How my personal “Screen Free Week” ended before it began (and why I’m OK with that)

Last week, I set myself a personal challenge: put away my laptop–for a week.

Since I missed (international?) Screen Free Week–it was earlier in May–I figured I would do my own screen free week, concentrating on the screen that I’m behind the most. Although I also have an iPhone, I mostly use it as an alarm clock and to communicate with my boss, so I didn’t feel it was worthwhile to include that screen in my micro abolition movement.

So, I set myself an achievable goal: one week–Sunday to Sunday–with no laptop use.

And then Sunday rolled around and, after being out of the house for nearly twelve hours and suffering either from allergies or some sort of cold (not sure which), I decided to watch the most recent episode of Game of Thrones as I wound down. So I booted up the machine.

As I pressed the power button, my earlier resolution to go screen-free crossed my mind. I paused. And then I went ahead, pressed the button, watched the episode. Monday morning rolled around and I woke up earlier than usual and I had a few messages I wanted to respond to. I could have done it on my phone, but that seemed silly–I’m a fast touch typist but this skill doesn’t carry over to touch-screens. I did what I needed to do, got off the computer, got to class.

By that time, my screen free resolution was officially over. Nevertheless, I came out of the experience with a few reflections:

1. Think About It

Sure, my resolve crumbled, but between the time I decided to do a screen-free week (Thursday) and the time I officially called it quits (Monday morning), I pushed myself to go out and do things I wasn’t necessarily feeling like doing when I needed to go.

I kept telling myself that I’d rather do X than stay home and surf the Net, because as much as it seems like I’m going to get “behind” somehow, I’m not going to remember or appreciate the hours I spent slumped in my computer chair reading articles (scintillating as they may be)–I am going to remember day trips, going places, the friendships formed through parties and spending time with people.

I have a pretty severe broody streak–and I mean this in both the chicken and human senses. I like to stay put, guard my nest, take care of things at home (this is the chicken sense). I also get obsessed by ideas, emotions, my own state of mind, and my instinct is to try to grapple with all of this mentally.

My belief in the interchange between “body and mind” (to get Cartesian about it) is growing, but it’s still more a rational understanding than an internalized notion. That is to say: I know that, rather than sitting around trying to explain to myself why I’m unhappy, I’m much better off spending that time going on a run, or doing yoga, or really doing anything except sit on my butt and click yet another link.

That’s why I wanted to do the screen-free week in the first place: to break my broodiness. But, as it turns out, I did that fairly successfully just by thinking about it.

2. Book Yourself

This may only apply to me, but I find it difficult to deal with truly free time. I worry about how much time things will take, whether I can get back on time (if I have an afternoon/evening commitment), and whether I’ll have the right supplies with me. Here in France, I usually have afternoons free between French class and picking up the kids, but I don’t use them very well.

I’ve started really scheduling my free time, and although that might sound like I’m just sucking the joy right out of those times, it’s proven the reverse: by knowing the parameters of a situation, I can totally relax. I can set a timer and stop thinking about the time. I can come prepared and end up stringing together duties and pleasures–like by bringing a pen and extra paper to French class, I can head out directly to do some sketching afterwards.

Plus, of course, you don’t have to follow plans–but they provide a starting point. And I have also started using this for my “computer time.” Instead of using the computer to fill vast stretches of unplanned time, I am trying to be a bit more disciplined. I write down emails I need to respond to and ideas for posts or essays, so that when I sit down at the computer, no matter how many tabs I have open, I have a concrete list of tasks I want to accomplish. I try to do those before mindless browsing.

3. Moderation is Key

Finally, as in most things, moderation is key. Actually stepping away from my laptop entirely would be a real hassle this week, as I need to learn some songs for church (for which I use the hymnal’s website), buy plane tickets (something I could do on my iPhone, but definitely don’t want to), and write emails to my parents (again, something that I could do on my phone but which would take dramatically more time and probably result in not-so-great correspondence).

My goal wasn’t to not use a laptop, but to do other things. So, by focusing on going and doing, I actually have been successful, despite the “failure” of my willpower to follow through on a screen-free week. Since making up my mind to reduce my time on the laptop, I have:

  • visited Lyon’s botanic gardens
  • gone to a yoga class after church
  • read/sunbathed on the terrace
  • made and preserved cherry jam
  • made and ate a cherry pie (including from-scratch pie crust)
  • picnicked in the parc with other au pairs
  • went to a bar in the quartier where I originally lived in Lyon
  • went to a free outdoor concert

… and that was just three days! However, since that was just three days, and I’ve been under the weather for the past week, I can deal with a little screen time, a touch of couch potatoism.

Threatening myself with no laptop at all made me get out and do stuff, but being able to come back in and chill out, connect with friends and relatives far away–that’s also good. Being totally “unplugged” or the opposite–both extremes are not sustainable. Even if I had gone for a week without using my laptop, I’m sure I would have glutted myself afterwards (as I tend to do when I get back from unplugged traveling). The more balanced path is the sustainable one.

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