(For reading in Chinese, please scroll down to the end of the English text.)
(For international readers, allow me to explain: I am an American but I have lived in China since 2004. My city of Chongqing, often abbreviated as CQ, is pronounced Chong Ching to rhyme with Wrong Ring. CQ is a megacity of 30 million people in south-central China, on the Yangtze River. I’ve come a long, long way – 13 time zones to be exact – from my original home town of Rolla, Missouri, on the Little Dry Fork creek.)
After he retired, my father declared that he would not have a computer in his home. He could easily afford a computer and he was accustomed to using a computer in his office; those were not the main issue for him. He knew what the computer could do for him but Dad made the decision to live computer-free in his retirement years. He also owned a smartphone but it was used solely as a telephone. He wanted no text messages, no social media, no music, no email – the only feature he used was the telephone. For years after his retirement, his children repeatedly urged him and Mom to get a computer for their home. The kids offered to buy, install, and instruct our parents about how to send and receive emails and photos, find online music, social media, news, etc. – all to no avail. My father was adamant that he did not want a computer in his retirement life.
I recently made the statement that my computer is absolutely essential to my work. The computer and internet access are an integral part of my working routine. It would take much longer to complete things without them. True, humans got along for many centuries without computers. If necessary, we could go back to living without a personal computer. True, we could. People also managed to live without a car but you don’t see many people today who want to go back to the horse-and-buggy mode of transportation.
Channeling my father, I went on to say the computer, while being essential, is also my greatest single source of stress, distractions, and frustration. At that point, my wife became a little upset. As a traditional Chinese girl, she claims, “That’s my job.” (I wonder if she meant her job is to be indispensable… or to be the chief source of my stress, distractions, and frustration?) Okay, for the sake of domestic harmony, let my wife be Number One. The computer, then, is still indisputably Number Two.
Sometimes, after a particularly bad digital day, I think my father may have been right. I imagine how peaceful, pleasant, and simple it would be to live without a computer provoking blood pressure spikes in my life. But, speaking realistically, I do not have that luxury. I cannot choose a computer-free lifestyle. Such a choice would mean a sacrifice in productivity, availability, and access to the vast resources of the internet. We can visualize the young Ernest Hemingway in Paris. He takes his pencil and notebook and sits with a cup of coffee to write in a quiet café with the street sounds of that romantic city in the background. (Imagine an early version of Starbucks, but with no free wifi.) It may be a lovely image but it is difficult to justify actually living that way in our modern digital age. The price for that pencil-and-notebook lifestyle is too dear. The sacrifices are too great.
Good or bad, the dependency issue is settled. The computer/no-computer lifestyle question is no longer under discussion. My father may have lived computer-free but I cannot. Therefore, let’s explore what might be done to reduce the stress and frustration that inevitably accompany the use of a computer.
I recently began a 100-day project of simplifying and reinventing myself. No, I did not run away from home to join a drift voyage across the Pacific. I have too many commitments; I could not abandon my responsibilities. However, I began a serious review of my behaviors and values – and I didn’t like some of what I saw. Don’t misunderstand me; much of my life is good. Most people around the world would envy me. Still, I found that I wasn’t satisfied. Why not? Further self-examination provided some answers. Perhaps they will be true for you also.
The essence of my self-enlightenment was the realization that digital life was too intense. I have often said that our human body is not designed for the load of stimulation and decision-making that is part of living in the modern era. Even on those (very rare) days when all my devices were functioning properly and my internet connections stayed connected, I was constantly being asked to update apps, choose a new password, answer security questions, respond to text and voice messages, provide additional details, and check for the email someone just sent with a new link to click. The more you use the computer and the internet, the deeper down the rabbit hole you go. Does this sound familiar? Are you also trapped in a similar love/hate codependency with your digital devices?
Did you ever, at the end of a long computer session, turn off the computer, slump back in your chair, and feel like a pilot who had just safely landed a plane under dangerous conditions? When I looked at the big picture, I saw that working on the computer, like flying a plane, was inherently stressful because of the intensity. Plus, even on the good days, added to the normal intensity was an irreducible minimum of confusion, frustrations, and distractions.
