Rules for Screens, Part One

You can have a television or you can have a life.

I have a strange page about technology buried on this site. Still, people find it. Something must link to it? I’m not sure how or why, but it seems to get a lot of traffic. Or at least it generates a fair bit of email. About a dozen people a year take the time to email me about the first line of that article:

The less technology your life requires the better your life will be.

I get a mix of responses to this ranging from the occasional “who are you to judge me, how dare you tell me not to play video games” (which I don’t usually respond to), to the more frequent, and thoughtful, “hey, I feel the same way but I can’t seem to get technology out of my life”.

In crafting a response to the most recent person who wrote some variation of that comment, I accidentally wrote a massively long post I am breaking into a three-part series, retracing how I came to use screens so little, despite editing photos, writing for this site, and working for an online publication, all of which do in fact require a screen. I use screens when it makes sense to do so, but the rest of the time I avoid them.

We’re going to start with the basic stuff. I did most of the steps in this part back in 2016 when we were getting ready to move into the bus. This is actually all the hardest things to do, because these will free up enough time that you’ll find yourself staring into the void for the first time since you were a kid. Don’t worry, it’s good for you. Anyway, on with it.

Luxagraf’s rules for screens, part one.

Rule One: Throw Your Television in the Nearest Dumpster

Yup, we’re going to start with the hardest one. You’ll notice that I am more sympathetic to not going cold turkey with other things below. Not this one. This is the absolute requirement. Kill your television. Now. Tough love people.

But… but. Look. Here’s the thing. You have this gift of life for, on average, around 73 years. 73 YEARS. You won’t even last as long as the average hardwood tree. And you’re going to spend that precious time watching television? No. No you’re not. Not anymore. You’re going to live. Find a dumpster. Put your TV in it.

Okay, you don’t want to put your $1,200 TV in the dumpster. Then find an old sheet or blanket and cover it up. Put some low-tack painters tape on there, make it hard to take off. That’ll work for now. But get ready to eBay that thing. Or find a dumpster.

Now cancel Netflix, Hulu, or whatever other subscriptions you had. If you subscribe to two streaming services, that’s just under $30 a month. That’s $360 a year. That’s $1,800 every five years. That’s crazy. But now you have about $30 a month you can either save or spend on something you want. Something tangible. I mean, reward yourself if you really do this. At least buy some ice cream.

Rule Two: Make Something

If you watched television for 3 hours in the evenings, congrats you were already watching less than most people — and you stopped doing that, so you have just reclaimed 15 hours a week. FIFTEEN HOURS! That’s enough to get a part time job somewhere. It’s enough time to do, lord, there’s no limit to what you could do really. Start a business, write a book, read the entire canon of Russian literature. The paradox of choice can get you here and you’ll end up watching YouTube for hours on your laptop. I know, I’ve done it.

You have to start creating something. I strongly suggest you create something real and tangible. Something you can hold in your hands. Cook yourself a fancy dessert if you like. Yeah you can even look up a recipe on a screen, don’t worry about it. The internet is incredibly helpful for learning things. That’s another idea. Find something you really love and learn more about it. Read everything you can about agates if that’s your bag (it’s my wife’s bag). But do it by checking books out from the library, not by reading on your phone.

Do what you want, but do something. Deliberately carve out some time to make something. And I know everyone says, I’m not a creative person, I don’t know what to make. Start small. Write a card to your closest relative. Write a postcard if a card is too much. Make dessert for your family, your significant other, yourself, whatever. Just make something. Except maybe don’t make a fancy dessert every night. That won’t end well. If all else fails, just go for a walk.

Rule Three: Delete Social Media Apps

Yeah, now we’re getting real. I know it’s going to be hard. But you know what, take easy, start small. You probably have Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tiktok, a bunch of stuff in other words, on your phone. Just pick one and delete it for one week. You can always reinstall it so it’s not like there’s too much to lose here.

But we’re not done.

Get a piece of paper and a pen. Fold the paper up so it’s small enough to fit in your pocket. Put it in your pocket, or otherwise keep it on you. Now, every time you feel like checking whichever social network you deleted, instead of checking it, pull out your paper and pen and write down why you wanted to check it. It doesn’t need to be an essay, just write like “wanted to see what Mark was up to” or whatever the source of the urge was.

Do that for one week. At the end of the week look back over what you wrote down and decide for yourself if those things you were planning to do are worth your time. If they are then re-install that app and be on your merry way. If they aren’t, or more likely, if you aren’t sure, do the experiment for another week.

If you decide that giving in to all these urges to check social media wouldn’t be the best use of your limited time on earth, repeat this process with the next social app on your phone. When you’ve deleted all the unnecessary apps from your phone you’re done with this step.

Oh, and the ones you keep, don’t feel bad about those. If you’re feeling a sense of guilt about them still it might be worth repeating this experience, but if you really do enjoy them then don’t feel guilty about them.

Rule Four: Track What You Do When You Use a Screen

A lot of our lives are lived in a kind of automated mode. Think back over everything you did in the last five minutes before you started reading this. If you’re like me, you probably struggle to remember what it was you were doing or how you ended up precisely here at this moment. You were operating on autopilot. Some of this autopilot living is a good thing, especially, I’ve found, morning routines, but too much autopilot will strip away your agency. You will no longer be in control of your life. That’s how I felt about screens. I could not stop using them until I became conscious I was using them.

This step then is to keep track of every time you use a screen. It doesn’t have to be a big thing, just remember to do it. Don’t judge yourself for it, or chastise yourself, just note that hey, I am using a screen. That’s all. Now if you’re somewhat obsessive like I am you might want to write down whatever notes you can, about why you’re using a screen. But you don’t have to do that. Just note it in your mind.

Unlike the steps above, this is not really a rule. It’s an ongoing process that will probably never end, at least in my case. I like to be conscious of when I use a screen, so although I started doing this years ago, I still do it today, with varying degrees of success and failure.

That brings me to the final point I will leave you with: everything is a process. To paraphrase Alan Watts, you are not a thing, you are a happening. Which is to say, all of life is a never-ending process. There may be goals and other markers along the way, but it’s not like you get to place where you’re done, you win at life, you never have to do anything again. Well, I mean technically there is, it’s called death, but that’s not what I mean here. I just mean that everything is ongoing. The “goal”, at least at this very basic level of using less screens, is to build systems and processes that will help you do things other than stare at a screen.

Okay, now go kill your television.


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