Reboot or Die Trying
A star political blogger for Grist.org, David Roberts spent so much time posting and Tweeting and staring at screens that he almost went nuts. So he pulled the plug for a year, restarting his relationship with technology and actively seeking health, balance, and adventure in the real world. What he learned just might save you from meltdown.
One night, late in the summer of 2012, discussion at my dinner table turned to the venerable topic of What to Be When You Grow Up. My older son, Griffin, then nine years old, wanted to be an “underwater paleontologist.” His little brother, Huck, then seven, wanted to be a monkey.
“Do you know what I do for a living?” I asked Huck.
His eyes grew wide. “All you do is sit on your computer and say, ‘Blah blah blah Congress, blah blah blah Mitt Romney’!”
We all—OK, mostly my wife—got a big laugh out of that. For my birthday that year, she and the boys gave me a print emblazoned with Blah Blah Blah. It’s hanging in my office.
Huck was not wrong. At the time, I was a journalist covering climate-change politics for a nonprofit Seattle news site called Grist. I’d been with Grist almost ten years, and as my job had transitioned into full-time writing, I’d lived through—indeed, built a career on—the rise of blogging, social media, and hyperspeed news cycles. By the end of 2012 I was, God help me, a kind of boutique brand, with a reasonably well-known blog, a few cable-TV appearances under my belt, and more than 36,000 Twitter followers.
I tweeted to them around 30 times a day, sometimes less but, believe it or not, gentle reader, sometimes much more. I belong to that exclusive Twitter club, not users who have been “verified” (curse their privileged names) but users who have hit the daily tweet limit, the social-media equivalent of getting cut off by the bartender. The few, the proud, the badly in need of help.
It wasn’t just my job, though. My hobbies, my entertainment, my social life, my idle time—they had all moved online. I sought out a screen the moment I woke up. I ate lunch at my desk. Around 6 p.m., I took a few hours for dinner, putting the kids to bed, and watching a little TV with the wife. Then, around 10 p.m., it was back to the Internet until 2 or 3 a.m. I was peering at one screen or another for something like 12 hours a day.
From my perspective, that time involved a dazzling variety of activities: reading, blogging, gossiping, shopping, listening to music, watching movies. But from Huck’s perspective, I only ever did one thing: sit on my computer. Maybe he had a point.
It wasn’t always this way. There was a time—it seems prehistoric now—when I started the workday by “getting caught up.” I’d go through my e-mail, check a few websites, and start on the day’s new tasks. By mid-2013, there was no such thing as caught up; there was, at best, keeping up. To step away from e-mail, news feeds, texts, chats, and social media for even a moment was to allow their deposited information to accumulate like snow in the driveway, a burden that grew every second it was neglected.
I spent most of my daytime hours shoveling digital snow. The core of my job—researching, thinking, writing at greater-than-140-character length—I could accomplish only in the middle of the night, when things calmed down. I spent more and more hours working, or at least work adjacent, but got less and less done.
Meanwhile, my mind and body adapted to the pace of digital life, with its ceaseless ping ping ping of notifications and alerts. I got twitchy if I was away from my phone for more than a few seconds. I felt it vibrating in my pocket when it wasn’t there, took it with me to bed, even to the bathroom. (I got pretty good at tweeting while I peed, to my enduring discredit.)
All my in-between moments, the interstitial transitions and pauses that fill the cracks of a day, were crowded with pings. My mind was perpetually in the state that researcher and technology writer Linda Stone termed continuous partial attention. I was never completely where I was, never entirely doing what I was doing. I always had one eye on the virtual world. Every bit of conversation was a potential tweet, every sunset a potential Instagram.
What had begun as blogging had become “lifecasting,” a manic, full-time performance of Internet David Roberts. With some lamentable exceptions, I was, and am, proud of Internet David Roberts. But he had flourished at the expense of the slump-shouldered, thick-bellied, bleary-eyed shut-in Huck saw sitting on the computer every day. That guy was wrung out. He needed some attention.
I was 40 years old, due for a midlife crisis, and I didn’t want to have an affair or buy an impractical sports car, so instead I decided that I would take a break. A big one. For a year, I would leave behind online life to attend more closely to what we Internet people call meatspace.
My bosses at Grist, supportive as always, agreed to an unpaid sabbatical. A year with no salary is not nothing, but my wife brings home considerably more of the bacon than I do anyway, so with some belt tightening, we figured we could manage me taking my feet off the pedals and coasting a bit. If you’re wondering, yes, my wife is the coolest person on the planet, and yes, she will get her year someday.
