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. The 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. 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 back 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?