Striking a Balance With Technology

Photo: Anita Ritenour

Photo: Anita Ritenour

When my sister spent a year studying abroad in Iceland in 1993, we had little contact with her. We spent a lot of money to call each other occasionally on a land line that hummed and cracked, and we wrote letters, which took weeks to make it from the Colorado mountains to her new home on the Arctic Circle.

That experience would be radically different today. We could email, text, or Facebook each other. My sister could blog. We could video chat with her.

That’s an astonishing transition when you think about it.

The technological progress we’ve seen in the last two decades – the Internet, digital cameras, mobile phones, streamed videos – is dizzying. I’m in unabashed love with so much of it. Even amidst the marketing and spam, some days Twitter feels like a giant free-form university with intelligent people from all sectors of life zipping information back and forth and bantering about ideas. I get giddy when I discover an interesting academic, thinker, or activist and find dozens of their interviews and lectures online. And the revolution that e-readers and tablets are bringing to publishing and academia is exhilarating.

This is an exciting time to be alive.

And yet, the amount of time we (and our children) spend interfacing with gadgets and screens makes me uneasy, and I know many people share my angst. Recently a blogger lamented that she’s contemplating ditching her iPhone, because it’s eating too much of her time, and dozens of her readers divulged that they’re feeling the same way.  The same week a Lifehacker post and a Harvard Business Review article warned that our smart phones might be dumbing us down. Then a large study came out, finding that one in three people feel envious, lonely, frustrated or angry when visiting Facebook.

Despite its connecting powers, our technology often seems to disconnect us. It can encourage us to ignore our family and friends to engage with a group of folks we hardly know. And it can swindle hours that we may have once spent in nature, or moving, reading, writing, or making art.

I imagine most people, like me, are constantly trying to find a balance with family, work, creativity, and the distracting allure of our gadgets and screens.

I try to ask myself questions from time to time. How much and what types of technology help me be present with my friends and family? Stay intellectually stimulated? Focus on the things that matter? Conversely, which activities and gadgets make me feel distracted and unhappy, steal my focus with my kids and my work, and distract me from the creative projects that make me feel more alive.

I’ve yet to find a perfect balance. But I’ve come up with a handful of ways to be more intentional about the way I spend my time, and that’s helped me  make peace with my angst about technology.  Here are a few of the tricks I’m using right now to try to let in the gifts of the information age, while keeping out the less than happy side effects that so often sneak in with them.

  • A digital sunset and a weekly digital sabbatical

We usually turn the computers and gadgets off around six, so we can eat together and wind down for bed. And we devote Sunday to family day. It’s usually a lazy day, with leisurely hikes, library trips, afternoon naps – and no computers. In other words, it’s everyone’s favorite day of the week, and it’s incredibly restorative.

  • Not-so-smart phones

The truth is, I don’t really need Google on the go, because most of the time I’m home near my trusty desktop. (Yes, desktop. It’s like those archaic days of the early 2000s around here.) So far, I’ve survived without apps and GPS. And while we’re out and about, I’m able to focus on these quickly disappearing days when my kids are little and say and do curious and hilarious things. I have a feeling I will have to renegotiate this one in the future, but for now my not-so-smart phone offers more than enough distraction.

  • A television-lite life

We have an old-fashioned TV that we hardly turn on, except for mid-afternoon episodes of Dora and Diego for four-year-old Ezra, who is a huge fan. (We’ve found a trick to allowing  a little bit of TV and avoiding the cajoling, begging, and tantrums that can come with it: we allow a certain amount at a certain time of the day, and we stick with PBS shows on DVD or Roku to skip advertisements.) As for the adults in the house, we enjoy a few shows, but we have little time to actually watch them in this season of our lives.

  • Pen and paper

This groundbreaking technology allows you to write or jot down notes, without allowing you to click over and watch cute kitten videos on Youtube. One trick I’ve learned: when you get the urge to Google something or message or email someone, write it down. During a designated computer time, scan your list and decide what you really need to attend to. This  practice can improve your focus and be a huge boon to your productivity.

  • Quiet

As my kids get older, I’ve found that background noise – radio, podcasts, or music – makes it difficult for me to be an engaged parent. I listen to a podcast for an hour a day, and we sometimes listen to music in the afternoons. Other than that, I shut off all the background noise when I’m at home with the kids, and I’m astounded by how much happier and focused that makes all of us.

  • Slow blogging and a social networking diet

Like its cousin Facebook, this blog can devour hours of my already spare work time. That’s why I’ve transitioned to a less frequent posting schedule (generally once  a week on Mondays). And although I read and reflect on and appreciate every single comment you leave in this space, I don’t always have the time to respond to each of them. Likewise I only go on Facebook for a few minutes a few times a week. And I tweet four days a week for a half hour or less. I’m mostly okay with less blogging and social networking, because it means I get to spend more time in the here and now. And that feels like a good balance right now.

