How to cope when your life is governed by screens

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Social distancing is sending many of us scurrying to our screens. But is that a good idea? How can we cope when our lives are governed by screens?

If you’re a writer, odds are high you’re an introvert — someone who regains energy by spending time alone.

While of course everyone can write, (Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut and Anaïs Nin are three high-profile extroverts who did it to great success), the writing habit seems to occur more naturally for introverts. Introverts love thinking, embrace solitude and relish observing details about people, places and circumstances. But the traits that make introverts so comfortable writing also make them less comfortable with screens. 

I’ve been coaching writers around the world from my home-based office for the last 24 years. In the old days, I used my phone and email to connect with people. For the last 15 years or so, I’ve been using onscreen devices such as Skype, GoToMeeting and Zoom. 

I’ve found the system works well for me and I like being able to see the faces of the people I’m coaching. There is the odd technical glitch where someone gets disconnected or freezes or their speech (or mine) becomes garbled. But apart from those issues, I’ve never had a huge problem with it.

Since the pandemic, however, I’ve found myself less happy with Zoom. We’ve used the software for several dinner parties— for Easter and for our triplets’ birthday for example — and I found those events vaguely unsatisfying. Better than nothing, but not much.

I’ve also been in several largish meetings with an employer of mine and I find the number of people involved (usually 12) to be distracting and overwhelming. An hour of that kind of meeting, taking in all sorts of information, feels like way too much.

Here is some advice about how to cope when your life is being governed by screens:

  • Just as there are different types of food — from kale to Cheetos —  there are different types of screen time. Some are more nutritious than others so keep your dose of the mostly non-nutritious variety (Twitter and Facebook) relatively low. 
  • Use the phone when you can. Yes, this simple, old-fashioned technology is going to make you feel way more connected with your friends and family. While it’s true that we miss non-verbal clues when speaking on the phone, we also don’t expect them. This reality is less tiring and frustrating than video calls where we expect non-verbal clues, but have such a hard time gathering them as a result of poor-quality cameras, bad lighting and asynchronous sound. As Chris Sambar, executive vice-president of AT&T puts it, “voice is the new killer app.”
  • Create a list of off-screen activities that make you feel good and devote plenty of time to them. This list might include walking, baking, listening to music. Feed your non-technological self as generously as you feed your techno-loving one.
  • Start and end your day without screens. Instead of beginning your day by reaching for your phone, make a plan for how you’re going to spend your time. What are your goals? What do you really want to do?  What time are you going to do it? And instead of ending your day with your phone, spend 15 minutes reading a book. This habit will dramatically improve the quality of your sleep.
  • Remember that you’re more than a head sitting on a body. Get some exercise! Despite the pandemic, you can still go for walks, lift weights (even if they’re only cans of chickpeas) and dance around your living-room.

And here’s what to do when you’re in a  Zoom meeting that you just can’t avoid:

  • Begin with some friendly chatter. You’d do this naturally if you walked into a meeting room (remember those halcyon days?), right? You’d talk about the weather, what your kids did last night or the latest show you watched on Netflix. This informal chit-chat is connecting and helps establish a better rapport which, in turn, will make the meeting more successful. 
  • Be sure to mute yourself once the meeting starts. This action is a common courtesy and will prevent your barking dog, your ringing phone or your crying child from hijacking the meeting. (And, if you’re the host, for goodness sake, be sure to mute everyone else!)
  • Close the door. If you can’t do that, consider moving into another space where you can – perhaps your car, your bathroom or even a closet.
  • Consider your background. I think seeing stacks of laundry or an unmade bed (or even any bed) in the background looks a little unprofessional. Also, be careful of the books you show on your shelves. This New York Times story snoops into the bookshelves of famous people who thought they were just having an online conversation. A DC-based couple has even launched a Twitter feed to rate the backdrops of real-life Zoomers. Take a look at it — it’s hilarious! 
  • Pay attention to light. You want light in front of you or to the side – not behind, which will only envelop you in shadow. You can even set a different background in Zoom using a stock photo if you like. Directions here.
  • Or, turn off your video if you really don’t want to be seen. (It’s in the lower left-hand corner of the screen.) Post a photo of your face to Zoom so other participants will be able to see what you look like.
  • If you’re a meeting organizer, consider your equipment. I had always thought the built-in camera for my (expensive) computer was pretty good. Now that I’ve had to start recording videos on it, I realize how second-rate it really is. Just yesterday, I bought a new external webcam and I’ll start using it as soon as Amazon delivers it. I’m also buying a device that will allow me to run my professional microphone directly from my computer to improve the quality of my sound.  

Who knows how long the pandemic will continue? But we’re not going to be able to rest easy until there’s either herd immunity or a vaccine. Both these events are many months away. Until then, be strategic about how you use screens, so they don’t take over your life. 

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My video podcast last week addressed where to keep your research diary.  Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

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How are you adjusting to being governed by screens? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section, below. And congratulations to Andy Baldwin, the winner of this month’s book prize, for an April 21/20 comment on my blog. (Please send me your mailing address, Andy!) Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by May 31/20 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. To leave your own comment, please, scroll down to the section, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!