In August 2013, I wrote a post announcing my plan to unplug. I explained that I was desperately burned out and cited two goals for my year off: to regain my physical health and work on a novel. I was a little nervous I’d be deemed a weenie; instead my post unleashed a torrent of goodwill. Soon there were more than 300 comments, almost every one positive and supportive (the Internet equivalent of Sasquatch riding by on a unicorn). People e-mailed, they called, they wrote actual paper letters. I heard two things over and over again: “I know exactly how you feel” and “I’m so glad you’re doing this.”
Lots and lots of people would like a break from hyperconnected life, but very few have concrete plans to take one. It’s not surprising: in white-collar work, the expectation of round-the-clock connectivity has become pervasive, bleeding into nights, weekends, and vacations. A survey by the Center for Creative Leadership found that smartphone-carrying professionals “report interacting with work a whopping 13.5 hours every workday.”
And for more and more Americans, social circles have moved at least partially online. According to Pew Research, as of 2013, 73 percent of adult Internet users are on social media. Among those 18 to 29, it’s now 89 percent. It has long since become many people’s primary means of keeping tabs on friends and family. Being offline can feel like being invisible.
So it was with trepidation that I began my sabbatical on September 1, 2013. I didn’t go full Luddite or “quit the Internet.” I used Google Maps to get around, maintained my long-running Words with Friends rivalry with my aunt, and bought flip-flops on Zappos. But I did have some hard-and-fast rules: no work, work-related e-mail, or work-related reading. No daily news cycles or social media. Most of all, I would not blog, tweet, share, pin, like, star, favorite, or forward anything. Internet David Roberts would go silent.
By the time you read this, I’ll be back to the grind. While I haven’t unearthed any cosmic truths (except: not working beats working), over the past year I have developed some tools and techniques that help me feel calmer, more at peace, and better equipped to navigate the pings of modern life.
Will it be enough? I don’t know.
I was standing on my locked left leg, hunched over, trying to grab the bottom of my lifted-up right foot, and after a few slippery failures I had a grip. Hey, hot yoga isn’t so hard!
My fingers were turning white with the effort when the teacher said, “And now, lift your leg straight up in front of you and lock your knee.” My laugh, a strangled snort, produced a sprinkler of sweat. I thought it was gallows humor. The teacher gave me a look as all around legs popped up, locked in perfect right angles, torsos bent double.
I spent most of that first class on my back, trying to slow my racing heart, pondering the great irony that after years of sedentary living it was exercise that was going to kill me. I almost didn’t go back.
Those early days of screenlessness were bewildering. My mind, wound up like a top for years, continued spinning. I experienced sporadic surges of angst and adrenaline, sure I was supposed to be doing… something. I’d pull my phone out every few minutes, even though no one was e-mailing me and I’d uninstalled all social-media apps. The habits and mental agitations of digital work life persisted like phantom limbs.
My symptoms were testament to the power of what psychologists call variable intermittent reinforcement. Famed behaviorist B. F. Skinner discovered long ago that if you really want to ingrain a habit, you encourage it with rewards that arrive at variable times, in variable sizes. The lab rat knows that it will periodically be given food for pressing the lever, but not exactly when or how much. The result: a compulsive rat.
It’s the same with humans. Variable intermittent reinforcement explains why slot machines are so enthralling, why video games contain hidden caches of coins or weapons, and why we’re all helpless before our e-mail accounts. One time you check your inbox and there’s a single new message, from LinkedIn, which reminds you that you can’t figure out how to delete your LinkedIn account. Sad face. The next time you check, you have five new messages, including one from an old friend and another from a potential employer. Happy face! So you check, check, check.
What’s true of e-mail is true of more and more software—the hot trend is to “gamify” everything, which just means using intermittent reinforcement to hook users. It’s no accident that you can earn points or badges in virtually every app these days.
The kinds of rewards offered in online communities are particularly compelling, based on what Dan Siegel, a UCLA professor of psychiatry and executive director of the Mindsight Institute, calls contingent communication. It happens, he told me, when “a signal sent gets a signal back.” That simple act, evoking a response from another mind, is a key feature of early childhood development and remains “deeply rewarding,” Siegel said, satisfying primordial instincts shaped by our evolution as a social species.
A 2012 study by two Boston University psychologists found that Facebook use is driven by two “primary needs”—the “need for self-presentation” and the “need to belong.” Broadcast and be acknowledged: that’s a ping. Each one affirms our existence as efficacious agents in the world and prompts a squirt of reinforcing hormones from the brain’s reward center. “That,” Siegel said, “is why people will respond to a text while driving a two-ton vehicle.”
