Everyday system for managing distractions

shot iPhoneThis is the last of seven posts about simple everyday systems for managing your time, health, and eating developed by Reinhard Engels. Fifteen or so years ago, Reinhard was an overweight computer programmer who ate poorly, sometimes drank too much, and avoided exercising.

For most things simplicity is the ultimate sophistication and according to Thoreau, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.”

So Reinhard created habits that were easy to do and could be sustained forever. He didn’t like complicated exercise routines – he wouldn’t like doing them and would likely stop if he made it to a goal.

About ten years ago, I stumbled across Reinhard’s idea for exercising for 14 minutes a day using a sledgehammer to mimic shoveling and other common movements.

Starting there, I checked out his other systems. They were easy to implement and claimed longterm results for himself.

I didn’t really go whole hog on his system because I was already doing, and enjoying, other stuff like lifting weights, but I have used his sledgehammer idea, more as a fun way to rehab from injury.

Anyway, what follows are my shortened versions, from his website and podcast explanations, of his “everyday systems.” I did it for myself to have the ideas in one spot, and for you too, if you’re interested.

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.

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 by smashing the machines putting them out of work.

Weekend luddites are a little more moderate. 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 NYT 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. 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.  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.

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  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 don’t have that 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.

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. 

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