Tim's images

Happiness is Turning Off the Computer

— A computer that sleeps all weekend is a tiny bit of happiness —

Some months ago I watched an intriguing special on NHK (Japan’s national television broadcaster, like BBC in the U.K.) about a Tokyo design firm struggling to regain its vitality. computer_punch.jpgThe president, a guy in his late 50s or early 60s, decided his employees were spending too much time staring into computer screens and not enough time interacting face-to-face. He instituted a new rule: No more individual desktop PCs. Henceforth employees wanting to create files would have to get up from their stations, walk over to a special area, and complete digital tasks on shared-use computers. While at their own desks, they would work only with pencil, paper, and other analog tools—or confer with colleagues.

What do you think happened?

Morale and productivity soared, as designers rediscovered the power and joy of collaborating in person rather than swapping computer files and “conversing” via electronic Post-it notes. Workers were jolted out of “computer complacency”—the false sense of accomplishment achieved by constantly exchanging e-mails and endlessly fiddling with digitized designs. Hot, live, dialogue replaced silent messaging and passive monitor-gazing. The firm’s workplace was transformed.

I wouldn’t suggest that computers always drag down productivity. But let’s face it: The moment we sit down at a PC, we face a smorgasbord of time-wasting activities. A constant stream of incoming e-mail, mostly trivialities, creates an illusion of urgency, while social networking invitations, games, opt-in solicitations, and countless other distractions fairly overflow our screens, beckoning, as if to say, “c’mon, let’s goof off!”

The computer, of course, is a terrific bundle of tools. But like a 27-blade jackknife or Microsoft Word, when you open it up, most of the content is unnecessary or unimportant (last week I wrote about distinguishing between urgency and importance).

Years ago, like that president in the NHK special, I discovered the dark side of excessive computer use—and paid a price in health and happiness.carpal_pain.jpg Thanks to early and deep attention to computing and the Internet, my ship came in, so to speak, during the dotcom days. But in the meantime, years of constant work hunched over a keyboard and 20,000 keystroke-per day typing sessions steadily chipped away at body and spirit. Eventually, putting my hands to the keys became physically painful, then almost impossible. I discovered I had cubital tunnel syndrome (not carpal tunnel syndrome) in both arms. For the first time, I feared for a professional life so utterly dependent on keyboard/computer usage.

Meanwhile, I grew alarmed by a growing spiritual exhaustion brought on by too much PC time. Finally, I’d had enough. I’d reached a turning—make that a breaking—point.

First, I decided to work on the physical stuff. I’m a firm believer—along with a self-help guru whose name I can’t remember and will probably misquote—that it’s easier to behave yourself into a different way of feeling than feel yourself into different way of behaving. So for starters, I studied up on ergonomics, repetitive stress disorders, cumulative trauma, and nerve compression, then had surgery on my right elbow. I hired a transcriptionist to take the physical strain off my hands, then began using Dragon NaturallySpeaking voice recognition software. This literally saved my work life. For years now I’ve dictated everything I write, sometimes after penning it longhand (as with this post).

Next, I switched to pointing and clicking with both hands instead of just one, using a Wacom pen and tablet (wonderful!) on the right side and a traditional mouse on the left. I got an “expensive” high-quality office chair and a Nada Chair for traveling and outside work. Now I couldn’t get by without either. To reduce nerve compression during sleep, I gritted my teeth and invested $2,000 in a Tempur-Pedic bed (indispensable—geez, I wish these guys had an Affiliates program!). I recovered to the point where I could physically deal with a CPU-driven work environment.

Now it was time to deal with the psychic fallout. Apart from the physical problems, I’d found constant computer use dehumanizing enough to want to change careers. So, with my usual blend of foresight and business acumen, I went into … writing and teaching! Of course, I promptly discovered (what a surprise) that computers have taken over those occupations, too. What was I thinking?

Time to face facts: there’s no getting away from CPUs, no matter what you do for a living. Nonetheless, I find teaching and writing far more rewarding than helping large companies try to make more money. I’ve managed to cut way backsolo_spirit.jpg on computer usage—and reclaim my evenings and weekends in the bargain. I joined the International Institute for Not Doing Much. And to emphasize the analog even more, I’ve started a new policy: The PC stays off on Saturdays or Sundays. Like the Tokyo design firm, I find that working with pen, paper, and books jumpstarts productivity.

I realize my technology aversion was fueled by physical problems, and I don’t mean to imply that my way of dealing with it is for everyone (check a related post at Zen Habits). Heck, I really enjoyed computing in the pre-spam days, before the Internet was re-conceived as a marketing “platform” instead of a communications tool. Nevertheless, no one will be happier than me when this “digital” fad finally blows over and we can all go back to talking to each other with our voices and writing with pencils and paper like civilized people ;-).