There was a second issue: More time spent in front of a computer screen meant less time available for non-digital activities. If I wasn’t spending my days slaving over a hot keyboard, I would have more time for non-digital activities. I might bake a lovely loaf of bread and fill the house with that wonderful aroma when it came out of the oven. Or I could walk away from the computer to escape with a book about other times, people, and places. Or exercise: Get outdoors and go for a walk. Or do routine maintenance tasks around the house. Or I could do some puttering: Clean and organize the mild-to-acute chaos of my office. I might even – dare I say it? – take an afternoon off and go fishing.
After looking at my situation objectively, there really wasn’t much to debate. I decided that quality of life was more important than mere productivity with the emphasis on efficiency and output. Therefore, I resolved to set a daily limit (X hours) for how much time I spent in front of a screen. When those X hours are completed, I will walk away from the computer until the next day.
But… this led to a further conclusion: If I was going to reduce the number of hours I spent at my desk, I must begin prioritizing more carefully. “If I am going to spend only X hours each day in front of my computer, what should I be working on during those X hours?”
The solution I chose was to select a few projects which required the computer and make a list of them on a monthly calendar*. Such a printed list allows me to see at a glance if I am consistently working on those things I have chosen as my most important digital activities. Accordingly, I resolved to begin planning my days around the high-value projects as much as possible. Now, in addition to all the little tasks and maintenance activities – I call them routine emergencies – clamoring for my attention, I can look at my list of high-value projects when I create and prioritize my day’s to-do list.
Obviously, there are some things that simply must be done or the negative consequences will be significant. We must get the kids to school, clean up the kitchen, and go grocery shopping; I recognize that. Here’s the problem: those routines and trivial activities can easily expand to take up our entire day. (The professional term is “mission creep”.) While you deal with the laundry, you are not free to spend time on those higher-value activities which you chose.
I decided that those high-value projects would make greater contributions to my happiness in the future than putting away the laundry or its equivalent tasks. I want to do at least one baby step each day in every project. If I can complete one step on each project every day, I will maintain momentum and keep them on top of my conscious mind when I am listing my to-do tasks for the next day. Thus, those big projects will finally get done. It’s all about prioritizing. We must make time for the long-term goals in addition to the immediate domestic demands.
Nobody ever said that achieving a high quality of life was going to be easy. It requires thinking to prioritize and execute tasks. It requires admitting that there isn’t enough time in the day for everything… so we must give up some things. Do you think that Albert Einstein or Isaac Newton said, “I have to clean the dishes and go shopping before I can sit down at my desk and do my work?” Those brilliant gentlemen had a clear grasp of what was most important. Somehow, the laundry in their lives got done… but not at the expense of creating ideas that benefited all humanity.
But, ultimately, aren’t high-value contributions to ourselves, our family, our company, or our community what we all want? Could this have been what my father was thinking when he declared his retirement years to be a computer-free zone? What important, high-value projects have you been deferring so you could put away the laundry? When will you begin taking at least a baby step in your high-value activities each day? Enough baby steps complete a journey. Is there a good reason why you cannot start today?
* To get a free, printable chart with lines for each project and a separate column for each day of the month, go to Marcreklau.com or send me an email at email@example.com.
还有第二个问题。花在电脑屏幕前的时间越多，就意味着可用于非数字活动的时间越少。如果我不是整天对着热乎乎的键盘发呆，我就会有更多的时间从事非数字活动。我可能会烤一个可爱的面包，当它出炉时，满屋子都是那美妙的香气。或者我可以远离电脑，拿着一本关于其他时间、人物和地点的书来逃避。或者是运动。到户外去走一走 或者在家里做一些日常的维护工作。或者我可以做一些推杆运动。清理和整理我办公室里轻度到急性的混乱。我甚至可以–我敢说吗？- 我甚至可以–我敢说吗–请一个下午的假去钓鱼。