It’s been over four months since I posted here? That’s pretty awful, but I have some reasons.
A couple of weeks after my last post, at the end of March, I came down with COVID-19, a couple of weeks after my first dose of the Pfizer vaccine. I didn’t require hospitalization, and actually had very little in terms of respiratory symptoms, but I was quite ill, with high fevers, sweats, and chills, and next to no appetite for the first week. It took another week to recover enough to return to my clinic, and that left a small backload of work to deal with. I got my second Pfizer shot a couple of weeks later than scheduled, due to my intervening illness, and again felt pretty crummy for a couple of days. I still get periodic sweats and chills, which I suspect may be my version of “long COVID”, which others have experienced with much more severity, but I’m otherwise back to normal.
The more important reason, however, has simply been a change in focus. While I was recovering from COVID-19, I listened to the audiobook version of Cal Newport’s excellent book, “Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World“, and its message really hit home for me. Especially after two campaigns for Congress, but beginning even before that, I had allowed myself to get too tied down to a digital existence. It wasn’t healthy, and it wasn’t fulfilling. I didn’t adopt all of the recommendations in Newport’s book, but I did follow many of them, and life has become more peaceful and vibrant.
Here’s what I found valuable for me (your milage may vary):
I deleted all social media apps from my phone and tablet, with one exception. I still have Snapchat on my phone, but deleted all contacts other than family members, and use it mostly to see photos and videos of our grandson. Removing social media apps from devices immediately makes checking social media a more deliberate act, even if it only means opening up a browser on a computer. It’s a “nudge” that leads to a less compulsive use of social media. Even on a computer, I resolved to check Facebook at most twice a day, and other social media platforms far less frequently than that. And, I no longer feel a need to respond to every comment, positive or negative, that I receive. Post, interact a bit, if it’s fun, and move on to the real world.
I even deleted the email app from my tablet, and may go on to remove it from my phone. I think that perhaps just checking email twice a day would be sufficient. There isn’t that much that comes across my email that is really that time-sensitive. That Nigerian prince still hasn’t come through with the money he promised, anyway. I also turned off all notifications on my phone and tablet, with the only exception being “badges” (the little numbers overlaying an app) that indicate missed phone calls and text messages. The whole point here is to avoid digital distractions from real life, and to make interaction with the digital one more intentional rather than reactionary. My tablet is now used primary for reading books, occasional graphic design, and the odd game of Sudoku. My phone is for audiobooks, podcasts, occasional text messages, and, of course, phone calls.
As a result of all this digital minimization, I’ve certainly become less distracted, a bit more at peace, and hopefully a tad more productive. Over the past four months, I think I’ve read or listened to around three dozen books, a mix of fiction and non-fiction. The novel featured in the above photo, “A Good Man”, by my friend Larry Baker is excellent, by the way. I promised Larry a photo of me with his book, my long hair, and the bus, so that’s the story there. Incidentally, the long hair, another byproduct of COVID-19, is now gone; but, at the moment, the beard is back.
Anyway, a tad more productive, I think. I’m exploring a lot of new topics, and revisiting some old ones, which will be fodder for future posts. I’ve also increased my volunteering efforts in my spare time, which has been very rewarding. My major push is a joint effort between Rotary and Braver Angels here in Iowa. I’ve also been working with a group, Better Ballot Iowa, which is promoting ranked-choice voting in Iowa. Last month, I participated in a RYLA (Rotary Youth Leadership Awards) conference held for a week at Coe College. The experience was outside my comfort zone, but I had a great time getting to know dozens of really wonderful high school and college students, and fellow Rotarians, from around Iowa. I don’t know if they learned much about leadership from me, but I plan to stay in touch with my RYLA group, pictured below.
I was still in grade school when Timothy Leary, of LSD fame, made the phrase “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out”, popular; so, that wasn’t really a thing for me when I came of age. I also didn’t realize, until doing a bit of research for this post, that Leary modified his catchphrase in the 1990s for the nascent digital era, coming up with “Turn On, Boot Up, Jack In”, which now sounds really dated.
I think Leary got it wrong both times. He emphasized escapism through psychedelics early on, then through computers later. I believe our society has been harmed by such escapism, and not only from pharmaceuticals (illegal or legal) and computers (especially social media), but also from consumerism and political polarization. I’m a fan of individualism, but also recognize that most of the strength of our society comes from interactions with others, particularly in the physical world, as opposed to the virtual one.
The problem with most things is taking them to an extreme. Particularly with social media, I believe we have gone far overboard. So, I’d like to rework Leary’s original phrase as “Turn Off, Tune Out, Drop In”. Turn off computers and devices whenever not truly needed, and eliminate distracting apps and notifications. Tune out social media and political posturing for large portions of the day. Drop in to see a friend, visit with a neighbor, and consider joining a civic organization such as Rotary or Braver Angels.
Unplug from the virtual, reconnect with the real, and I think that we’ll learn to flourish again, both as individuals and as a society.