5 Steps to Organize Your Mind Without Computers


This post is in lieu of the recent and popular article in the New York Times entitled Your Brain on Computers: Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price about a family who is digitally connected beyond the average American. Their lives are absorbed within technology, and every possible moment is filled with some form of screen stimulation. This is characteristic of many of the Gen Y and Millennium kids. From the article:

Mr. Campbell loves the rush of modern life and keeping up with the latest information. “I want to be the first to hear when the aliens land,” he said, laughing.

In his defense, he probably will be one of the first. As connected as he is, it will take only moments for the message to get to him. Is that really the goal of life though? To be the first to know? The article continues to discuss the effect of multi-tasking, both positive and negative. It’s a fascinating read for those who know someone like Mr. Campbell.

The connectedness of the Campbells is my segue into purposely disconnecting your harmful habits and putting order into the way your mind works.

How do we stay organized without computers?

I’m writing about organization in a broad term. The following steps will help you get to the organization of your honest thoughts and true feelings. It may (but most likely may not) give you tips on how to organize your closet.

Step 1: Unplug

Entire sites exist to help your kids unplug, and there are efforts to go as far as setting up an intervention for those addicted to staring at a screen (Unlplugyourfriends.com).

Step 1 removes anything that provides entertainment or social connections. Phones, computers, and televisions should be turned off and unplugged. Simply turning off your device will not work. You may already do that a couple times a day. The step of unplugging, removing the battery, or donating means you are taking this extra serious.

It must be a decision from the inside, or you will quickly resort back to the clicks and the stares.

Step 2: Decompress

Here is where the withdrawals start. The goal is to un-froth your mouth of digital rabies and revert back to a simpler way of thinking.

Your brain is still programmed to yearn for the fix. You will probably feel the ghost cell phone vibrations in your pocket. You’ve already unplugged, but your mind still wants to check the phone, see what’s new on Reddit, or read Facebook comments.

Our minds adapt when forced.

In the debate room for the NY Times article, Nicholas Carr , author of “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains” and “The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, From Edison to Google” writes:

If you regularly give your brain an opportunity to relax, by concentrating on one thing instead of a dozen, the cognitive and emotional costs of multitasking will decline.

He also notes how hard the change is:

It’s really hard. If your boss and your colleagues expect you to be connected all the time, your career may suffer if you go silent. And if your friends are texting, tweeting, and Facebooking around the clock, going offline can leave you feeling socially isolated.

My only note about the attempt to unplug is that it’s completely worth it; it’s your life and mind, and not what the stronghold of your computer dictates.

Gary W. Small, a professor of psychiatry and bio-behavioral sciences and director of the Memory and Aging Research Center at the David Geffen School of Medicine at University of California, makes a note about the dangers of constant attention:

When paying partial continuous attention, people may place their brains in a heightened state of stress. They no longer have time to reflect, contemplate or make thoughtful decisions. Instead, they exist in a state of constant tension — on alert for a new contact or item of news or information at any moment.

Step 3: Solitude


Only after your mind has re-adjusted to be able to smell the roses, and you can fend off the urges to check your phone or email, will you be able to start true organization of your life away from computers.

The next step is about finding time to yourself. In the world of always being connected, this step pushes us the exact opposite way, and moves our mind (and body) into a place where creativity can thrive. The intensity of being alone, after being connected for so long, is a needed jolt in the other direction.

Leo Babauta of Zen Habits says:

You don’t need to be a monk to find solitude, nor do you need to be a hermit to enjoy it. Solitude is a lost art in these days of ultra-connectedness, and while I don’t bemoan the beauty of this global community, I do think there’s a need to step back from it on a regular basis.

The word meditation seems hokey to most. Some say, “Why would I spent time alone in my own thoughts when I could be interacting with others?” or go as far to say, “I’m no Yoga-Hippie.” If you continue to think that your interaction with others is more important than your own self, you can stop reading and move on to the next website (if you haven’t already).

Even the busiest people have their alone time; some men and women have entire rooms dedicated to it. They may not call it “alone time”, but it is essentially a time to find your thoughts, creative sense, reflect, and listen to the signs your body and mind are telling you.

The following practical tips about finding solitude are from Leo Babauta’s post entitled Solitude:

  • Hole yourself up.
  • Get away to a mountain, coffee shop, garden, or beach.
  • Try taking a quiet, relaxing bath from time to time.
  • Curl up with a good novel.
  • If you’re married with kids, ask your spouse to give you some time off to be alone, and then return the favor. Make it a regular swap.
  • Take a walk every day.
  • Get into work earlier, and work in quiet.
  • Have a nice cup of tea.
  • Try a regular time each day when you’re disconnected.
  • Try sitting still, and focusing on your breath as it comes in and goes out. As your mind wanders to thoughts of the past and future, make a patient note of that, then gently return to your breathing.

Do not move on to step 4 if, during your solitude, you can only think about work, responsibilities, or what happens tomorrow. Only when you feel that you are appreciating the now, should you move on to the next step.

Step 4: A Pen and Paper

To the same effect that solitude has in bringing your concentration the opposite way, a pen and a sheet of paper can do for your thoughts. It helps to slow down your mind.

During Step 3, you have probably already found what works for you in finding time alone. Now, start bringing a pen and paper on your daily walks or to your man-den. When a creative spurt happens, you have the tools ready.

The pen forces you, despite being a much slower means of jotting down information than a computer, to think about each word and phrase. The dexterity needed to write is something many of us have stopped practicing; we are so used to smashing the keys as fast as possible because it says we can stay up (and sometimes pass) with our thoughts.

During your writing sessions, focus on the now. Write about the now. Don’t organize your days or appointments. Write small snippets about what you are seeing, how you are feeling, or honest opinions you have yet to tell anyone.

Don’t feel the urge to show anyone your writings because, remember, this exercise is about you.

Step 5: Inch Back Into Technology

The last step in organizing your thoughts without computers is to inch back into technology. Unless your writings from when you were in solitude are now being published as best selling poems and essays, today’s life calls for the use of technology.

William Powers, the author of “Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age”, has found a good blend which keeps himself and his family in equilibrium:

My family has been disconnecting from the Internet every weekend for three years now. It was hard at first, but once we got into the habit, it became effortless, and all kinds of amazing benefits revealed themselves. We’ve never looked back.

A few tips on re-entering technology with a dedicated schedule:

  • Check your email once a day; 99.9% of the time, it can wait!
  • Turn off your computer until you really need to use it. You may find that your smart phone can give you enough information.
  • Use a paper calendar for when you need to accomplish something. Only turn your computer on when you need to accomplish that task.
  • Use your MP3 Player and speaker system for music, instead of Pandora.com, Last.fm, or iTunes.

The balance between the screen and appreciating time with your girlfriend or boyfriend is worth the effort.

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