In Our Digital World, Make Time for Real Things

Digital to Real

The problem I never saw coming

It crept up on me when I wasn’t looking: the digital age. I remember the first time I sat down at a computer. The first thing I opened was the  word processor. It was like my parents’ old typewriter, but infinitely more fun. At age 14, I was thrilled that I could change the font and turn the text into pretty colors. (Rainbow comic sans with a drop shadow? Guilty as charged.)

That was a free computer at the public library. The next year, we got one at home. I was allowed to use it only under the strictest of circumstances.

Fast forward seventeen years, and I practically live on my computer. Even for this blog, which takes up a good chunk of my Sunday to prep each week, I compose on the keyboard, blinking at the backlit characters as they appear before me on a glaring white field.

Sometimes by day’s end, I just can’t take it any more. I have to get away from that all-pervasive screen and go outside. Or sew something. Or just lie on the couch and read while my cat kneads my belly.

Sometimes I just have to get real.

Rediscovering life off the internet

The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve felt this urge to reconnect with the outside world. I think it’s what led me to start baking bread by hand on weekdays and cinnamon rolls on the weekends. It’s probably why I started spinning my own natural fiber yarn and dyeing it with colors extracted from soil. It’s likely also why I compose fiction by hand on legal pages and transfer it to Scrivener only after it’s written. And it’s likely why I find it soothing to draw a graphic novel by hand, panel by painstaking panel, for weekly release.

Last week's edition of whole wheat seed bread

Last week’s edition of whole wheat seed bread

Yes, indeed. I love me some real life now and then. And even if all these other factors weren’t in play, this urge alone would have driven me to quit my corporate job and start the business I have now. My income might be more modest and more uneven, but I sit across the table from real people, know exactly what real work I’m doing in exchange for compensation, and get to tangibly witness real results clients achieve through our work together.

I need real things all around me. I absolutely crave them. Unless I miss my guess, I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one.

(Back in 2013, analysts predicted this as a “sensory explosion: a wave backlash against a solely digital life, and a desire for increased tactile experience.)

The real source of our constant exhaustion

Ever wondered why you’re cranky and tired at the end of the day in a cubicle? Even if you work from home, you’ll experience this same phenomenon if you remain cooped up all day in your designated office space.

Overwhelmed by the sheer amount of time you spend on the internet? Frustrated by the allure of things like Facebook that are useful tools, but are still too much of a good thing when we spend … too much time on them?

There’s nothing like digging your hands into garden soil, or bread dough, or a bucket of dye, to chase away the unique stresses of modern life. But getting real also takes time: the thing we often believe is in shortest supply.

But it can be done. Even if you’re not master of your schedule the way I am, you can carve out moments to reconnect with the real world that’s wrapped around the digital one. Here are a few of my favorite tips:

1) Schedule “reentry breaks” throughout your day.

Have a break or two during your workday? Get outside and walk around the office parking lot. Or take your knitting and head to the break room. (I used to do this at my last marketing job.) If you work from home, set an alarm to remind you to feed the cats or mix up cookie dough or weed the garden in small spurts throughout the day. My cat Fritz loves to go outside in his “kitty jacket,” so when warm weather comes I often use his anxious yowls at the back door as an excuse to take my computer outside and work while he stalks some birds. It doesn’t have to be an hour or two. Ten or fifteen minutes sprinkled throughout the day can work wonders.

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2) Get a tactile hobby.

One of the many joys of the digital age is the possibilities it offers us for playing together. But when you work on the computer, socialize on the computer and recreate on it, you can create more fatigue in yourself than your hobbies were designed to help relieve. Think about what interested you in your playtime as a child (this is often a clue to our areas of greatest passion) and find a modern hobby equivalent—preferably one that uses your hands. I spin and knit thread, sew steampunk costumes, cook and draw graphic novels in pencil. That’s how I connect with my hands.

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3) Work with your hands … at work.

Almost every job could have a few manual tasks reverse-engineered into it. For example, I work a lot now on my whiteboard instead of in Microsoft Word, and I’ve turned my love of sketchnoting and knitting into a way to make gifts for people I love and clients who’ve finished a project with me. When I worked in the corporate world, I would often choose a physical interaction over email. I’d leave my cubicle often to walk up the stairs and chat with a colleague instead of picking up the phone. Not only did I get exercise but I had better working relationships, too..

4) Refuse to self-judge “wasted moments.”

All of us could be more productive, I’m sure. But our passion for productivity sometimes turns into an unhealthy self-loathing for any moments we spend simply allowing ourselves to “be.” I realized recently that I could let a whole weekend go by full of toil (even if it was “fun toil” at that), with only my trip to church on Sunday morning as my real down time. I knew something was dreadfully wrong there. So I’ve started scheduling in more time just to read a book, pet my cat on the sunny end of the couch, or talk with my husband in bed before we get up. These moments are as real as life gets. You’ll never have them back again, so enjoy them!

From a recent lazy walk by Lake Michigan

From a recent lazy walk by Lake Michigan

5) Surround yourself with people who love real life.

Life is 70% about the company you keep and 30% what you do as a result. If you’re craving a deeper connection with the people, animals, and environment around you offline, you’ll need to spend time with others who feel the same way. This doesn’t mean you have to take a vow of Internet abstinence or join an Amish community. Often, your hobbies (See #2 above) will open doors for you to make new friends who share your same passion. Local fairs and community events are a great way to meet people who are doing cool things with their hands, too.

The digital age has brought us great benefits, and of course, it’s not going to go away. Our lives will never return to the way they were before, and I doubt that we would really want them to. But neither should we allow ourselves to be so subsumed by the technology we have created that we lose our connection to the creation outside.

Our health and our mental sanity depends on it. So does our creativity and our ability to create ingenious things that actually affect the next generation.

This week, I hope you’ll join me in courageously making time for real things. Things we can touch and shape with our hands. The things that make us human.

* * *

What about you? How do you handle digital overload?
Which hobbies and interests have you developed to help
you stay grounded in the real world.

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