I looked I saw the new American posture: hands held at chest height, backs hunched, eyes gazing downward, faces lit by screens. Tempted by and tethered to my own smartphone as camera, map, guide “book,” boarding pass, and communication device, I noticed how much my recreation time has come to include a primary attachment to screens. There I was, a person who encourages embodied living, pulling my phone out every time I witnessed something of note. Since I was traveling alone it was all too easy to loose myself in texts to those back home, to surfing the internet through a meal, or to any number or ways of letting my device be my primary travel companion. This got me to noticing both my own behavior and that of others. From this experience I have come up with a list of challenges for myself this summer and I’d like to share them with you. Might you join me in noticing the way in which your primary connection to your screen might impact the way in which you do or do not invade your full body and the spaces it occupies?

Humbly, I offer you some technology free challenges for these remaining days of summer.

Do One Thing at a Time: Given the likelihood that we have fewer externally imposed deadlines in the next several weeks this seems like the perfect time to schedule in a day or two of doing one thing at a time. During the “productivity heavy” months of September through May we often feel as though we can’t afford the potential “incompletes” that might come with doing one thing at a time. In the summer, however, it may be possible to stretch our “to do” lists out an hour or day or more in order to provide time for uni-tasking. This means, taking on only one task at any given moment. This could include doing a work or home task without listening to a podcast or cooking without having the t.v. on. It might mean making a phone call and doing nothing else while we talk or watching a movie without texting or emailing or working while doing so. Very likely we will become frustrated or bored when we try this. We will feel like we are wasting time and may become irritable. If we are committed to the challenge and continue past these initial emotional hurdles, we will, over time, come to a place of paced calm and steadiness which might just make up for the reduction in productivity and speed.

Multitasking is a fancy word for distractibility and takes a toll on our physical, emotional, and intellectual functioning. Given the pace and expectations of modern life, most of us multitask constantly, making ourselves increasingly effective at it over time. It is important for us to provide opportunities for our selves to remember what it feels like to focus on one thing and one thing alone. This action provides the brain with opportunities to sink into what is sometimes referred to as “deep work” and offers our central nervous systems the opportunity to process and function in healthy and realistic manners.

Get Bored (on purpose): In my (well informed) opinion, boredom intolerance is one of the most profound impacts of humanity’s current over-reliance upon technology. Whereas daily life used to offer unavoidable periods of time bereft of stimulation, our current connection to computers in our pockets and screens everywhere around us offers the opposite. Laura Ingalls faced boredom as a function of being alive when she was and many others were like her. Presently, however, boredom is something most people can easily avoid. Standing in line or waiting in traffic? Look at your phone. Between meetings or spending some time in the bathroom? Play another round of (fill in the blank with whatever game you play). Walking or running or driving? Pack every minute of the walk/run/drive with podcasts and playlists. Land on an evening or day with no plans? Text or FaceBook message everyone you know and find something to do. NOW!

There are certain life skills that can only be “caught” or mastered by being presented with opportunities to be bored and then living through them. Boredom tolerance is positively correlated with measures of creativity and flexibility in problem solving. It enhances self regulation skills and can increase our confidence. We are often better friends, more patient family members/co-workers, and better equipped humans when we are not reliant upon being constantly stimulated. When we can tolerate stillness, live (even if only messily) through unaccounted for periods of time without compulsively filling them, and, generally, not need constant entertainment, we are contributing to a more balanced way of living for ourselves and others.

Collect Idle Moments: The small segments of time that emerge “in between the real tasks of our days” are what I refer to as “idle time.” Given the pace at which most of us currently live, these fleeting moments often go completely unnoticed let alone accounted for. With little experience with or value for boredom and/or the need to be still, we fill these moments with productivity. Advancing to a new game level feels more fulfilling, then, than sitting idly between tasks. The problem is that we often spend more time with our screens in these moments than we intend, thereby leaving us feeling pressured in approaching the tasks required of daily life.

I am experimenting with collecting these moments, stacking tasks back to back in order to save a block of minutes rather than using them in the small 3-5 minute chunks of time that present themselves between tasks. This means that I might put my phone or computer in a different part of the house when I am working on physical tasks, completing 30 minutes of work without looking at screens so that I can have 30 full minutes to treat myself to a great book or a conversation with a friend. Or it might mean that I turn off all notifications while I write so that I am not tempted to toggle back and forth to email and Instagram, instead completing my writing task more efficiently and having time “off” when finished.

