Thoreau famously retreated to Walden Pond to spend a two years living deliberately, “to front only the essential facts of life”. The popular image seems to be one of a reclusive Thoreau, far removed from any signs of civilization. Yet those of us who have visited Walden know that the pond is a short walk from Concord Center, which was very much a civilized place during Thoreau’s time, home to literary luminaries such as Emerson, Hawthorne and Alcott. frequented by such luminaries as Emerson and Dickinson. Far from being a recluse, Thoreau regularly entertained visitors at his cabin (thus the chapter in Walden, “Visitors”).
I point out Thoreau’s proximity to civilization during his Walden time to suggest that this can be a more accessible inspiration to our digital age challenges than we might think at first glance. Finding balance and depth in our digital age shouldn’t just be about an occasional journey to remote wilderness, but rather, carving zones of focus and depth into our daily lives. We need times to be with the ones we’re with.
My wheels got turning for this post when I read Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together earlier this fall. She made the Thoreau connection toward the end of her book, so it was a natural launching point for me to talk about ways I try to carve out focused “Walden” time. I start with some general approaches that I believe have some broad application, then get into some of the particular things that work for me and my interests. Hopefully my list might prompt you to think about what steps you can take to carve out your own Walden, in order to find focus and depth in our digital age and its many potential distractions. I’d love to hear your comments about what things you do to carve out times of depth.
1) No Devices with Dinner Let’s start with a pretty basic one. I’ve always viewed family dinner as sacred together time, so I’m pretty mortified to hear how common texting and Facebooking at the dinner table is. There are so many social, health and developmental benefits from family meals; this is definitely a time to leave the devices elsewhere (with exceptions granted for taking pictures of the wonderful food!).
2) Digital Sabbath: If you can make it through dinner without your devices, you might be ready for a whole day! We’ve been designating Sundays as our offline day for a couple of years now, and it is certainly an important starting point for balance in our digital world. We’d just begun the practice when I read Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age by William Powers, which served to reinforce the importance of the Sabbath. We’re not quite as strict as he is–Powers unplugs the modem at the start of their digital fast. Our phones are still on, and I’ll turn the computer on when making dinner to listen to Spotify and perhaps consult a recipe. The point is to spend the day in a deeper, more focused mode by avoid Facebook, Twitter and the like.
3) Be with the one you’re with: We need to expect more of the people we’re physically with. It’s time to call people on it when they are distracted and not paying due attention to the ones that are physically present. I’m not saying one should never respond to a text or call when in another’s company; but rather, those physically present should take first priority. If there’s a reason a text or call needs to be dealt with, we should give some explanation about our need to respond, deal with it then refocus on the people in the room. OK, that little sermon is done. Well, sort of…
4) Expect more of each other: Let’s reverse the subtitle of Turkle’s book. When we stop, think and talk about what’s really important, it follows that we must expect more of each other. This includes being comfortable calling people on it when they are digitally distracted, as well as modeling the attentive behavior we seek. When someone you’re with is paying more attention to their device than you, something like “Are you with me?” or “Was that a really important message you needed to deal with?” It doesn’t need to be a harangue, but something that reminds our companions of our presence and expectations. Such comments work better when they are preceded by conversations about this issue and the need to focus on the ones we’re with in the room.
5) Doing things together: Another antidote to not being truly present with those in the room is to regularly do things together that require focus. For instance, I try to play a game of chess or other game requiring extended focus with my son at least once a week. Any number of activities could fit the bill here–joining a book club with someone, cooking together, taking up another hobby–just as long as its a device free time!
6) Spiritual practice: I believe some regular form of spiritual practice is very helpful in putting our technologies in proper perspective. Whether it’s yoga, meditation or going to a house of worship, the key is finding things that consistently remind us of the values that are truly important to us. For many years, I tried creating my own spiritual practice through a combination of things, including some of the activities I describe below that certainly have spiritual or soulful elements. A couple of years back, we decided as a family to find a church to attend. In our busy lives, I’ve found helpful the consistency of a weekly service with a community of people that are committed to connecting to something bigger than an iPhone, who are seeking to have our daily lives guided by some framework of values and beliefs.
7) Nature Walks: Certainly getting out in nature is a vital part of how I maintain balance between the digital and natural worlds. We’re lucky to live right by a pond that makes it easy to get out regularly for walks that put me in touch with nature. And yes, I do take my phone and take pictures, which I find helps me be more attentive to the changing seasons around me. Oh yes, and we occasionally get over to the “real” Walden Pond! (the nature photos in this post are from a visit to Walden)
8) Cooking and Savoring Real Food: Cooking dinner is a great transition for me from the work day to family and personal time. I spend most of my days in meetings or in front of a screen, so cooking gets me into a hands-on, very tangible activity. I’m keen on cooking with healthy, local ingredients in season, learning about where our food comes from and sampling recipes from different cultural traditions. Thus, cooking is a very mindful process for me, a good contrast to the potential distractions of the digital world. I realize cooking isn’t for everyone, but we all need something that provides the benefits I get from it. (For more on what I get up to in the kitchen, head over to my Cooking Chat blog.)
9) Reading Books: The depth afforded by reading books from cover to cover is a good antidote to the constant pings and tweets we find online. I still do the majority of my book reading the old fashioned way, though I do read some books on a Nook. When I do read in digital form, I try to tune out the social media notifications available there in order to focus. I manage reasonably well, but must confess the occasional distraction!
10) Reading Together: Reading can also be a common experience in a variety of ways. Of course, story time with our children has been a cherished tradition for generations. As I mentioned in this post, we try to get an extra dose of reading at breakfast time. In addition to the literacy benefits, I’m typically up first in the house, doing some online reading and tweeting. So reading with my son means pushing away from the computer, and focusing on him with a book, or sometimes just to chat. Now that he’s an independent reader, B has an expectation to read for at least 30 minutes before he’s allowed any screen time. When the timing works out, I like to sit by him with my own book, and we’ll both occasionally pause to share highlights of what we’re reading.
Next up on this theme, I will share some ideas for maintaining focus and balance during the time we do spend online. Check back later this month for that post, as you can see from the list above I’ve got some non-digital activities to keep me busy! You can also sign up in the link to the right of the text to get notifications of new posts.