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Fixing a Broken Work Model

pc.jpgTry as I might, I still spend too much time in front of the computer. I’m an Internet junkie. Even though most of what filters in each day is unimportant, it’s hard to resist “handling” it. E-mail is like fishing: you just might get a bite—or even catch a whopper.

Though 95% of what confronts us online is unnecessary, unimportant, irrelevant, or at most, entertaining, it somehow feels like work. So we “do” it.

Here’s the problem: Most of it’s not real work. It’s busywork, or make-work, or distracted play. It’s dependence on false urgency. How many professions really require one to sit in front of a computer all day long? Could any work posture be less creative, less inspiring, or more isolating?

Realizing something was fundamentally wrong, last month I decided to travel for eight days straight without once checking e-mail or doing any other computing. The experience convinced me that my premise of sitting down in front of a computer every morning with the intention of doing productive work is irretrievably broken. And if it’s broken for me, there’s a good chance it’s broken for millions of other so-called white collar workers.

The moment of clarity came on an Easter Sunday morning as I descended to the lobby of the Marriott Fairfield in Ann Arbor, Michigan. From a huge wall-mounted flat screen television, a commercial touting vitamins blared. This was followed by a continuous stream of embarrassing CNN sludge; uninspired attempts to create news “stories” by pitting personalities one against another.tv.jpg

No one else was in the lobby, and I wanted to read, so I looked for the television remote control, and finding none, asked the receptionist to mute this soul-damaging noise (I left out the “soul-damaging” part of the request).

Blessed silence. I read peacefully for a solid hour and a half, looking up occasionally at the soundless television screen to realize I was missing absolutely nothing of importance. Without sound the sludge was harmless.

At that moment in my computer-free week I suddenly understood the solution: Turn it off. Sitting in front of a PC to work now seemed as foolish as watching CNN in order to learn something important about the world.

I departed the lobby, and returning six hours later found the television sound still muted (it was, I choose to think, a demonstration that the absence of television audio improves the ambience of any room). Ads for the erectile dysfunction nostrum Cialys were alternating, somehow appropriately, with more CNN “news.”

clipboard_with_pens1.jpgWhat is a computer? For me, and for most regular schleps, it is primarily a recording device. We enter text, conduct research, revise text, manipulate spreadsheets, create presentations, update Web sites and blogs, write programs, execute designs, do accounting, and so forth.

But we’re basically creating files of things we’ve presumably thought about before sparking up our CPUs. After all, musicians do not wake up and hit the “record” button on their multitrack machines for six hours straight. They practice, compose, collaborate, and rehearse before arranging recordings. Should the less musical among us differ in how we approach our crafts?

Consider how one should arrange a work area. A woodworker’s shop has a bandsaw, drill press, and other specialized tools, carefully placed to maximize productivity, safety, and comfort. Similarly, computers should contain neatly arranged word processing, spreadsheet, and other programs.

But what craftsman would mix tools and games in his workspace? Who would place a television and magazine rack in the middle of his shop, install a foosball game between the drill press and lathe, move a pool table next to the bandsaw?computer_punch.jpg

Yet the computer—the most important worktool of the twenty-first century—has become precisely that: a bottomless repository of time-wasting, thought-numbing activities and games, each eager to engage the easily-distracted mind in some trivial task, CNN screaming at us uninvited.

Check e-mail? Sure—it’ll only take a minute. Allow that Adobe update? Why not? While we’re at it, might as well peek in on the blog, read a little news, accept that Facebook invitation, forward that joke, monitor the ol’ portfolio …

The computer is a tool for fixing thoughts in digitized format (and for viewing others’ thoughts in digitized formats). As such, it hardly requires five or seven hours per day of our attention.

pens1.jpgIsn’t it more reasonable—and more soul-affirming—to spend our hours in analog mode, thinking and talking and drawing and writing? Then, when we have a draft worth recording, to do so in the briefest possible time?

You may say “but I think better when I type.” I doubt it. You’re probably just more used to thinking while typing. You’ll probably accomplish more by exiting your cubicle or leaving the house.

Eight joyous days of setting not a single finger to keyboard taught me three lessons. Here they are, with resolutions derived therefrom (incidentally, I fully appreciate the irony of publishing this in a blog, and can only say it went through three paper drafts with manual redlining first, minimizing the number of pixels …er, viewed—in its production):

  • The least creative, least productive, most isolating work posture is also the most familiar: facing a monitor astride a comfy office chair.

No more reflexively turning on the computer first thing every morning. That routine stopped April 1, 2008. I plan to spend less and less time at my computer.

  • Thinking, planning, and drafting are the priority work tasks

Now, each day starts with a blank sheet of paper, a pen, and careful balancing of what’s important against what’s merely urgent. Thoughtfully, mindfully, I will carefully hand-draw, hand-letter paper drafts of each Next Step, my WIRU master list at hand. A cup of tea or coffee helps.

