focus: the beauty of disconnection
‘Without great solitude no serious work is possible.’ ~Pablo Picasso
There are days when I wake up and refuse to turn on the Internet, and sit still with my cup of coffee in the hush that fills the hours just before dawn. I’ll listen to the quiet. I’ll reflect on life. I’ll lose myself in a novel. Some days I’ll sit down and write, just my thoughts and the quiet and the gentle tapping of the keyboard.
And it’s beautiful.
Other days I’ll go for a run and enjoy the rich outdoor air, salty when I jog by the ocean, sweet when I pass a field of wildflowers, saturated with soft light. And this is a wonderful time for me, as I enjoy the moment, as I soak in the quietness, as I bask in my connection with life but my disconnection with technology.
Other times I’ll sit with a friend and have a cup of coffee and chat. We’ll argue about politics, or whose computer OS is better, or tease each other, or share stories. While disconnected from technology.
And some days, I take a walk or go for a run with my wife. Or I’ll sit with my child, and read, or just play.
These are unbeatable moments.
These are the moments when disconnection shows its glorious face, when life is in full force, when we are fully connected to the world immediately around us, while disconnected from the world at large.
These moments have become increasingly rare and fleeting, because of our connectedness with technology. And that’s a sad thing in my book.
I’m no Luddite — I don’t think we should abandon technology. It’s given me the career and life that I’ve always wanted, where I’m able to play for a living, create, be a full-time writer, help others, and live a simple life. Technology has empowered me, and I am as big a proponent of the latest technologies as anyone.
It’s not technology we should be afraid of. It’s a life where we’re always connected, always interrupted, always distracted, always bombarded with information and requests. It’s a life where we have no time to create, or connect with real people.
Disconnection is the solution, or at least an integral part of it. It’s very difficult for many people, because connection is addictive. We’ll talk more about that in a minute.
The Benefits of Disconnection
Why should we even consider disconnecting from the grid of information and communication? Let’s look at just a few reasons:
- You shut off the interruptions and distractions of email, Twitter, IM, blogs, news, and more.
- You give yourself space to focus and work.
- You allow yourself space to create.
- You can connect with real people without distractions.
- You can read, you know, books.
- You can accomplish a lot more.
- You allow yourself a break from the stress of overload.
- You can find quiet and peace of mind.
- You can reflect and contemplate.
There are dozens of other good reasons, but I think those are serviceable for our needs.
How to Disconnect
So how do we go about disconnecting? There are varying strategies, and no one is better than another. I won’t be able to tell you what will work best for you — I suggest you experiment, and find a method that fits your needs and situation best. Often that will be a hybrid approach, which is perfectly great — every person is different, and no cookie-cutter approach will work for everyone.
1. Unplug. Just unplug your network connector or cable, or turn off your wireless router, or go to your connections settings and disable temporarily. Close your browser and open another program so you can focus on creating without distraction. Do this for as long as you can.
2. Have a disconnect time each day. It’s like setting office hours if you’re a professor — you set the times that work best for you, and you can even let people know about these times. Let’s say you are disconnected from 8-10 a.m. each day, or 4-5 p.m., or even anytime after 2 p.m. Tell people your policy, so they know you won’t be available for email or IM. And use this time to create.
3. Work somewhere without a connection. For me, this might be the public library — while it has computers with Internet access, there’s no wireless in my library. Some coffeeshops don’t have wireless connection. Some of you might have to look for a good building that’s quiet but doesn’t have free wireless. Go to this disconnected zone ready to create, or perhaps just to relax and enjoy the quiet.
4. Get outside. Leave your devices behind and go for a walk, or a run, or a bike ride. Enjoy nature. Watch a sunset, go to the beach or a lake or river or forest. Take your child or spouse or friend. Recharge your batteries, reflect and contemplate.
5. Leave your mobile device behind, or shut it off. When you’re on the go, you don’t always need to be connected. Sure, the iPhone and Android and Blackberry are cool, but they just feed our addictions, they make the problem worse than ever. If you’re driving, shut off your device. If you’re meeting with someone, turn off the device so you can focus on that person completely. If you’re out with your family or friends and not working … leave the device at home. You don’t need this personal time to be interrupted by work or your impulse to check on things.
