The Power of Unplugging

January 29, 2020
The Power of Unplugging header image

The time is nigh, there’s no putting it off any longer. You’ve already eaten a snack, gone to the bathroom, washed your hands three times, and ritualistically spun in two circles before sitting down. There is nothing else to do, there are no excuses to be made: it’s time to write. You place your fingers on the keyboard, adjust your neck, and prepare to type. But before you can press a solitary key, your phone goes off—a text from your cousin.

You pause, your fingers hovering over your desk. You’re as paralyzed as a deer in the headlights of a Ford F-150. You have to respond, don’t you? Sure you do, it would be rude not to. It’ll only take a few seconds anyhow. So you send back a text with some generationally appropriate witticism, and get back to writing.

Finally some ideas are coming: you’ll open your essay on Napoleon’s invasion of Russia with a rousing diatribe on hubris and how physically petite napoleon was. Your thesis is that his height affected his abilities as a commander (he couldn’t see the battlefield without sitting on someone’s shoulders). It’s a bold move—a hot take, if you will, but you are a risk taker.

Yet before you can commit a sentence of your stirring composition to digital ink, you hear a small bell go off: a friend has just texted you via facebook messenger. She is your favorite, so obviously you have to respond to her text about organic cat food. It really is true that everyone is going paleo… Soon you’re locked into a thirty minute text conversation, and the first page of your essay remains blank. I think you see what I’m getting at.

My point is this: the digital world is a dangerous place, full of shiny traps that suck you into rabbit holes and compete for your attention. Various forms of social media ping you constantly with little red badges; your smart phone buzzes just as frequently, lighting up with texts from friends and application notifications; maybe you play games or follow a twenty four hour news cycle, which provides you feeds with updates. Whatever your situation looks like, various digital stimuli are constantly activating the dopamine centers of your brain, conditioning you with a pavlovian response, and addicting you. You are a slave to your devices (probably), and that is a problem.

Why is it a problem you ask? The simple gist of it is this: the more distracted you are, the less you can focus on meaningful activities that actually create value in your life… like writing (this is a writing blog, so I figure I’d better stay topical). For us writers especially, attention is a precious asset. We need time and mental space for nearly everything involving our craft, be that reading/research, ideating, or the act of writing itself. We can’t afford distractions or split attention, and frankly, nor can most people.

After all, the dopamine triggers involved in social media operate in a very similar way to those involved in gambling. The likelihood is that all this stimulus is shrinking the gray matter in your brain [1], much like addiction to gambling would, and is reducing your impulse control and shortening your attention span [2]. It’s a scary thought, and if you value your ability to be productive and think clearly, you may want to address it (assuming you haven’t).

In that vein, I’ve compiled a few strategies that have worked for me in preserving my cognitive assets. I figured I’d share them here for your benefit. So, without further ado, here are four strategies to help you unplug and be a better writer (and get more out of your life).

Protect your attention span

One of the most straightforward and robust ways to reduce the impact of distractions in your life is to remove them. Who would have thunk it? This may mean turning off push notifications on your devices, or setting access controls so you can only check your social media and other applications at certain times of the day. Or, if you’re feeling a little more extreme, you could always delete the accounts and applications that are distracting you the most. The implementation of this solution is very individual, and depends on your current use patterns, but whatever your degree of use is, the goal here is to create more consistent mental breathing room.

Create time to focus

Set aside time in your day where there are no distractions. Turn off your phone and computer; shut yourself in your room or find a quiet place; remove yourself from the vicinity of the television (if you still have one of those). This uninterrupted time will give your brain the opportunity to process information more effectively, and will allow you to dive deep into work that requires real focus. Perhaps do this multiple times throughout the day, whenever you are writing or reading.

The “lazy boy” meditation

Believe it or not, I’ve studied meditation and tried out many different forms in my relatively short time on this earth. The problem with most of them is that they can be difficult to do right, and if you do them wrong you can actually do more harm than good. For instance, if you’re anxious like me, certain forms of meditation can actually trigger an anxiety response in the sympathetic nervous system [3]. However there is one form of meditation that works without fail, which I call “lazy boy” meditation. It is essentially just sitting there and doing nothing in order to let your brain’s conscious and unconscious processes work at decluttering and sorting things out. The key here is not to have intention: don’t try to visualize something in particular, don’t try to feel something, don’t try not to think, in fact, actively think if you want. This is not a time to repress, this just a time to be with your thoughts. I find this process reduces stress and allows more mental clarity.

Be present

This is more of a general philosophical tip, but I think it’s worth mentioning in order to round this out. Life is best lived by living (a truism, perhaps, but let me elaborate). When we bury our faces in screens all the time, and constantly react to and live inside digital spaces, we aren’t living our own lives. We are puppets to someone else’s agenda, reacting instead of acting with intention. We reassert control when we are present in the moment and mindful of our thoughts; being present in this way is how we come to know ourselves and what we need out of life, as well as reassert ownership. This is critically important for us as writers, and for people in general.

So unplug from technology (if you aren’t already), give your brain some space to breathe, and live in the now a little bit more. It’s very refreshing, and can lead to powerful growth… and I’d argue that you have to unplug, if you want to be a good writer.

Until next Wednesday,
Trevor

Resources:
[1] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0166432817305090
[2] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563212001665
[3] http://deanehshapirojr.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Adverse-Effect-of-Meditation.pdf

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