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This post is part of my 2022 Word Project. You can read what that’s about here.

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

I started a new experiment. The experiment is simple: less screen time.

It started because my eyes are killing me. Everything I do all day is a screen and a screen a screen. I work, it’s a screen. I play games, it’s a screen. I exercise, it’s a screen. We watch TV, screen. Football, screen. Cook, screen. Write, screen. Look at photos, screen. Read, screen.

Lately everything feels blurry. It feel like there are little halos around my vision. I squint and blink and rub my eyes to no avail.

It is, frankly, starting to worry me.

It triggered a whole “I need to get off my phone” thing.

I don’t necessarily think I use it incessantly. I can sit at a dinner table without it, and I don’t need to bring it into the bathroom with me.

But it is habitual.

I didn’t feel like doing a digital detox or making a thing out of it, I just decided that for the sake of my eyeballs I was going to start looking less at a screen and more at the world.

At which point I realized that everything in my world is on a screen.

If I want to cook dinner, where are my recipes? Screen. If I want to make a cocktail, where are those recipes? Screen.

If I want to listen to music? Screen. Call my mother? Screen. Text my brother? Screen. Do a Peloton ride? Track my walking distance?

Work, blog, read, research, get directions, pay bills, learn, shop, make lists, all screen.

I sat down on my bed yesterday for a little while with no screens and tried to remember what it was like before I had one.

What did people do all day, without a computer or laptop or phone?

I didn’t even have a TV in my room until I went to college, so what did I do? What did I do all summer vacation?

How did I function without a screen telling me to make a left in 100 feet? Or which restaurant was open on Mondays?

When I got home from work and I walked into the house and put my school bag down, what happened next? There were no word games. There was no blogging. There was no Instagram.

I suppose I read books. Maybe put on a record. Maybe talked to actual people.

Maybe I sat there and sorted my collection of Little Twin Stars, I have no idea.

I existed, therefore I did something. I just don’t know what that was.

Maybe my house was cleaner. Hard to say.

Anyway, as I sat on the bed looking at the bare wall it irritated me that I couldn’t even think of how to exist without a screen. So I decided that without any fanfare I would figure it out.

And that lasted for like an hour. Because then I had to do my Wordle for the day. And a friend texted to make a date. And I needed the meatloaf recipe. And it was time to get on the bike.

I wasn’t going to write about this today but the universe conspired to make it be so, because this morning, apropos of nothing and without me mentioning a word about screen time, Ralph put on his aspiration list “spend one or more days with the phone off.”

Then later he shared an article about a town back in the day where women did the washing in the river until technology advanced sufficiently that they all got washing machines. This sounds like a great thing, until you find out that depression in the town rose exponentially. Because nobody was hanging out together doing their wash anymore. They were all in their houses alone.

So I feel like this topic has been following me around.

We worked at a new coffee shop in town today. It’s in a perfect location because when I need a break I can get up and stroll down the street and browse in the shops or just enjoy the fresh air and the scenery.

So I went for a walk around the block this morning – once without the phone, once with. And I have to say, I felt both terrifyingly naked and exhilaratingly liberated walking an entire block with no digital connection. I looked at the trees and the sky. I found a bird’s nest and a trunk that was split in half. I actually felt the sun on my skin and noticed the woman with three fluffy dogs.

When I brought the phone on my walk, my first thought was – I need to take a picture of that. But do I? Could I just appreciate it instead of documenting it?

When I brought the phone I actually had to stop myself from looking at it, not because there was anything there, but because I might have missed a message or an email. I didn’t look at the phone. But I had to consciously not.

It would be impractical for me to do the whole digital detox thing. I need my computer to earn a living, so even if I did nothing else I’d still be in front of one for the better part of a day.

And I’m certainly not going to the grocery store without my list. I suppose I could put it on paper but that’s not entirely practical either. I don’t want to become inefficient for the sake of less screen time. Screens have utility.

It’s where utility ends and compulsion begins that’s the problem. I did not need my phone for walking around the block. I mean, somehow I made it through more than half my life without one. So even if I did go to the grocery store with nothing but a piece of paper, I suspect I’d still make it home in one piece.

So I’m not making any sweeping statements or proclamations. I’m not detoxing or setting goals or rules. I’m just putting the screens down.

If I need a recipe I will pick it back up, but if I have two minutes between telling the barista “I’ll have a jasmine tea please” and when that tea shows up in front of me, I won’t give in to the compulsion to just do one level of my card game.

I may even try a few analog things.

Tonight I did a math problem on paper.

Maybe tomorrow I will write on paper again, too. It won’t be the most efficient thing because I can’t mail my blog to all three people who read it. But I wouldn’t mind writing on paper and then transcribing as an experiment. Maybe I’ll think of more interesting things to say. Maybe if my fingers aren’t racing away with my brain and I don’t have to backspace typos every three seconds, I will slow down to think about what I want to say.

I know it will be hard, I have tried it before. I’ve gotten so used to whanging out words on the keyboard that it is actually quite a bit more difficult to do it on paper. It’s a worthy challenge though. And I’m never as irritated as I am when I’m dealing with technology so maybe I’d actually calm down if I used it less.

Maybe I will even go to bed without a screen.

I used to read myself to sleep and now I fall asleep unscrambling words.

Ralph periodically says NO MORE PHONES IN BED! And that lasts a minute. I don’t know that I want to give up my phone in bed. I find the games relaxing. But it’s worth an experiment. It’s worth say, one night, to put the phone somewhere else and maybe even just be bored and stare at the ceiling.

Maybe I could actually think a full thought. Stranger things have happened.

I guess I will find out.

Tomorrow I am going to try out a notebook. I’m not going to belabor it, I’m just going to do it. And before I do the next thing on a screen I’m going to ask myself whether I need to. I’m going to ask myself if there is a screen-less option, a way to accomplish what I want to do if there wasn’t an app for that.

I bet there will be.

Screens aren’t going anywhere but it’s time to use them more intentionally. My eyeballs need a break. My brain needs a break. Maybe I’ll even figure out what I did with myself before they happened.

Photo: some new notebooks and pencils gifted to me by my friend Kaarina, inviting me to do something about them.