We often capriciously claim to have “no time” for all manner of things that we assert as being important to us while at the same time giving unlimited time for the mindless task of looking at screen based content. I am convinced that one of the most effective ways of making time for the pursuits we claim to be important is to stop frittering away the small moments of time between tasks in mindless screen engagement in order to save and, later, invest them mindfully instead.

Record Memories/Photographs (some of the time without your phone): There were several experiences on my recent trip where my mind was fully blown and my eyes were overcome with important images. Noticing that grabbing for my phone significantly impacted how I attended to the experiences I was in, I chose to challenge myself to take only a quarter of the pictures I wanted to take. This was, of course, not a scientific process but, rather, one where I became much more highly attuned to why I wanted to record an image and how that might help or hurt my embodied experience. With practice I found that taking a detailed mental account of the sights, smells, sounds, and feelings provided a much richer sense of encoding and experiencing the moment than simply snapping a photo might do. A few times I tried to sketch the experience and at other times I journaled. 

I have more photos than I will ever refer back to or share. With this new system I am elevating a lived experience over a “captured” experience and it feels different in a very beautiful way.

Actually Know Where You Are and Experience It: With my smartphone in my hand it is easy for me to visit a city and state and never have any idea where I’ve been. Google maps gets me where ever I need to go and I can Yelp my way to the “best” meals and experiences. When I rely on these tools, however, I find that I have a diminished awareness of the subtleties of where I am. I don’t like this feeling of mindless navigation so I have changed things up radically. 

I am going back, at least some of the time, to paper maps. I ask locals where I should eat and what I should see. I use my phone to look up things like local high school or college plays and concerts and try to go to them. I look at a bigger picture map before I leave and when I return to make sense of where I’ve been and to honor it as a place full of uniquenesses, quirks, and personality not always found in online travel sites.

Rethink Road Trips and Plane Rides: As humans we get better at those actions that we practice. This means we have become very good at relying on screens for distraction and entertainment. Trips, when we are stuck in the car or on a plane (or train or bus), are the perfect time to try practicing some new skills. There’s no need to read every mom blog on the planet to find the perfect road trip activities or to spend inordinate amounts of money on travel specific games and accoutrements. Instead, grab a pen and some paper and challenge yourself (or your family) to sketch or write poetry. Force yourself to look out the window and notice sites specific to where you are. Practice boredom tolerance or learn to knit or crochet. Do a crossword puzzle (even if/especially if you hate them) or go through the alphabet coming up with something you are grateful for that starts with each letter. Make up stories in your mind about your seat mate or tell a story in the car with each person offering one word in rotation. The goal isn’t Pinterest perfection, it’s simply taking the opportunity of “captivity” to discipline yourself to practice something new.

Try Something New: When our time is at a premium we often feel a need to maximize the very little of it that we have free. If we only have one day a week that is set apart to move at a more personal pace, there is pressure to chose how to use that day carefully. Also, during the months of the traditional academic year, new pursuits often require long and involved commitments. In the summer months a community college class might last a month instead of the 4 months it fills during the school year. 

I find that we make all sorts of assumptions about what there is and is not to experience in our own geographic areas or to learn from those people and resources that we have access to. I also find that these assumptions are frequently wrong. I challenge myself (and invite you) capitalize on the little bits of wiggle room that summer provides to try something I’ve wanted to try but haven’t.* If nothing else, maybe that will be continuing to find ways to keep my screen a secondary (or tertiary) attachment instead of a primary one.



*Let your mind wander about things you’ve always wanted to try. Make a list and include everything that comes to mind. Don’t omit anything. Sit with that list for an day and let the top several ideas rise. When 2 or 3 new things surface as the most desirable, re-focus your brainstorming on how you might break down learning about them or trying them into manageable chunks. Let your mind wander about any resources that might aid you in your attempts before you do research online. If there are no people within your geographic community that can teach you or enable the experience, ask others if they have ideas of how you might carry out learning more or getting to check the item off your list.