My technology habits

Developing good technology habits is one of the driving motivations of my daily life. Particularly since I surrendered and got a smart phone (only three years ago), combined with having children (the oldest is six) and getting a job (now in my second year), the possibility for the internet and screens to overtake my every waking moment has never been greater. A little less than two years ago I read Andy Crouch's The Tech-Wise Family, which galvanized and organized my approach to disciplining technology's role in my life. Here's where things stand at the moment.

Phone

I still have an iPhone, though an older and increasingly outdated model. When I read Crouch I realized I was spending more than 2 hours a day on my phone (adolescents average 3-6 hours—some of my students more than that!), and I followed his lead in downloading the Moment app to monitor my usage. Since then I've cut down my daily screen time on my phone to ~45 minutes: 10 or so minutes checking email, 10-20 or so minutes texting/WhatsApp, another 20-30 minutes reading articles I've saved to Instapaper.

I changed my screen settings to black and white, which diminishes the appeal of the phone's image (the eyes like color). My home screen consists of Gmail, Safari, Messages, WhatsApp, Calendar, Photos, Camera, Settings, Weather, Google Maps, and FaceTime. That's it. I have no social media apps. On the next screen I have, e.g., the OED, BibleGateway, Instapaper, Podcasts, Amazon, Fandango, and Freedom (which helps to manage and block access to certain websites or apps).

When we moved to Abilene in June 2016, we instituted a digital sabbath on Sundays: no TV (for kids or us), and minimal phone usage. Elaborating on the latter: I leave my phone in the car during church, and try to leave my phone plugged into the charger in the bedroom or away from living areas during the day. Not to say that we've been perfectly consistent with either of these practices, but for the most part, they've been life-giving and refreshing.

Oh, and our children do not have their own phones or tablets, and they do not use or play on ours, at home or in public. (Our oldest is just now experimenting with doing an educational app on our iPad instead of TV time. We'll see how that goes.)

Social Media

Currently the only social media that I am on and regularly use is Twitter. I was on Facebook for years, but last month I deactivated my account. I'm giving it a waiting period, but after Easter, or thereabouts, unless something has changed my mind, I am going to delete my account permanently. (Reading Jaron Lanier's most recent book had something to do with this decision.) I don't use, and I cannot imagine ever creating an account for, any other social media.

Why Twitter? Well, on the one hand, it has proved to be an extraordinarily helpful and beneficial means of networking, both personally and professionally. I've done my best to cultivate a level-headed, sane, honest, and friendly presence on it, and the results have so far wildly exceeded my expectations. Thus, on the other hand, I have yet to experience Twitter as the nightmare I know it is and can be for so many. Part of that is my approach to using it, but I know that the clock is ticking on my first truly negative experience—getting rolled or trolled or otherwise abused. What will I do then? My hope is that I will simply not read my mentions and avoid getting sucked into the Darkest Twitter Timeline whose vortex has claimed so many others. But if it starts affecting my actual psyche—if I start anxiously thinking about it throughout the day—if my writing or teaching starts anticipating, reactively, the negative responses Twitter is designed algorithmically to generate: then I will seriously consider deactivating or deleting my account.

How do I manage Twitter usage? First, since it's not on my phone, unless I'm in front of my own laptop, I can't access it, or at least not in a user friendly way. (Besides, I mostly use Twitter as I once did checking blogs: I go to individual accounts' home pages daily or every other day, rather than spend time scrolling or refreshing my timeline.) Second, I use Freedom to block Twitter on both my laptop and my phone for extended periods during the day (e.g., when writing or grading or returning emails), so I simply can't access it. Third, my aim is for two or three 5-10 minute "check-ins": once or twice at work, once in the evening. If I spend more than 20 or 30 minutes a day on Twitter, that day is a failure.

Laptop

I have four children, six and under, at home, so being on my laptop at home isn't exactly a realistic persistent temptation. They've got to be in bed, and unless I need to work, I'm not going to sit there scrolling around online indefinitely. I've got better things to do.

