Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 7

Weekend Luddite

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Hi, this is Reinhard from everydaysystems.com. Today I'm going to talk about weekend luddite. The other systems I've described have been mostly about physical health. This one is about mental health.

The problem weekend luddite addresses is this: For every labor saving device there seem to be at least two time consuming devices to soak up all that freed time again. T.S. Eliot wrote something about us moderns being "distracted by distraction from distraction," and that was pre-Internet and pre-TV. We're in infinitely worse shape now. We aimlessly surf the web or listen to all kinds of crazy podcasts when we should be doing something else. Then we complain that we don't have time to do what we really want to do. It's a problem that seems innocuous at first, and I think tends to get underrated. But think about it. Time is life, when you waste time you waste the most precious thing you have. I'm not saying you should constantly be striving towards some concrete self improvement goal, relaxing is great, but there are much better, more intentional ways to relax than flicking channels or bumbling around youtube.

I call this problem distraction management, and weekend luddite is really just a partial solution. But it's a start. I've been practicing it for about two years now, and it's been an enormous help.

So what is it? First off, what's a Luddite?

I assume you've probably heard the term "Luddite" before. People generally use it to refer to someone who is anti-technology. The original Luddites were 19th century English textile workers who rose up and smashed the machines that were putting them out of work. Weekend luddites are a little more moderate than these original Luddites. We don't destroy machines, we just avoid them. And not all the time, just on weekends. And not all machines, but just the machines that are wasting our time.

I'm a computer programmer. Like a lot of people today, even non computer programmers, I sit all day if front of a computer. You'd think that when I come home the last I'd want to do is spend more time on the computer. But this is precisely what I used to do. I'd check my email, I'd check my stocks, I'd check the new york times website, I'd check my own web site statistics, then I'd go over to some blogs, and pretty soon I'd be at some random site about Malaysian skyscrapers, which is interesting, sort of, but maybe ten thousandth on my list of what I'd like to be doing. I'd look up and it would be midnight.

I don't watch much tv. I don't play video games. But I'd fritter away endless hours in front of the computer like this, stumbling around aimlessly on the internet. And it was very tricky to root out entirely because... I didn't really want to root it out entirely. There is something good at the root of browsing around on the internet. It's curiosity. Being a complete internet luddite would mean giving up something that is genuinely good, more good even, I think, than the downside is bad. The trick is how limit the bad, without sacrificing the good.

I thought of the name weekend luddite and the basic idea before I though of the precise details of how it should work. But the details are critical, and it took some experimenting to get them right.

Let me describe two early implementations of weekend luddite that didn't quite work, so you can see the advantages of the one that did.

I started out trying to just do Sunday no computer, a single 24 hour period. It seemed appropriate, "sabbatical." The sabbath, right? But it was just too hard. Unread emails sang out to me. Doubts as to whether my web servers were still up and receiving their proper due of traffic plagued me like pangs of conscience. It sounds pathetic, but I couldn't go a whole day, much less a whole weekend.

Then I tried going just half a day. My rule was "on weekends, don't touch the computer from dawn to dusk." This almost worked. The amount of time was definitely about right. But the boundaries were a little unclear and badly placed. Dawn and dusk change a lot with the seasons. Days are longer in the summer and shorter in the winter, right? And dawn and dusk are also poorly defined, at least without special instruments, you know at what point exactly is it dawn? I want to know, so I can check my email. And since I don't always get up before dawn, it makes it too tempting to cheat during the day if I oversleep. If I sleep too late to check my email, am I really not going to check it until after sundown?

So what I wound up doing for weekend luddite is "on weekends, don't touch the computer from breakfast to dinner." It's about the same amount of time as dawn to dusk, but less variable, less ambiguous, and better placed. Breakfast and dinner are clear events. I don't need to check the weather channel to know when they are.

The boundaries are also better placed. I can't oversleep breakfast, I'd just have a late breakfast, so I have some guaranteed time to check my email in the morning and not get too antsy about what I'd missed during the day. This clarity about the boundaries, combined with knowing that I'd just have to wait at most *half* a day, meant that I didn't get so antsy about my unread emails and websites that I'd break the rules. And I reclaimed most of my waking hours for worthier, more intentional pursuits. I found that I had time to do serious, careful reading again. Also, now that we have a child.. I have less time for serious careful reading ... but I don't have that awful temptation to check "one more thing" on the computer while I'm taking care of her. She gets 100% of Daddy.

One of my biggest excuses for procrastinating on the web was tending my web sites. So now, if I have an idea that seems web-worthy, I write it down on a piece of paper. Or speak it into my digital recorder. In fact, I find it's easier to write this way. No Malaysian skyscrapers to distract me.

Another gain is that the time I do spend on the web is more productive. Why? Because it has to be. There's less of it. I value the time I have to browse around and so I do it better. I know there is a cost for every link I click on -- a cost of very limited time. It's like supply and demand. Give yourself a lot of time and time becomes cheap. You don't take it seriously. If you want to get more done, give yourself less time. The more time you give a task, the more time it will take. Most tasks will soak up whatever time you throw at them. Give them less time, and not only do you get them done more quickly, but you feel more alive, more engaged during that time. It's like a Zen of busyness.

I've been doing weekend luddite since early 2004, and it's been working great. In fact, it's worked so well, I've been trying to extend it into the week. First I tried simply reversing the weekend rule on week days (so no computer before breakfast or after dinner). I called this "weekend and evening luddite." which sounds sort of like some twisted cell phone plan. But despite the cute name, this first attempt at extending weekend luddite was not a great success. But just this month I've been successfully doing half of it, the more important half, weekday morning luddite. It's not quite as catchy as the cell phone plan, but I think it's maintainable and it gives me most of the benefits. Evenings I'm kind of brain dead anyway so my time is less valuable. It matters less if I waste a bit of it. But mornings are prime thinking time for me, and I have a small window of privacy between wife and child leaving for daycare and having to go to work myself.

For me, computers, and in particular the internet, are the big distraction that I need to restrict. And I don't go any further than that. I don't restrict TV, or video game consoles, or my ipod. They just aren't big distractions for me and I don't want to load myself up with unnecessary rules that I could start to resent or at least be confused by. But you may be different. Your big distraction device might be the TV. Or your blackberry. Find the one or two devices that are causing the most problems and restrict just those and nothing else. If you're overambitious, it's not going to work.

On that cheery not, I'm out of time for today. Next week I'll talk about Glass ceiling, my system for smoothing out dangerous and humiliating binge drinking into healthy and pleasurable moderate drinking. Thanks for listening.

By Reinhard Engels

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