“All Zoomed out.” It’s a phrase I hear often lately. It describes the way a person feels after hours or days of Zoom meetings, fixated on a grid of faces, eyes saturated with blue light. I was feeling it myself for the first few weeks of our new homebound existence. Suddenly I was taking my Master of Social Work classes online, teaching voice lessons online, and replacing coffee dates with virtual coffee dates.
I talked about it with my mentor and friend Bill Redfield in early April. “All these video platforms are amazing tools, and I’m grateful we have them. Still, I get so worn out,” I told him. “My eyes are tired. I feel like I’m not in my body anymore. I feel fried after a couple hours of it.”
Bill cocked his head to one side. “Really? I don’t find that. I don’t see a screen—I see the person in front of me.” Bill has been using Zoom as a primary tool of his work for years. His comment prompted me to wonder, Is it possible to relate differently to this technology?
As I thought about it, I realized that I’ve spent years relating to technology as a necessary evil. I’ve used a laptop for ages, but I bemoan the burden of email and the time suck of social media. Pretty much all of my friends got smartphones before I finally caved in 2016. I pay lip service to the benefits of communication technology (I never want to seem ungrateful!), but part of me wonders if these devices demand more than they deliver.
It came down to this: I was spending hours using my laptop and my phone, but on an energetic level I was pushing them away. No wonder I felt exhausted.
So after my talk with Bill, I took a good look at my phone and my computer. There was nothing inherently bad about either of them. They were actually masterpieces: the results of extraordinary creative efforts made by countless brilliant individuals. And what incredible tools! I didn’t want to keep pushing them away.
Indeed, what if it wasn’t the devices I wanted to push away? What if I wanted to push away aspects of myself that the devices revealed?
- Fragmented attention. I’m working on writing a paper, and then I take a quick break to check my phone, and then a lengthy text prompts me to send an email, and then I see a different email that merits a timely response…you get the idea. It’s the “monkey mind” that so many spiritual teachers describe.
- Beleaguerment. I encounter a barrage of texts or open up a flooded email inbox and feel burdened rather than blessed by the ease of communicating with others.
- Compulsivity. I log into Facebook to reply to a message, and I find links to videos and articles friends have sent me, which include links to more videos and articles, and twenty minutes later I’m not even sure why I’m looking at Facebook. It’s not like there’s anything wrong with videos and articles – indeed, many of them are profound – but perhaps that’s the danger. If I don’t approach them with a clear intention, I feel swept away by forces beyond my control, and then I feel ashamed of “wasting time.” Even though what I did wasn’t wrong. I just wasn’t using my time consciously.
I began to wonder if I could turn the situation on its head and begin using my phone and laptop to strengthen different aspects of myself, the qualities I want to embody. I started developing habits and rituals to support my new intention.
- Morning care. Before I turn on my devices, I wipe them with isopropyl alcohol and polish their screens with a microfiber cloth. The regular cleaning ritual feels like a fresh start to the day…and it’s a good habit for the coronavirus era!
- As I turn on my laptop I say, “Help me discern my work for today.” I bring to mind the project that is the most important to me and start with that rather than succumbing to the pull of all the other stuff I feel I ought to accomplish.
- I (usually) wait to turn on my phone for a couple more hours, when it’s a good moment to pause my work. As I press the on button, I say, “May I communicate mindfully today.” I keep my ringer off most of the day so that I can consciously choose when to look at my phone rather than feeling like I must respond to each ding and ring immediately.
- I endeavor to close applications I’m not currently using. If I need to put aside my writing and focus on email, I close Word. The act of shutting down programs has helped me become more realistic about what I can accomplish in a day. I used to keep a bunch of applications open, thinking I’d get back to certain tasks later, yet I rarely would. In retrospect, I realize that keeping programs open added a subtle psychological weight to the day, the niggling feeling that I should be writing that paper despite the fact that I was engaged in other important work.
- Over the course of the day, whenever I close something, whether it’s a program or a tab on my browser, I say “thank you.” Sometimes it’s just a rote thing; other times I take a full breath (an inhale and an exhale!) to feel grateful for what I was able to do: order the birthday gift, pay the medical bill, check in on the friend.
- Most days, I turn off both phone and laptop before dinner. I slip the phone into my desk drawer and the laptop into my backpack. It’s nice to have them tucked away, out of sight and mind for 12 hours.
- I take one day a week – usually Sunday – as a sabbath from my phone and computer. I just don’t turn them on at all.
I am far from perfect at following the guidelines I’ve developed, and that’s fine. Every rule has exceptions. I’m curious to hear about habits that others choose; mine work for me but won’t work for everyone.
The underlying belief is that my devices are precious tools, and I get to choose how to use them. A circular saw in the hands of a novice produces very different results than a circular saw in the hands of a master carpenter. I want to hone my skills of intention and attention so that I can build elegant structures. Within those structures, I am finding new space for joy, creativity, and gratitude.