Taming Technology as a Writer
Cartoonist Michael Leunig created a cartoon depicting a worried character surrounded by electronic bits and pieces. The caption: There comes a moment when all the cable leads, battery chargers and power adaptors we have ever owned, gather together and assemble themselves around us and ask us the terrible question, “WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO YOUR LIFE?” (You can see the cartoon here–go to the June selection.)
As writers, we may ask a similar question with regard to our computer use: ‘What has happened to my writing life?’ In an earlier post, I discussed the general problem of busywork. One aspect of busywork has to do with computers. Yes, they provide interesting ways to engage with the world, letting us keep in touch with friends, expand our knowledge, and provide ways to relax. But they can also sap our time and energy, which means they may be moving us further away from achieving our writing goals.
It is useful to analyse your computer use to see what is helpful and what is not. Do you play too many games? Spend too much time on your emails or let them interrupt your concentration? Tidy up electronic drafts instead of undertaking the harder task of a complete rethink? Go beyond essential research to look up unnecessary but interesting stuff on the Web? Stay too connected to friends via social networking sites such a Facebook and Twitter? Spend too much time reading blogs and e-journals about writing rather than getting on with your own writing?
How can you change?
Do you need to make some changes? Here’s some common problems, plus some suggestions to tame the technology so that you free up your time and keep your attention on writing.
Problem 1: No goals, no direction
Without goals, you can easily find your writing time filling up with computer-based busywork. Set a writing goal you want to achieve. Then plan your next day, focusing on the activities that will move you closer to attaining this goal. What will you do? When? For how long? Planning your writing work each day helps to keep you from indulging in too many non-goal activities when at the computer.
Problem 2: Too much connection
If you write using a computer, try not logging into other programs, such as your email or a search engine. Disconnecting in this way means it is more difficult to wander onto the Web to do fun things whenever you hit the wall in your writing. If you need to check on something, make a note and so this later, when you reconnect.
If you find you’re addicted to the computer, do something more drastic. Some reforming workaholics give themselves a briefcase-free, Blackberry-free night. You could give yourself longer breaks from your computer. If you usually turn on your computer when you wake up, wait until after breakfast or lunch. Try doing some writing work—planning a scene, etc.—using paper and pen. Have a non-computer day.
Problem 3: No life beyond the computer
Some people say that computer activities—playing computer games, reading Facebook—provide ways to relax. Try adding some non-computer activities when you need to refresh yourself. Take time each day enjoying sensory impressions from real life. Walk around the garden, relax out in the sun, read a book, go out for a cup of coffee.
If you tend to lose track of time when you are on the computer and forget to take breaks, set an alarm.
If you still want to play computer games or get on social networking sites, give yourself a time limit for returning to your writing.
Problem 4: Email woes
Pavlov, a famous scientist, trained dogs to salivate whenever he rang a bell. Does the ‘new message’ ping on your email do the same, sending you immediately to your inbox? Break the stimulus-response pattern by turning off the ‘ping’ and setting specific times to check your mail.
It can help to set up separate mail accounts, e.g., one for work and one for friends. I have one for personal contacts and one for material I do not need to respond to, such as online journals and notifications.
Try reading your non-essential email only once or twice a day. It may help to make two e-folders—To Read and To Reply To—and then immediately transfer new mail into these folders. You can read and reply when it suits you rather than breaking your concentration to respond throughout your writing time.
Email opus. Put your creative energy into your writing project, not your computer-based dealings with others. Keep to short emails for most people. If they want more information, they will ask for it.
Problem 5: The empty-mailbox fantasy
In one job, I received literally hundreds of emails a day. I had a fantasy that one day I would get on top of my emails, so I tended to answer them first rather than get going with my major projects. Guess what? The more quickly I responded to people’s emails, the more they expected me to keep up the pace. I felt like King Sisyphus, from Greek mythology, whose eternal punishment in hell was to push a huge boulder up a hill, only to have it roll down again. The lesson: Don’t spend your ‘fresh time’ working on less important activities such as your email. Make your writing come first.
Problem 6: The IBIS syndrome
Many writers spend a fair amount of time searching for information on the Web. But it is tempting to get lost in the land of IBIS: Interesting But Irrelevant Stuff. You know what I’m talking about. You start in the morning looking up ‘cults’, the topic of your latest short story. You jump to other sites, following interesting information, and one thing topic leads to another. Before you know it, it is noon and you have wasted a whole morning trawling through old TV show theme songs .
To get a handle on how much time you waste IBIS browsing, find out how many sites you visit in a day. The results are an eye-opener. You can download a site tracking utility (such as Page Addict for Mozilla Firefox), which shows each site visited and the amount of time spent there. Or check the ‘history’ option in your browser.
Problem 7: Drowning in information
Information is constantly coming in via the computer. If you start feeling submerged by all this incoming, do something. If online writing journals are piling up in your email, pop them into a ‘Read Someday’ electronic folder or remove them. When signing up for electronic journals, groups, etc., give yourself a three-month trial and mark the end date on your calendar. If by that date you have found little of value in them, get out. Ask yourself if you need all the material that comes in regularly via the Web. Do you need that automatic digest or newsletter? The weather report? The daily news? The humour site with its daily updates?
Some information above was based on an article written by Leo Babauta and published (8 Aug 07) in Web Worker Daily webworkerdaily.com/2007/08/08/master-your-information-manifesto-21-tips-to-deal-with-info-overload/