We online denizens come to need these regular low-level jolts and get antsy without them. That’s why I was tweeting in the bathroom. That’s why your friends around the table at the bar are all staring at their phones. Ordinary life has come to seem torpid and drab relative to the cascade of affirmations we find in contingent online communication.
When I cut myself off from the cycle, I went into withdrawal. Hot yoga was the first step in my recovery. I chose it somewhat at random, but it turned out to be just what the life coach ordered.
Though scientific research into the cognitive and emotional effects of hyperconnectivity remains nascent, there is no shortage of counsel available to the frazzled. The anxieties of modern digital life have created a burgeoning industry of websites, consultants, therapists, and “thought leaders” devoted to easing our always-on angst.
They tend to fall into two broad camps. The first preaches the gospel of “life hacking,” which amounts, as one upbeat blog put it, to “project-managing your life.” For the life hacker, productivity is the ur-goal. Distractions, inefficiencies, and bad habits are blockages to be flushed by performance-boosting tweaks. And so they offer better to-do lists and time schedulers, four-minute workouts and five-minute power naps, e-mail filters and syncers of various things with various other things. Modern digital life cannot be avoided, they say, but it can be managed and optimized.
I’ve attempted to adopt some life-hacking techniques over the years. I’ve certainly wasted countless hours reading about them. But they tend to require a level of stick-to-itiveness and self-discipline that I lack. How does one muster the wherewithal to implement and maintain all that stuff anyway?
Ah, here it is, on Lifehack.com’s “29 Ways to Beat Procrastination Once and For All” list: “Become mindful.” Reminds me of that old joke about how an economist proposes to open a can: “First, assume a can opener.”
And then there’s the second camp, which approaches digital overload from a groovier, more spiritual angle. Here we are encouraged to “disconnect to reconnect,” according to the tagline of Digital Detox, a Bay Area organizer of device-free workshops and retreats. A flier for events the group cohosted in L.A. and San Francisco in March to celebrate a National Day of Unplugging promised an “analog zone” with friendship bracelets, face painting, nicknaming, typewriters, and smiles. Writer and critic Nathan Jurgenson has dubbed this crowd, which now includes such worthies as Arianna Huffington and Deepak Chopra, “the disconnectionists.”
The digital-self-help literature treats distraction and overload as personal challenges. If you can't concentrate, you're not enlightened enough. Meditate harder.
Whether tech-based life-hacking tricks or smile-based wellness retreats, it’s all premised on mindfulness, that all-important but elusive quality about which so much ink has recently been spilled. So gripped has the professional class become that a Time cover story earlier this year declared “The Mindful Revolution.”
So how does one become mindful? The most common prescription is regular meditation, which research suggests has all sorts of surprising benefits: it improves mood and cognitive performance; it strengthens (literally puts more folds in) the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that coordinates conscious thought and self-regulation; and it enhances your ability to accurately assess your inner states. One recent Canadian study found that introspection “becomes more accurate with increasing meditation experience.”
For beginners, at least, meditation means sitting quietly, alone with your thoughts, for as long as you can stand it, which isn’t very long. A recent study published in Science found that many participants “preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts,” which I have to say I completely get.
That, it became clear, was the real benefit of my sweaty yoga: it was a back-door route to meditation. Moving through the postures, I was forced to draw focus to my breath, again and again. My mind never emptied—I’ll probably need a few decades for that—but over the ensuing months I became more able to observe my thoughts, worries, and distractions as they arrived, acknowledge them, and let them go.
Oh, and I finally got my leg up.
As my mind began to spin down, I discovered that calm was like a drug. It felt so good, so decadent, just to sit in the early afternoon with my feet propped on the windowsill, watching wind brush the trees in the front yard. I was hooked.
In December, I called psychology professor and researcher Larry D. Rosen, author of iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us. “I could put an EEG tap on your head and measure the activity while you’re sitting at your computer,” he said, “and then I could have you go take a walk. What I would likely see is your brain activity diminish rapidly.” What this suggests, he said, is that “technology is highly overloading our brains” and, conversely, that “certain things calm our brains.” Simple enough.
Rosen mentioned taking lots of short breaks, finding offline social groups, and, of course, meditation, but I kept coming back to walking. Just before I started my sabbatical, my wife bought me one of those wristband fitness trackers that count your steps. (The absurdity of wiring myself for a break from technology did not escape me.) It comes with a built-in goal of 10,000 steps a day—about five miles. Running, you could do that in 40 minutes, but I loathe running with great fervor, so I walked. My dog Forest and I have since logged 1,400 miles on winding urban hikes through Seattle’s tucked-away paths, stairways, and parks. That’s 2,723,487 steps, but who’s counting?
