12 ways to overcome computer friction

Some weeks ago, we held a conversation salon about everday life (“hverdage” in Danish) here in Copenhagen, and one of the questions we touched upon was: Where do you find calm in your everyday life?

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I’m not good enough at finding calm. I like to push myself to finish whatever I’m doing, and then I can have calm as a reward. But often, I’ll end grinding through some work with no creative spark whatsoever just to be done with it. And even I do take breaks, I often end up taking my breaks in front of the computer as well. I’ll check the news, work on something else, organize some files, whatever. But I’ll stay at the computer.

The computer is a very powerful tool of thought, but it is also shaping the way we think in quite powerful ways. This is because when you are at the computer, you experience a sort of tunnel vision. You focus on what’s on the screen and engage directly with it. It is a very powerful connection that is very good at inducing both the quick-fire reflexivity of partial attention and the flow of focused attention. This can make it quite difficult to close the laptop lid and step away from the computer.

There is a sort of sticky friction about sitting at the computer that makes it easier to stay than to move. Much like flow TV, you can end up in a click trance long beyond the point you planned to stop.

But this stickiness is doing more than keeping us at the computer and wasting our time. It is also limiting our ability to daydream, to provide empty space for new thoughts to float in. Tom Chatfield describes them eloquently in his neat little book “How to thrive in a digital age”:

The kind of thoughts that can emerge in ’empty’ time in our lives — on a train, in the bath, walking, glancing out of a window between turning the pages of a book — are impossible to reproduce either through dedicated digital planning or carefully arranged offline sessions. They are moments that steal up on us, most often, when life is not segmented down to the minute. They are idiosyncratic, individual and serendipitous…

These are the moments of everyday calm when the magic of unexpected insight happen upon us. The time for gut feelings, personal reflections and idle imaginings. And unfortunately, stressing busy and sitting at the computer is eating up these vital islands of calm.

Sharing my concerns with different people at the conversation salon, one conversation partner told to get better at taking breaks. Small rewards along the way that broke the monotony of sitting in front of the computer. Another conversation partner suggested I make a list of 5 things that I could do in my breaks to use my brain in a different way, to make room for that lost eccentricity.

I ended up with a list of 12 ways to overcome computer friction:

1. Dance
Put on your power song and go crazy for 5 minutes. Get some of all that energy out. Feel your body!

2. Eat
Reward yourself with a nectarine. Make a lovely sandwich. Go get an icecream.

3. Go for a walk
Maybe you need to expose your thoughts to some fresh air? Go outside, get distracted for a bit. Sit on a park bench.

4. Talk with someone
Share a thought with someone. Get some fresh input. Smokers have it easy, because their bodies tell them when it’s time to have a little social break outside. But the rest of us should have cigarette breaks as well. The clever thing about cigarettes is that it is very good way to signal that you’re on a break and that people can come and talk to you. Maybe we can have carrot breaks instead?

5. Sleep
Crash. Have a power nap to clear your head. You’ll feel much better after a 15 minute lie-down. It’s much better than coffee. And maybe you’ll even dream something brilliant.

6. Do something practical and immediately rewarding
Get up and accomplish something that is immediately rewarding. Chop some wood, do the dishes, mow the lawn, pick some berries, clean your desk, weed the garden, shoot some free-throws, hit a punching bag. Anything that can you an easy sense of accomplishment. Remember: Just because it’s easy doesn’t mean it’s cheating.

7. Have a brainstorm
Spend 5 minutes exploring new angles of a well-known issue. It doesn’t have to be brilliant — just put everything down. The change of pace will do your brain a lot of good.

8. Meditate
Sit down, empty your mind and focus on your breathing for a bit. Just be. You can also do some restorative yoga exercises that lets your body work in a restful posture while your mind rests.
Once you’re done, you can experiment with chanting three OMs to finish. It’s a very good way to check in and recenter yourself.

9. Draw something
Pull out your notepad and fiddle about, sketch, doodle and see what comes out. Keep going and you’ll end up with something unexpected. Don’t worry. It’s not a contest. You don’t have to show it to anybody. Just give it a whirl.

10. Look up, look out
Lie in the grass outside. Look at the clouds. Look out of the window. Go look at the ocean. Look at the wind in the trees or people walking by. Don’t look at anything in particular. Just look and see what happens.

11. Test your balance
The floor is made of lava! Walk carefully, you might fall 100 metres into the gaping and gulping volcano. But you have to walk across this narrow bridge to the other side. Balance you chair, walk a line. Get excited.

12. Do something completely unexpected
This is a bit of wild card. It can be anything. I’ve heard good things about Sebastian Overgaard’s book SNYD DIG GLAD, which supposedly is filled with clever exercises and insights on how to be happy in a hurry.

So, that was the list. But one thing is having all of these ideas, and it is quite another to actually use them in your daily life. One way to use them is to time yourself. Work for 25 or 45 minutes at a time and then have a break. That’s the essence of the Pomodoro Technique.

But I must admit that I find working to a clock a little unsettling and structured for my liking. I’d like to have something like a wheel of fortune where you’d spin the wheel whenever you got stuck, and it would suggest a random break activity to get you thinking again. Like this:

Would somebody be interested in making something like that? Let me know…

UPDATE: Came across this little list of Seven things that can make you happier in seven seconds, so I thought I’d add a couple of those things here:

  • Think about something you love. Imagine how you would feel if you lost it. Now be happy you have it.
  • Hug someone.
  • Share the best event of your day with a friend or partner and have them do the same.

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