conscious unplugging (happiness project, part 2)

Ah, the internet. There are few things as delightful as the sweet silliness as never-before-seen puppy videos, the enthralling awesomeness of a great “okay, but what if…” retelling of a beloved story (this post about what could have happened if Aunt Petunia had really, genuinely taken Harry Potter into her home will never not be my favorite thing ever), or a snuggled-up Netflix marathon of a childhood favorite series (looking at you, Digimon). Unfortunately, what I found over several months of spending about 60-70% of my at-home free time staring at my computer, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. In my case, too much internet time was making me feel totally unproductive, and I’d get into bed at the end of the night feeling like I hadn’t done anything useful with my time.

Nick speaks to me on a spiritual level.

One thing that has been pretty consistent for me throughout my life is that I thrive on being busy. I love my down time, but I’m at my happiest when I’m learning, bouncing from place to place, writing, drawing, and generally just feeling like I’m being productive and positive. But looking over the way I’d been spending my down time over the last few months, it was clear that I needed to make a change, because my feelings of happy productivity were going down the tube. I was spending a lot of time with screens–if I wasn’t on my laptop, I was scrolling through Tumblr on my phone or watching a movie. Since I work a desk job that involves a lot of computer-based paperwork time, I was likely spending upwards of 5 to 6 hours staring at a screen each day. For a twenty-four hour day, that was too much for me. (Caveat: I’m not throwing shade at people who spend more time than that on a screen. Whether it’s your job or your self-care, you do you. It was just more than I felt comfortable with for my own purposes. With the exception of the occasional eight-hour Netflix binge, which I do not regret having. Ever.) By spending all of my time online, I was consuming a lot of media, but not really making anything, learning anything significant, or really feeling positive about what I was doing.

actual image of how cute I look, though

That said, it was so nice to just collapse into brainless internet world after a day of emotionally exhausting therapy work that I wasn’t ready to give up on internet time completely. Because of that, the first change I made was to set a goal of taking 30 minutes of non-screen recreation time each day.

Pulling the Plug

Given that I have absolutely no semblance of self-control, as anyone who has ever seen me near pasta can confirm, one of the first things I did was move my laptop to a place where it wouldn’t be the first thing I’d see when I got home from work. To my surprise, the “out of sight, out of mind” approach actually helped a lot. Instead of immediately seeking Mr. Laptop out as soon as I got through the door and calmed the dog, I was more likely to go for a book or notebook that was left in a more conspicuous location.

The next important thing was identifying some things to replace that lost computer time, and I jumped to reading right away. I’ve always been an avid reader, something I’m very happy to have inherited from my mom (along with her speed-reading ability–thanks, mommy!). Having read just about every book in my house twice or more, I scooted over to my local library for a new library card and a big ol’ stack of books.

my personal fantasy

There is something absolutely exhilarating, for me at least, about starting a new, never-read-before book. As much as I love the warm and fuzzies that come from re-reading an old favorite, new books feel like setting off on an adventure. I tend to be fairly selective in my book choices, which I base off a mixture of recommendations from sources whose opinions I trust (friends, family, bloggers, reviewers, scholarly journals), my own interests, and, rarely, random, judged-by-its-cover bookstore finds. It’s a little tricky sometimes, because I try to be diverse in my choices–my 2015 reading goal was to read 50 books by authors who fall outside of the straight/white/male archetype, so I’ve had to hunt a bit more in libraries and bookstores to find more books by women, POC, queer authors, disabled authors, etc. That said, the work totally pays off, and I’ve gotten to expand my mindset and read some texts that I wouldn’t normally have picked just based on general “top ten books to read this year” lists.

me too, Matilda. ❤

I also stocked up on some coloring books. Apparently, “coloring for grown-ups” has been a growing trend (one that some people tend to mock as “infantilizing” and “a refusal to grow up”, which I think says a lot more about the people writing those sorts of articles than the people picking up a colored pencil a few days a week), and I’ve found it to be an exceptionally relaxing activity. It becomes simultaneously mindless and engaging, where you both focus on what you’re doing–adding color, shading, dimension, etc depending on the complexity of your pictures–and let your mind drift away from your stresses and worries, the world shrinking down to the page in front of you, slowly blossoming to life and color. If that’s childish and infantilizing, I’ll take it. Y’all haters can stick to reading economic reports, or whatever else you’re doing in your Super Grown Up free time.