My rambles have taken me through many miles of greenspace, which, as scientists are belatedly discovering, is a kind of wonder drug itself, with many of the same benefits as meditation. When I chatted with researcher and naturopathic physician Alan Logan, coauthor of 2012’s Your Brain on Nature, he described experiments in which cognitively fatigued subjects are taken on a walk, some through a concrete environment, some through urban greenspace. “You come back and you repeat the cognitive testing,” he said, “and whether it’s memory recall, target identification, or your attention overall, it’s consistently far better after having taken a nature walk.”
What’s going on? Nature provides what University of Michigan psychologist Stephen Kaplan has termed soft fascinations. (Dibs on the band name.) We are shaped by evolution to heed the ebb and flow of drifting clouds, rustling grass, and singing birds. Unlike voluntary or directed attention—the kind required by, say, a spreadsheet—“effortless attention” produces no fatigue. It’s the mental equivalent of floating on your back, and a rested mind is a more productive mind.
In his new book, The Distraction Addiction, technology scholar Alex Soojung-Kim Pang notes that the pace of walking encourages contemplation and reverie. While the conscious mind is wandering, the subconscious is chugging away, which is why moments of insight or creativity come so often during activities that allow daydreaming—taking a shower, weeding the garden. Thinkers from Rousseau to Thoreau to Nietzsche have sworn by walking. Charles Darwin found it so important, he had a specially designed trail constructed on his property.
Reliably, after about a half-hour of walking, ideas start bubbling up. During one longer jaunt on Seattle’s Interurban Trail, I found myself telling Forest all about the proper structure and casting of a hypothetical HBO series made from Lloyd Alexander’s 1960s fantasy novels, The Chronicles of Prydain. (Producers, call me!) After that, I started carrying a little voice recorder to capture stray thoughts.
By January, my days had settled into a rhythm. When I wasn’t walking or at yoga, I was doing yard work, reading novels, visiting with friends, fumbling away at a bass guitar, or enjoying time with the kids. Since I wasn’t working, they were no longer in after-school care, and in those hazy, unstructured afternoon hours before dinner we’d play catch or lie around the living room trading comic books. I spent hours at a time absorbed in a single activity. My mind felt quieter, less jumpy.
Still, going into my sabbatical I knew I needed at least one real blowout experience, my own private mindfulness retreat. So I convinced two old friends to rent a cabin with me near Utah’s Brighton Ski Resort for an entire month, beginning in mid-January. One owned his own company, the other had recently been bought out of his, and both were feeling as midlife-y as I was.
It took a while for us to relax into just being, with nothing else to do. We snowboarded, played cards, cooked meals, and laughed at inside jokes. It doesn’t sound like much, but it has more weight in my memory than any number of online dramas.
A couple of weeks into the trip, we were blessed with an enormous powder dump. In the lung-pinching crisp of the following morning, we were among the first on the chairlift. We headed straight for our favorite grove of trees and found them transformed, a crystalline, untracked landscape of white. I sailed into the open pines with no one else in sight, no sound but the soft shh-shh of fresh snow being pushed aside, no sense of effort or separation. And I thought, This is it. This is as far away as I will ever get.
Just a few weeks later, at the end of February, I wound up in a distressingly familiar position: standing at my computer, surrounded by empty chip bags and Trader Joe’s chocolate-covered-whatever boxes. It was almost two in the morning, and I’d just emerged, blinking and dazed, from an hour lost to some online rathole. (I think it was reading reviews of bass-guitar cables, despite already owning a perfectly good bass-guitar cable.) I felt that old sour stew of anxiety, guilt, and exhaustion.
For months, I’d been fiddling around with an outline for a near-future sci-fi novel. I had all kinds of ideas about how things might go if I were writing for fun rather than work, after months of meditative, screen-free activities.
Things did not go that way. Instead, I spent long hours attached to a screen, distracted and diffuse, producing little but feeling obligated to remain there until I coughed up enough to justify my miserable existence—in short, right back where I was before my break. I threw up my hands that night, actually slammed them on the keyboard and startled Forest from his sleep.
It wasn’t the challenge of creative writing that stymied me so much as the blasted computer. Every time I ventured back into its orbit, I confronted a minefield of deeply ingrained habits. My old routines—clear inbox of new e-mail, check RSS feeds, read TV-show recaps, update apps, check e-mail again—were under way before I knew it. The slightest cues triggered them, even the physical act of resting my hands on the keyboard.
I found myself in a distressingly familiar position: standing at my computer, surrounded by empty chip bags and Trader Joe's chocolate-covered-whatever boxes.