Until that day, writing will be my soul shelter. Mark and I will post in our newly-renamed blog every Monday and Thursday, and these twice-weekly essays—and a PC that sleeps all weekend—will mean a bit of happiness to me. What pieces of life mean happiness to you?

Related posts:

Simplify, simplify!

A Moment of Fulfillment

Fulfillment: A Work in Progress

13 Comments to Happiness is Turning Off the Computer

On Jan 12, 2008, Amanda commented:

Love the new address/name/design…very cool.

Great article…thoughts along these lines have begun to creep in around the edges around here…The no PC weekend rule sounds brilliant (as I type this comment on Saturday afternoon)

On Jan 13, 2008, Dwight commented:

I work with my hands. My career was literally saved by an at-home massage program. http://www.aboutCTS.com.

I think you’re right about excessive computer use. I gave up TV because I thought computing was a better use of my time. Now, I don’t know. Maybe we should rediscover books?

On Jan 14, 2008, by Tim commented:

Thanks, Amanda– glad you’re as pleased with the new design as we are.

Well, it’s Monday and I have to admit I broke down on Saturday due to mistakes on the blog and problems with the feed. So Clark didn’t follow his own Rule! But Sunday was spent with the New York Times and the Oregonian, then in the park and the pool with the kids–wonderful!

Next weekend for sure…

On Jan 14, 2008, by Tim commented:

Dwight, thanks for the heads up about this product. This looks perfect for my wife.

I’m with you on books. Right now I’m reading Treasure Island with my kids. It’s wonderful to rediscover the classics (make that *discover*– I didn’t read that many when I was younger…)

On Jan 16, 2008, Dr. Ichtertz commented:

Cubital tunnel syndrome is unequivocally caused by prolonged static elbow flexion. This is almost exclusively a sign that you sleep with your elbows bent and your hands up by your face or overhead. See the scientific literature referenced and annotated on my website under bibliography.

On Jan 16, 2008, (by Tim) commented:

You are right about static elbow flexion. In my case exacerbating factors were 1) intense classical guitar practice, 2) resting elbows on couch arms, and 3) poor posture (with flexed elbows) while computing.

I don’t believe sleep posture was a factor, since the TempurPedic mattress provided a lot of relief even though my sleep posture didn’t change (I had already changed my sleep posture, used a Dutch wife, etc.; I think in my case compression of the ulnar nerve at the elbow arose from sleeping on my side on a conventional mattress, not from sleeping with the arms bent). In all this I was never diagnosed with carpal.

Thanks for joining us!

On Jan 20, 2008, ia play :: unproductive computers commented:

[…] a pleasingly contrary post for a blogger, Tim Clark, author of The Prosperous Peasant, writes that Happiness is Turning off the Computer “a guy in his late 50s or early 60s, decided his employees were spending too much time […]

On Aug 8, 2009, cathy commented:

“20,000 keystroke-per day typing sessions steadily chipped away at body and spirit.”

I think this is interesting. I do think the computer can sap your spirit. I know that many individuals recommend a paper and pencil for gratitude and other journals because the computer causes a disconnect. I know I can’t and have tried numerous online task and list services, only to use them once. I like my notebook.

On Aug 9, 2009, Michael Fletcher commented:

Great post the most striking thing for me was how hard it was for me to consider a computerless office when I started the reading. As someone struggling with some RSI problems myself I have to constantly remind myself to take it easy and find different ways of doing things. Ultimately the answer is just to be more organized and manage your computer for what it is a tool.

On Aug 9, 2009, by Tim commented:

There are lots of things you can do. As someone who has spent thousands and thousands of dollars on all kinds of devices and anti-RSI gizmos, some of which have been very helpful, experience has shown me that 1) using a voice input program such as Dragon NaturallySpeaking, and 2) trunk-strengthening and posture-improving exercise are the two most important antidotes to RSI problems.

On Mar 3, 2010, Rudy Mccloude commented:

I have read a few of the articles on your website now, and I really like your style of blogging. I added it to my favorites blog list and will be checking back soon. Please check out my site as well and let me know what you think.

On Feb 24, 2012, Leigh Donaldson commented:

This is a very inspirational article. As a writer struggling between journalism to make a meager living and fiction-writing, I have taken to writing as much of my more creative work in long-hand. In terms of the computer, I try to reserve it as a research tool more than a communication one. Recently, I ran across the phrase “information shrapnel” that, for me, really captures the essence of all the stuff that we find on the Internet.

On Feb 24, 2012, by Tim commented:

Wow, “information shrapnel” — scary!

I prefer longhand, too :-)

Thanks for stopping in, Leigh …

Leave a Reply

nourish your soul

RSS graphic

Enjoy FREE inspiration with the Soul Shelter RSS feed. Or have each new article delivered FREE to your inbox.

The Prosperous Peasant

Our book

The Prosperous Peasant
(Read a chapter for free)