Measuring Changes (without computer-generated charts!)

The first thing I noticed when I put away my screens and started picking up my books, markers, and pens again was that I really did feel more productive. I felt proud of myself when I got to watch the stack of books in my “read” pile get higher than my “to-read” pile, and when I got to bring books back to the library (to exchange for new ones, obvs!) and tell the librarian about which ones were my favorites. I also found myself reading during my downtime during the day as well–bringing a book with me if I was eating lunch on my own, reading in waiting rooms at doctor’s offices, and being able to chat about what I was reading to others. Reading in the evenings also helped me feel sleepier, as I wasn’t looking at a backlit screen.

actual image of my bedtime process

With my creative projects, such as coloring and writing, the progress was slower–it took a month to put out a new chapter of a story I’ve been writing, and a really cool picture might take a few hours to finish–but I felt just as good about what I completed. I got great feedback from the people who read my online stories (some people have even made artwork to go along with them, which is seriously just the coolest thing in the whole wide world!) and I love posting pictures of my finished pictures and sharing them with my friends. I’ve been trying get some friends to come over for a coloring date, and I’ve had some early interest in that–who knows, maybe I’ll start a club!

While my initial goal was to just take 30 minutes of each day to avoid screen time, I actually have found myself having some days where I don’t spend any time at all on my computer outside of work. This isn’t to say I’ve become totally screen-free–I still check my phone to scroll through Facebook, Tumblr, etc. But the radical decrease has definitely led to me feeling more productive and more like I’ve accomplished something in my free time at the end of the day. Part of this, as I already mentioned, is about having tangible, visual ways of looking at the things I’ve done: a new book to add to the “read” stack (or even just the shift of a bookmark), a finished picture, a few more scribbles to add to a story. But there’s also just the reflection aspect of thinking about what I did after coming home from work and feeling like I did something that actively engaged my mind, rather than sitting at my computer, which feels (again, to me, as a subjective experience) like a much more passive consumption of information and imagery. I felt more positive, more accomplished, and more like I’d done something worth doing–all of the feelings that give me those overachiever warm-fuzzies!

Next Steps: Unplugging Shabbat

Now that I’ve made some progress toward making screen-free time part of my daily routine, my next step is to make one day each week (or at least one 24-hour period) screen-free. Back in grad school, one thing I tried to do from time to time was to have a screen-free Shabbat: unplugging my computer and phone (unless I was on-call for work) from candle-lighting time on Friday to after Havdallah on Saturday. Back then, the two exceptions to my Shabbat Sha-unplugging were Skype calls and phone calls with long-distance friends and family, as well as snuggly movie dates with the Spouse.


Because my Shabbat preference has always been to keep the day meaningful, relaxed, and connected to the people around me (as well as to not totally set myself up for failure), I think keeping those two exceptions in place is a good way to start. Cuddling up on the couch to watch a movie while the candles burn down feels very different from lying in bed with Netflix eight inches from my face on my laptop screen, just as a Skype call with my nephew or grandmother is very different from texting or Facebooking. My goal will be to start unplugging Shabbat two weeks from now, which coincidentally will match up with my 25th birthday–not a bad way to kick off my next quarter-century!

Do you have any thoughts about how you use your time? Are there changes that you want to make to your daily activities that you think might make you feel happier? What’s a goal you could set for yourself, and what do you need to do to help yourself reach it? Let’s chat in the comments! 🙂

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