I’m curious, how do you feel about technology? Have you devised ways to be intentional with it? Have you found a good balance? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

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About Abby Quillen

Abby Quillen writes fiction and magazine articles. Her articles and essays have appeared in YES! Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, Colorado Central Magazine, and on Common Dreams, Nation of Change, Reader Supported News, The Daily Good, Truthout, and Shareable.net. You can find more of her writing at http://abbyquillen.com.

Comments

  1. My twin brother has been studying in Chile for the last six months (I live in the UK), and although I really appreciate being able to skype, facebook, and e-mail, I was most excited when he sent a postcard! It was only a few lines, but it was really lovely to see his squiggly handwriting and hold something that he’d held recently. I think that, in small doses, technology can enhance life and make things a little easier, but most of life’s best bits happen off screen.

    • Abby Quillen says:

      I know what you mean! The value of a handwritten letter is huge these days. “Most of life’s best bits happen off screen.” I love that.

  2. Hurray for balance. I love the way you extract from technology what improves your lives but keep it from running them. Sharing!

  3. We, too, strive to keep a balance with technology and the real world. Your ideas are great, and you really touched on the key, which is focused intention. When we (individually) are so out there in the virtual world that we don’t know what is going on around us, bring awareness to that and make changes accordingly. Behavior will align itself with intent. Set intention, and our mind will do the rest. :-)

    • Abby Quillen says:

      So true. Intention and mindfulness change everything, which means, of course, that they’re deceptively tricky to master.

  4. Great post! 2 weeks ago I deactivated my Facebook. I suppose I could have just stopped going, but the act of actually deactivating it prompted me to keep myself off of it more. Last night I finally reactivated it and found myself less interested in it as I was. It’s a great tool for keeping in touch with my distant family and some friends, but I think it’s a wise idea to also cut down to just those that are kept in contact with most frequently. This idea seems cruel to some, but I am a firm believer in that you only have so much energy that you can put out there, and it’s difficult to split yourself up among 150+ people. Have you ever heard of the term “monkey sphere”?

    Wise idea about writing down what you want to look up and staying productive rather than going to look for the answer right away! Far too often I will be hanging out with my friends and I look around to see everyone eyes deep in their phones. I have a smart phone but the only app I use is a great alarm clock that forces one to do basic math to turn off their alarm. It’s the only thing that wakes me up and in that way technology can be beneficial. =)

    • Abby Quillen says:

      I love that you’ve found a way to use technology to help wake you up. It’s really all about how we use it, isn’t it? I’m curious about why you decided to take a break from Facebook. I find that I feel the most ambivalent about that social network for some reason. There’s really so much good about it, but like you, I always find it refreshing and instructive to step away for awhile. You might enjoy Karen Maezen Miller’s thoughts on this: http://www.karenmaezenmiller.com/the-appetite/
      .

  5. Abby,

    Interesting thoughts. I have such mixed feelings. We too don’t have smart phones or apps or GPS. I have such gratitude that I came of age before cell phones and the internet. I can imagine how much time and importance I would have devoted to facebook in high school when my social life was my world.
    And also, I am grateful for the connections I’ve made via the internet and my blog. I’ve learned about a more sane style of parenting than what is being discussed directly in my community parenting circles. I’ve made friends who, though I don’t get to hang with face-to-face, feel like Real Friends, offering real support and community.
    And yet, I want my kids to know the “real world” first. I want them to fall in love with nature, and pen to paper, and face to face relationships, and play that involves bodies not a video game joystick (surely they’re not called joy sticks anymore!).
    It’s really important to think about, isn’t it? I mean our kids are the first generation being raised with such non-stop, immediate access to information, entertainment and media.

    xo
    Rachel

    • Abby Quillen says:

      Such wise thoughts, as usual, Rachel. I too am infinitely grateful for all of the connections and inspiration I’ve gotten from this blog and others (especially yours, where I’ve learned so many fabulous things – dandelion pesto, seriously!). You’re right, the support and community we gain from the virtual world is very real. That’s probably why I’m endlessly struggling to balance my virtual life with the here and now. Joy sticks . . . I love it! My husband tells me they’re called gaming controllers these days.

  6. connie.n.w. says:

    You’re a great writer. You have an ease and confidence in you that seems to flow very easily in your post. I, too, have the continuous conflict of what’s too much or too little in regards to social media. Thank you for this post. :-)

  7. My husband and I promise to each other to only get that technology we Need to get by in this world. So far, I have a desktop, he has a laptop, we have regular cell phones – and a pocket size digital camera. No smart-phones, tablets, GPS . . . It’s amazing but yes, we manage to live pretty normal lives without all the added stuff!

  8. This was a great article that I had “starred” in my Google Reader, as it is a topic that I have been contemplating for awhile – especially now that I have a family. I just read yesterday about the National Day of Unplugging coming up next week and decided to take the challenge. Having decided that, it was great to reread this article. I have been reading your blog for some time now and have always enjoyed it. Thank you.

  9. Good article and true. So often we do not even come to self awareness and examine the pace and content of our lives, much less consider the role and impacts of technology – and we need to do both. Every family’s answers will be different and the answers may change at different seasons of our lives. Thanks for the post. -@KDCoppes

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