My budding mindfulness was proving inadequate in the circumstance I most needed it. It was dispiriting, but it also raised a question: Just how mindful should you have to be to get anything done these days? Must every professional be bodhisattva?
One striking feature of the digital-self-help literature is that it treats distraction, overload, and frazzlement almost entirely as personal challenges. If you’re stressed out and unable to concentrate, you’re not enlightened enough. Meditate harder.
The problem with this approach is that it sidesteps what sociologists call political economy, the larger social and economic forces at work in our lives. As author, activist, and documentary filmmaker Astra Taylor argues in her rousing new book, The People’s Platform, discourse about online technologies almost always elides “the thorny issue of the larger social structures in which we and our technologies are embedded.”
Because most Web services are “free”—that is, supported by advertising—their very survival depends on distracting and bewitching their users. Silicon Valley software engineers design apps that way on purpose; they’re quite clever at it. Because America’s culture of professional overwork and exhaustion is unrestrained by workplace regulations or conventions governing e-mail, unceasing connectivity has become an unspoken job requirement. Because social groups coalesce and plan online, even brief screenless periods breed FOMO, the fear of missing out.
There’s only so much any individual can do in the face of these forces. Mindfulness may be a necessary form of self-care, even self-defense, but it is not a solution to digital unease any more than driving a Prius is a solution to climate change. Instead of just treating our anxieties exclusively as a symptom of poorly engineered minds in need of hacking, perhaps we also ought to see them as a collective challenge, to be addressed through social and political action. Hey, we could start a hashtag.
Still, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you go to work in the culture you have, not the culture you might want. One has to get on with things, and Internet David Roberts has to go back to work soon.
Like a shuttle nearing a planet’s gravitational field, I’m preparing for reentry. That means implementing survival strategies. Some I’ve been working on all year; others will go into effect only when I return to Grist.
First, I’m holding on to the three most centering, mind-calming practices I developed during the break. There’s yoga, of course, which I can no longer imagine doing without. There’s walking. And there’s bass guitar, my delight in which is undiminished by lack of skill. (If I accomplished nothing else this year, at least I learned the Game of Thrones theme on bass.)
For at least one or two hours every workday, I’m going to use an app called Freedom to cut off my Internet connection entirely. That will be my time for deep focus.
Come hell or high water, I will take regular, scheduled breaks from screens: 15 minutes of nonscreen activity for every two hours at the computer. I’ll take a short walk, play with Forest, get coffee with a friend, or just sit and look out the window. (I’m telling you, it’s underrated.) That’s about an hour of mental recharging per eight-hour workday—not perfect, but a big improvement.
I don’t plan to swear off social media. Unlike some disconnectionists, I don’t view online relationships as toxic or inauthentic. I benefit from them enormously. But I do want to keep that ping time corralled, so it doesn’t smear into everything else. That means turning off all push notifications and checking e-mail and social media only when I’ve decided to, not when they buzz at me. The ideal cycle, in my hopeful imagination, is a period of singular concentration, followed by a limited period of pinging, followed by a period of rest, exercise, or social interaction, away from screens. Four or five of those cycles add up to a productive day, with rhythm and variety.
When I’m writing, I want to write with full focus. When I’m pinging, I want to ping without angst or guilt. When I’m with my family, I want to be with my family, not half in my phone. It is the challenge of our age, in work and in life: to do one thing at a time, what one has consciously chosen to do and only that, and to do it with care and attention.
I hope I’m up to it. That any of us are.
Last summer, Huck decided he wanted to get serious about baseball. Since then we’ve worn patches on either side of the backyard, tossing the ball after school. He improved enough that he tried out in the fall and moved up to Little League a year early. Late in the season, his coaches discovered that he could pitch, and he went on to save a few post-season play-off nail-biters.
A couple of weeks ago, he and I were throwing again out back. That hesitant, clumsy kid from last summer is gone. Now he likes to tug his cap and spit in the dirt and make it look easy.
We’d settled in, and neither of us had spoken for a while. Sun dappled the grass, the air was scented with lilac, and the ball hit our gloves with reassuring thumps. I looked at Huck then, aglow in the late-afternoon light, and I felt an upwelling of sadness, so sudden and overwhelming my eyes blurred with tears. I saw with unforgiving clarity that the moment would pass; it was already passing, even as I contemplated it. Life slides by from the present to the past so fast it sometimes seems we barely get a glimpse, barely get to register anything before we’re gone. Yet death is coming for all of us. Even me. Even Huck.
And then, just as quickly, a sense of joy and profound relief. I hadn’t missed it. However ephemeral the moment was, I was there, in it, fully present for it. The breeze was cool on my skin, I had nowhere else to be, and Huck was winding up.