Digital Sabbatical

 It was all just starting to feel too much like an eating disorder or like academic mania — being preoccupied with thoughts you don’t care about, compulsively seeking information that is at once overwhelming and boring, soliciting the approval of people you don’t know, relying on your own anxiety for stimulation.

Alice Gregory, Ornament of My Might 

As I sit here, staring at my growing number of unread articles in Google Reader (437 at last count), my mind is starting to stress out. How am I to finish reading all of these posts, and they are only today’s posts, too?! A glance at my Twitter account reveals the same for me - too many status updates to work my way through. Some people have too much on their mind that they think is worth sharing to the rest of us. I hunt Twitter for the valuable links and quotes of inspiration, but instead find the affiliate links for bogus products or over used #hashtags, which are replacing the overused hyphen in today’s writing. 

It is almost a parallel meme surging through the internet, balanced by the growing concerns of privacy on Facebook and through search. The people who are taking digital sabbaticals are processing too much information, and the people who are concerned about privacy issues are sending out too much. The internet is the worst enemy for both of these camps, allowing them to easily access or share information on a whim with no deep curiosity. One mouse clicks or tap takes them into a new world, one that they most likely don’t have the time to fully explore, but will do anyways. 

Alice also writes in the same post, “I had forgotten that thoughts and feelings actually grow more complex if you just stop documenting their earliest iterations.” Documenting those first flashes of brilliance is useful when brainstorming, or mind mapping, but useless dribble when it comes to commentary of one’s opinion in a public forum. I tend to find people over-react when they read something, and don’t allow that gestation period for the ideas to fully settle into their body. People are in a rush to be the first responders, the first to point out similar posts on their blog, and to share the links without writing their own commentary to attach with it. 

Nicholas Carr writes in his new book, The Shallows

“Over the last few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going- so far as I can tell- but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think.”

Where we were once able to focus on long articles and novels, now our minds are constantly searching for the easy way out. I have always thought these changes were unique to myself, but now that I know it is more widespread, it makes me wonder what I can do to reverse these changes or slow them down? There are two directions I see us choosing. 

Digital Sabbatical

An absolute disconnection from the digital world, including social media, email, surfing, search, as well as, television, movies, cellphones, and other devices. It is an extremely challenging thing to do in this world, but one that would be necessary to reset our minds and allow us to tune into what is really happening to them. This sabbatical would be for however long you personally think you need a break for. Most people seem to be taking them for 30 days to give a solid break to your mind, but maybe a seven day sabbatical would be sufficient. For Steve Pavlina, a 30 day trial of no television led to a 60 day trial, and then further. A digital sabbatical may be as life changing for you as a digital life has had on you. 

Slow Steep

I am stealing this term from Gwen Bell who recently underwent her own digital sabbatical

In a normal day for a heavy internet user, they will check their email in the mornings and throughout the day, they will log into Facebook/MySpace at least once a day, check up on their Twitter feeds, and read their RSS subscriptions. It will usually be a loop of activity, going from one site to the next, or using an application like Seesmic or Brizzly to follow all the action in one spot.

With a slow steep, you slow the pace of your interactions with digital media. Perhaps you check your email in the mornings and then in the evenings, but not in between. You log into your social media sites every few days, and not daily. You use the power of “Mark All as Read” to eliminate the unread subscription posts and emails to clear your mind of them. If you come across something that captures your interest on the web, bookmark it and come back to it in a few days if you think of it again. Rather than attempt to respond to that article through a blog post or comment, let it sit in the back of your mind. If those thoughts are still there after a gestation period of at least a day, then respond to that post. 

I find myself shifting more towards a slow steep mentality when it comes to not only my reading, but also my writing. With Google Reader, I can use their tools to determine which feeds I read on a regular basis, and start eliminating the feeds I hardly ever read. I will also bookmark articles to read at a later time. I am not bothered by the fact that my bookmark folder of “To Read” is a list of 40+ links, and will purge that list in the coming days. With writing, I quickly jot out ideas in a task manager, then let it sit. When I have time in the evenings, I will look over that list of ideas and start to draft out a post if an idea really stands out. If I read one of my ideas and I’m not sure which direction I meant to take that idea in, I may either leave it on the list to think about or delete it right away. If a thought is no longer in my mind after a day, the thought is not truly important to me, and most likely won’t be of any interest to anyone else either. 

While a digital sabbatical is a huge leap of faith in believing you will be better off without all the interactions, a slow steep is a more methodical approach in weaning yourself off of the media. In time, the slow steep could be a branch of productivity to counter balance the Getting Things Done or the Pomodoro approach.