6. Use blocking software. If you’re doing work on the computer, you can use various types of software to shut yourself off from the Internet, or at least from the most distracting portions of it. For example, you can use software to block your web email, Twitter, favorite news sites, favorite blogs, and so on — whatever your worst distractions are, you can block them selectively. Or block all Internet browsing. We’ll talk more about software in a later chapter on tools.
7. Alternate connection and disconnection. There are any number of variations on this theme, but let’s say you disconnected for 20 minutes, then connected for a maximum of 10 minutes, and kept alternating in those intervals. Or you work disconnected for 45 minutes and connect for 15 minutes. You get the idea — it’s almost as if the connected period is a reward for doing good, focused work.
8. Disconnect away from work. A good policy is to leave your work behind, when you’re done with work, and a better policy is to stay disconnected during that time, or work and browsing will creep into the rest of your life. Draw a line in the sand, and say, “After 5 p.m. (or whatever), I won’t be connected, I’ll focus on my family and my other interests.”
How to Beat the Connection Addiction
Being connected is an addiction — and it’s one that can be extremely hard to beat. Trust me, I struggle with it myself, all the time.
Like any addiction, connection has very quick positive reinforcements and only long-term negative consequences. When you take drugs or eat junk food, for example, you get instant pleasure but the negative health effects aren’t felt until much, much later, when you’re already firmly addicted. So you get the positive reinforcement immediately, each time you do the addictive activity such as eating sweets or taking drugs, giving you a pleasure rush and making you want to do the activity again, as soon as possible. You get the positive reinforcement again, and again, and again, in a constant cycle of positive reinforcement, and soon you’re addicted.
Connection works the same way. When we check email and get a new message, it’s a little bit of validation that we’re worthy of someone else’s attention — we get a little ego boost, a little pleasure from this. When we check Twitter or our feed reader and see something that grabs our attention, that’s a positive reinforcement, a little bit of reward for checking. And so we check again, and again, until we’re addicted.
It’s not until much later that we feel the consequences, if we even admit them to ourselves. It’s months or years later, much after we’re addicted, that we realize we’re spending all our time online, that our personal lives have been taken over, that we have lost our ability to find quiet and focus, that our creative time and energies have been eroded by these addictions.
So while I can list all kinds of ways to disconnect, if you’re addicted even to a small degree, it won’t be a small feat to disconnect and stay disconnected.
How do we beat this addiction, then?
The same way you beat any addiction: by breaking the cycle of positive feedback, and by replacing the old habit with a new one.
And while beating addictions is really a subject to be tackled in another book, let’s briefly outline some quick strategies you can use to beat this addiction:
- Figure out your triggers. What things trigger your habits? It’s usually something you do each day, something that leads directly to your addicted behavior. List these out.
- Find a new, positive habit to replace the old habit for each trigger. For example, with quitting smoking, I needed a new habit for stress relief (running), a new thing to do after meetings (write out my notes), a new thing to do with coffee in the morning (reading), and so on.
- Try changing each trigger, one at a time. So if you go to check your blogs first thing in the morning, make it a new habit to not open your browser, and instead open a simple text editor and start writing.
- Create positive feedback for the new habit. If the new habit is something you don’t enjoy, you’ll quit before long. But if it’s something enjoyable, that gives you positive feedback, that’s good. Praise from others is also a good positive feedback — there are many, and you’ll want to engineer your habit change so that you get almost instant positive feedback.
- Create instant negative feedback for the old habit. Instead of having negative feedback be long-term for going online, you want some negative feedback instantly: make it a rule that you have to call someone and tell them you failed if you go online after a certain trigger, for example. There are lots of kinds of negative feedback — maybe you’ll have to log and blog your failures, or something like that.
- Repeat the positive feedback cycle as often as possible for the new habit. Soon, after a few weeks, it’ll become a new habit and the old one will be (mostly) licked. Repeat for the next trigger.
Starting small, with just one trigger at a time, is a good way to be successful.
Next chapter: Focus Rituals