"Screen poisoning" is what I call an illness that sets in when I've been spending too much time in front of my computer and engaged with my phone.
Symptoms include physical complaints such as:
- Dry eyes
- Strained vision
- Shoulder and/or neck pain
- Feeling drained
And mental difficulties like:
- Being easily distracted
- Fractured attention span
- and... I can't remember what else
As a novelist, I often spend 8 hours a day in front of my computer. I go home and then can squeeze in another hour of so answering emails on my phone. Sometimes I find myself checking out of moments with my kids to check my emails or texts. During the election – and the fallout thereafter – I had a really bad case of screen poisoning. I found I was spending hours a day on Facebook, in addition to all my other daily screen time. I decided to fight back.
I began a series of experiments -- how could I change my behavior regarding my computer and my phone to decrease my overall screen time? Would making these changes have an effect on my mental and physical well-being?
Experiment #1: I ditched social media, by accident.
I was simply trying to make my phone less sexy, okay? I wanted to stop picking it up all the time. So I took Facebook and Twitter off my phone. I was shocked by the difference this made. For one thing, it revealed to me how often I was turning to my phone for stimulation, because without FB and Twitter, there was hardly anything to do on my phone! I’d pick it up, open it, see I had no new emails or messages then just… set it down again.
I wasn’t consciously trying to go off FB and Twitter, but I found that a few weeks went by without me checking in at all. And… I loved it. I didn’t miss posting or reading my friends’ posts – and my FB friends, well, they don’t seem to miss me! I’ve received exactly one email from a friend saying they noticed I hadn’t been posting on FB – and that one was just to make sure I was doing okay.
Now, my husband had ditched FB a year ago, and he’d been telling me to make the jump, but I had held on. For one thing, there’s an expectation that Young Adult novelists will have awesome and engaging social media feeds. I’ve kept up my Instagram account because I love posting photos and looking at other people’s photos, so I’ve still got that one. I guess it’s too early to say if this will negatively impact my career as a YA novelist. We’ll have to see, my friends, but I tell you – I saw a definite boost in my mental and physical well-being from dropping FB and Twitter.
Experiment #2: I went analog for my daily to do list.
I’ve been using ToDoist for years now to track my daily tasks, and while I like it – it was adding to my screen time in a big way.
I had seen ads (yes, on Facebook), for a premium journal called a Self Journal. It claimed to be “A simple yet powerful daily planner to help you optimize your day, tackle your goals, and be happier.”
These promises seemed a bit of a reach, but I was delighted to find that the journal has helped me do just what it says. It’s just a nice daily planner, but it’s laid out in a way that helps you to structure your time. It also has some nice, morale boosting elements planned in – you write down three things you are grateful for in the morning and there are nice, peppy quotes sprinkled throughout.
The biggest gift the journal has given me is a strange concept – to give my every working minute a job. In the morning, the first thing I do it sit with my journal. I sort my available hours into blocks, and tackle the most important work first. Before I started using this, I would sit down at my desk and answer emails for a couple of hours. The emails would have a bunch of mind-draining questions and I’d have to go get information and write it up nicely, etc, etc. in order to answer them all! Exhausting. After doing emails, I would then turn to my writing!
I was putting everyone’s requests in front of my own work.
Zoinks! Once I saw this pattern, I knew I had to stop it.
Now I make sure the first two-hour block goes to writing. Then I do other tasks, have lunch and resume for another one to two-hour writing block in the afternoon. It’s working so beautifully for my book, but you know what happens sometimes? ...I don’t get to all my emails.
At first, this made me panicky. I’ve always prided myself on being a fast email responder, turning them all around within a matter of hours. Now I had become someone who didn’t get back to people… sometimes until the next day! (Just to be totally transparent here – I still answer professional emails toot suite, as well as ones from my mom and dad!) I’ve found that, again, no one really complained about me slacking off in this area.
Does working with a paper journal impact my mental health? Yes! I really like checking things off in the journal. And I find the moments of reflection it encourages boost me up. It has an area on each page for you to write goals – they can be lifetime goals, daily goals, monthly – whatever you want.
Here are some goals I’ve written down over the last few weeks:
Get a writing residency and write edgy, crazy sci fi short stories. Love exercise again. Let go of perfectionism. Draw more with Rex. Learn to speak with a Norwegian accent and pitch yourself as the narrator for the audio book edition of Berserker.
Are those fun to read? They sure were fun to rite...
Experiment #3: I started writing wirelessly.
I rent a lovely office in Nyack, NY. I like my office. It has some great art in it, and photos of my friends and family. I have a fancy sit/stand desk and an ergonomic chair. I work well in my office, but I’d found that I often got more writing done when sitting in cramped, uncomfortable places, like cafes and on airplanes. Why was this?
Part of it, I reasoned, was connectivity. With my giant, gorgeous iMac, surfing the web is a constant temptation. There are also books to distract me in my office, and a stack of bills sitting on the desk, waiting for my attention (they’re staring at me right now).
I had long had my eye on the FreeWrite, basically a fancy typewriter that backs up your writing to the cloud, but can’t surf the web. But the $500 price tag, was a bit prohibitive for a productivity experiment. Then I found someone online mention a similar, but much cheaper device: the Neo 2 by Alphasmart.
The Neo 2 is a word processor that looks like a keyboard, and has a small screen where your typing shows up – a screen like one you’d find on an old calculator. I bought one for $40 off Amazon and it is my pride and joy.
You just write on this thing. You don’t edit. You can’t cut and paste. You certainly don’t flit off to do online research. Every once in a while, you plug it into your computer and open a Word file. Then you press send and it types your work into the document. It’s basically a big, portable keyboard that saves up your words then spews them out onto a computer file when you’re ready.
Has it improved productivity? Yep. Morale? Triple yep – I get such a kick out of how flat-out weird it is. And it makes for good conversations.
It turns out that I get more written in a Starbucks, on a dorky word processor, than I do in my comfy office with my ergonomic keyboard.
This newsletter has turned out to be a very long one, but heck, if you’ve read this far you must be enjoying it so here are some resources that helped me in my experiments. I highly recommend all of these:
Deep Work by Cal Newport
The Big Disconnect by Catherine Edd Steiner-Adair
Daily Rituals by Mason Currey
Four Simple Habits To Take Back Control from Time Well Spent
Do You Have Email Apnea? by Linda Stone
That's it, my dear friends!
Sending lots of love and best wishes for your digital sanity,