  • Paper and pen—not PC—are the tools for the job

clipboard.jpgSee that non-pixellized clipboard? Add paper and pen, in an offline environment that encourages fresh thinking—the library, a coffee shop—at the very least the dining room table. Somewhere without distractions (a wise man once advised that we should not read too much, lest we forget how to think for ourselves).

A mind at rest, a body at ease on the sofa. Creativity on, CPU off. Thoughts self-generated, not borrowed from others. Then, after confirming the Important and sketching drafts on paper—then and only then—will I reach around the wooden desk surface, reluctantly hit the CPU’s “on” button, activate that electronic wonderbox, and strive to record the useful.

See also:

Happiness is Turning Off the Computer

Want to Achieve Your Goal? Avoid E-Mail!

The Four-Letter Question for 2008: WIRU

11 Comments to Fixing a Broken Work Model

On Apr 10, 2008, Patrick commented:

Seems like good advice, and a good reminder too, as I’ve been sitting here at my computer for over 5 hours straight now (this is after getting home from work).

I also do online courses for school, that only adds to the computer time.

But I write a blog as well, and my best ideas always come when I’m away from the screen (thanks for reminding me of that). So I’ve learned to keep pen and paper handy, so that I can “catch” those post ideas when they manifest.

I think there are other ways to shift gears as well when working online, like eliminating distractions and putting on ambient trance music (love that stuff). A shower or a meal is always a useful interruption for me as well, and allows me to return to the computer “fresh” again. Sometimes there is just more work to be done online, no way around it……

On Apr 11, 2008, Chris Guillebeau commented:

Hey Tim, inspiring as always. I also spend far too much time doing nothing of value here at the computer. It’s probably my worst work habit and I’m trying to change it.

For me I find that if I can keep the Firefox button and general internet stuff away, then I can write just fine with the laptop. But when I get online, productivity drops by a million percent. Or something like that. :)

On Apr 11, 2008, by Tim commented:

Patrick, I used the word “junkie” somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but as an expert in addiction (your Spiritual River site is terrific) let me ask you: Is there such a thing as Internet (or computer use) addiction?

You’re right—it’s a digital world, and not computing is not an option. Therein lies the struggle for balance …

On Apr 11, 2008, by Tim commented:

Thanks for the kind words, Chris. I’ve got a potential solution for you that I’ll post about soon (I can’t use it myself because I need to use Dragon NaturallySpeaking for all my writing). Maybe Dell or one of the other big makers should sell Web-disabled PCs!

Following Patrick’s advice, going to take a shower now :-)

On Apr 11, 2008, Dwight commented:

I’m kind of amazed at how much time the computer sucks from my life. My work doesn’t even involve computers, but I feel compelled to check a dozen blogs and news sites every day just to make sure I don’t miss anything of value. Then, I miss experiences of real value because I’m sitting at the computer.

So, I’ve deleted a bunch of RSS feeds from my computer. I’m keeping yours because you only write when you have something to say rather than trying to post every day. The same thing is true of Chris’s blog.

I’ll still look at Wisebread and read a few of my favorite bloggers, but not every single post by every single blogger….

Yesterday, I bought a journal made of real paper! Google Documents seems like a more logical place to journal, but it just wasn’t the experience I wanted.

(I haven’t made it to the desert yet, but will read Mark’s novel as soon as I do.)

On Apr 11, 2008, by Tim commented:

Thanks for keeping Soul Shelter on your list, Dwight. Believe me, one post a week is all I can handle (ideas aplenty, yes, but execution is a different animal).

Before we started the blog, Mark and I thought hard about our posting frequency, and I think we hit it exactly right (and maxed out) on the first try. I can speak for both of us when I say that the probability our posting frequency will increase beyond twice weekly is exactly zero.

I envy your non-computing vocation. One of my goals is to compute less and less, at work and off. Like you, I prefer reading on paper. The book still far surpasses the Internet as man’s greatest invention, in my view (that sounds like a post thread).

We look forward to tales from your desert journey.

On Jun 28, 2008, Lenny Grosso commented:

You certainly have some provacative and inspiring words. Maybe I’m in denial, and I will try bringing your ideas into my workplace, but I manage several projects at any time. Those thoughts from yesterday are extrapolated and ‘recorded’ on my PC. I really need to review those plans, tempered with possible urgent interrupts from the phone & email, in order to prioritize the day.
Maybe I should create tomorrow’s one page hand done plan the night before!

On Aug 5, 2008, HIB commented:

Hey Tim,

I am a first time visitor to you blog and I really enjoyed this post I’ll be sure to check out the rest of your site or maybe I won’t based on the suggestion of this post. :)

On Oct 28, 2008, Alyssa commented:

Well written article.

On Jan 7, 2009, Monevator commented:

I spent two weeks away from a computer after about 365 12 hour days from 2006-2007. I can honestly say being away from the PC was like walking on the moon — in a good way. It felt weightless.

Alas I’m being to my 10 hour screen days again now. The perils of starting your own business! :)

On Jan 7, 2009, by Tim commented:

Well, er, welcome back … and welcome to the place where we use our computers to complain about computing :-)

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