I’m At Risk for Screen Poisoning. Are You?

A couple of weeks ago, author Emmy Laybourne and mentee joined us for a Q&A on literary mentorship at American Bulldog in Chestnut Ridge. Writers in attendance came away with a renewed sense of what it takes to draft a novel or other long written work, and how a “Pro in Your Corner” can shorten your drafting time and keep self-confidence strong.

To encourage you to seek out your mentors, whether online, via favorite writing treatises, or in person, we are delighted to share some of Emmy’s wisdom for staying on track. This blog post originally appeared in her newsletter. Enjoy!


“Screen poisoning” is what I call an illness that sets in when I’ve been spending too much time in front of my computer and engaged with my phone. Symptoms include physical complaints such as dry eyes, strained vision, shoulder and/or neck pain, feeling drained; and mental difficulties like fogginess, being easily distracted, fractured attention span, forgetfulness, and… I can’t remember what else.

As a novelist, I often spend eight hours a day in front of my computer. I go home and might squeeze in another hour of so answering emails on my phone. Sometimes I find myself checking out of moments with my kids to check my emails or texts.

During the election–and the fallout thereafter–I found I had a really bad case of screen poisoning. I was spending hours a day on Facebook, in addition to all my other daily screen time.

I decided to fight back.

I began a series of experiments. How could I change my computer and phone behaviors to decrease overall screen time? Would making these changes have an effect on my mental and physical well-being?

Experiment #1: I ditched social media, by accident.

I was simply trying to make my phone less sexy, okay? I wanted to stop picking it up all the time. So I took Facebook and Twitter off my phone. I was shocked by the difference this made. For one thing, it revealed to me how often I was turning to my phone for stimulation, because without FB and Twitter, there was hardly anything to do on my phone! I’d pick it up, open it, see I had no new emails or messages then just… set it down again.

I wasn’t consciously trying to go off FB and Twitter, but I found that a few weeks went by without me checking in at all. And… I loved it. I didn’t miss it–and my FB friends, well, they don’t seem to miss me! I’ve received exactly one email from a friend saying they noticed I hadn’t been posting on FB–and that one was just to make sure I was doing okay.

I had held on for good reason. There’s an expectation that Young Adult novelists will have awesome and engaging social media feeds. I still love posting photos and looking at other people’s photos, so I’ve kept up my Instagram. I guess it’s too early to say if cutting back on FB and Twitter will negatively impact my career. We’ll have to see, my friends, but I tell you–I saw a definite boost in my mental and physical well-being.

Experiment #2: I went analog for my daily to do list.

I’ve been tracking my daily tasks digitally for years now, and it was adding to my screen time in a big way.

I had seen ads (yes, on Facebook), for a premium journal that claimed to “help you optimize your day, tackle your goals, and be happier.”

These promises seemed a bit of a reach, but I was delighted to find that the journal has helped me do just what it says. It’s laid out in a way that helps me to structure my time and includes peppy quotes and tips for keeping up morale.

The biggest gift the journal has given me is a strange concept–to give my every

working minute a job.

I used to sit down at my desk in the morning and answer emails for a couple of hours, fielding a bunch of mind-draining questions. In order to answer them all, I’d have to go get information and write it up nicely, etc, etc. Exhausting. All of this before my writing! I was putting everyone’s requests in front of my own work. Once I saw this pattern, I knew it had to stop.

Now I make sure my first two hours goes to writing. Then I do other tasks, have lunch and resume for another one to two-hour writing block in the afternoon.

It’s working so beautifully for my book, but you know what happens sometimes? …I don’t get to all my emails.

At first, this made me panicky. I had become someone who didn’t get back to people… sometimes until the next day! But I’ve found that, again, no one really complained about me slacking off.

Experiment #3: I started writing wirelessly.

I like my office. It has some great art in it, and photos of my friends and family. I have a fancy sit/stand desk and an ergonomic chair. But I’d found that I often got more writing done when sitting in cramped, uncomfortable places, like cafes and on airplanes. Why was this?

Part of it was connectivity. With my giant, gorgeous iMac, surfing the web is a constant temptation.

After some research, I found an inexpensive device called the Neo 2. It’s basically a big, portable keyboard that saves up your words then spews them out onto a computer file when you’re ready. It has a small screen—like one you’d find on an old calculator—where your typing shows up. You just write on this thing. You don’t edit. You can’t cut and paste. You certainly don’t flit off to do online research. Every once in a while, you plug it into your computer and open a Word file. Then you press “send” and it types your work into the document.

It turns out that I get more written in a Starbucks, on a dorky word processor, than I do in my comfy office.

Here are some resources that helped me in my experiments.

I highly recommend them all!

Books:

Cal Newport, Deep Work. Grand Central Publishing (2016).

Catherine Edd Steiner-Adair, The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age.  Harper Paperbacks (2014).

Mason Currey, Daily Rituals. Knopf (2013).

Articles:

Time Well Spent, “Four Simple Habits To Take Back Control.”

Linda Stone, “Are You Breathing? Do You Have Email Apnea?”

 

That’s it, my dear friends!

Sending lots of love and best wishes for your digital sanity,

Emmy