At work, my goal is to avoid being on my laptop as much as possible. Unless I need to be on it—in order to write, email, or prepare for class—I keep it closed. In fact, I have a few tricks for resisting the temptation to open it and get sucked in. I'll use Freedom to start a session blocking the internet for a few hours. Or I begin the day with reading (say, 8:00-11:00), then open the laptop to check stuff while eating an early lunch. Or I will physically put the laptop in an annoying place in my office: high on a shelf, or in a drawer. Human psychology's a fickle thing, but this sort of practice actually decreases the psychic desire to take a break from reading or other work by opening the laptop; and I know if I open it, Twitter or Feedly or Instapaper or the NYT or whatever will draw me in and take more time from me than I had planned or wanted.

[Insert: I neglected to mention that one way I try to read at least some of the innumerable excellent articles and essays published online is, first, to save them to Instapaper then, second, to print out the longest or most interesting ones (usually all together, once or twice a month). I print them front and back, two sides to a page, and put them in a folder to read in the evening or throughout the week. This can't work for everyone, but since I work in an office with a mega-printer that doesn't cost me anything, it's a nice way to "read online" without actually being online.]

One of my goals for the new year has been to get back into blogging—or as I've termed it, mezzo-blogging—which is really just an excuse to force myself to write for 15-30 minutes each day. That's proved to require even more hacks to keep me from going down rabbit holes online, since the laptop obviously has to be open to write a blog post. So I'll use Freedom to block "Distractions," i.e., websites I've designated as ones that distract me from productive work, like Twitter or Google.

I've yet to figure out a good approach with email, since I don't like replying to emails throughout the day, though sometimes my students do need a swifter answer than I'd prefer to give. Friday afternoons usually end up my catch-up day.

I should add that I am a binge writer (and editor): so if I have the time, and I have something to write, I'll go for three or six or even nine or more hours hammering away. But when I'm in the groove like that, the distractions are easy to avoid.

Oh, and as for work on the weekends: I typically limit myself to (at most) Saturday afternoon, while the younger kids nap and the older kids rest, and Sunday evening, after the kids go to bed. That way I take most or all of the weekend off, and even if I have work to do, I take 24+ hours off from work (Sat 5pm–Sun 7pm).

TV

In many ways my worst technology habits have to do with TV. Over many years my mind and body have been trained to think of work (teaching and reading and writing) as the sort of thing I do during the day, and rest from work after dinner (or the kids go to bed) means watching television. That can be nice, either as a respite from mentally challenging labor, or as a way to spend time with my wife. But it also implies a profoundly attenuated imagination: relaxation = vegging out. Most of the last three years have been a sustained, ongoing attempt at retraining my brain to resist its vegging-out desires once the last child falls asleep. Instead, to read a novel, to catch up with my wife, to clean up, to grab drinks with friends, to get to bed early—whatever.

If my goal is less than 1 hour per day on my phone, and only as much time on my laptop as is necessary (which could be as little as 30 minutes or as much as 4+ hours), my goal is six (or fewer) hours per week of TV time. That includes sports, which as a result has gone way down, and movies (whether with the kids or my wife). Reasonable exceptions allowed: our 5-month-old often has trouble getting down early or easily, and my wife and I will put on some mindless episode of comedy—current favorite: Brooklyn 99—while taking turns holding and bouncing her to sleep. But otherwise, my current #1 goal is as little TV as possible; and if it's on, something well worth watching.

Video games

I don't have video games, and haven't played them since high school. We'll see if this re-enters our life when our kids get older.

Pedagogy

I've written elsewhere about the principles that inform my so-called Luddite pedagogy. But truly, my goal in my classes is to banish technology from the classroom, and from in front of my students' faces, as much as is within my power. The only real uses I have for it is PowerPoint presentations (for larger lecture courses to freshmen) and YouTube clips (for a certain section of my January intensive course on Christianity and Culture). Otherwise, it's faces looking at faces, ears listening to spoken words, me at the table with the students or up scribbling on the white board. For 80 minutes at a time, I want my students to know what it's like not to constantly be scratching that itch.

Spiritual disciplines

All of this is useless without spiritual disciplines encompassing, governing, and replacing the time I'd otherwise be devoting to technology. I note that here as a placeholder, since that's not what this post is about; perhaps in another post I'll discuss my devotional regimen (which makes it sound far more rigorous than my floundering attempts in fact amount to).

I have been helped so much by learning what others do in order to curb and control their relationship to technology. I hope this might be helpful to others in a similar way.

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