Digital Zen: the art of mindful computing

  • “Simplify, simplify.” – Henri David Thoreau

Early in the digital age, a PC was just a box adorned with a flickering prompt, its deep numeric silence made focus and reflexion possible.

These days are gone. Marketers figured a path from the computer screen straight to our brain, and we’re under permanent attack: junk messages, Facebook invitations, and sign-up screens that trigger confirmation emails sending us back to a landing page…All that in a whirlwind of passwords and frustrated expectations. By the time we finally start working, we often realize with horror that it’s already 1 am and we got nothing done.

Frustrated by that process, I started changing my computing habits, and so far the strategies I’ve borrowed from Leo Babauta and various other minimalist authors have helped me stay focused, relaxed and in control.

I wrapped it up below in case you want to apply them:

Protect your focus

In the digital media, everyone is battling for your attention , every single application and website wants you to clicks on their ads or to “go premium”. If you don’t take control of your focus, your computer will get you somewhere by default and you’ll gradually enter that vegetable state typical of digital oblivion. But you know what I’m talking about, anyway.

To make sure your computer remains a tool that helps you respond to important email and get your shit done,  you’d better take control.

Here’s the strategy that works for me:

  • Decide before starting your session
    Make up your mind about what you want to do prior to opening your laptop. Decide you’re going to stick to that plan until it’s completed. That’s a great way to protect your mind against online procrastination (viral videos, instant messages and crap).
  • One thing at a time
    Avoid multi-tasking at any cost. Multi-tasking is evil. Most guys can’t multi task, some women manage to, but they have to divide their attention into so many task. Keep multi-tasking for extreme survival situations; if you suddenly remember that you have to call your cable company, write it in a todo somewhere and get right back to this email you were writing.
    Resist the temptation to go to their website and post an insulting comment until your task is done.
  • Time it short
    If you give yourself slightly less time than you think you need to perform a task, you’ll unconsciously manage to get it done within the allocated time.  And when it comes to working on a computer, it’s particularly helpful because your brain will try everything it can to avoid distractions and focus on the job.
  • Track it
    You’ll never find a clock in a bar and the same goes on a website. If you were conscious of the time flying will you’re mindlessly watching a Vine video for the 100’s time you would stop it and get back to work. There’s a free tool that helps you monitor your usage, it’s called Rescue Time it give you a way to be aware
  • Control it
    You can even push discipline a tad further and install site blockers: these browser extensions help you limit the time you spend on some websites (whatever they are…). I use StayFocusd, I think it’s an awesome tool.

Block  digital interferences

  • Barricade your computer
    By default, all our communication apps are opened: email clients, skype, msn, Facebook messenger, in short: anybody can interrupt you anytime, resulting in the shallowest half-assed conversation because you’re onto something but you don’t want to be rude and hang up. Look, let’s be honest: would you let the door of your apartment open 27/7 for your neighbor to step in and start talking to you? I keep my apps closed at all times, unless I made an appointment with a friend or I decide to be a drag and randomly call them for no particular reason :)
  • Get offline as often as possible
    In general, if you need to write an article, design a chart or make a presentation, shut your wifi connection down and get things done 30% faster.
  • Email twice a day
    I’ve recently decided to check and process email 2 x a day, not only it takes me less time to respond but I also stopped looking like a crackhead frantically refreshing my email client every 20 seconds.
  • Uninstall mobile apps
    I’ve also uninstalled my Facebook mobile app, I highly recommend that, if you want to enjoy the view as you walk, or social conversations (for the subway, I use Kindle for mobile phones when I’m bored)

Try minimalistic apps

There’s a wealth of apps that help you get things done without being ugly or invasive, let me name a few that I’ve tried and loved:

  • Ommwriter: beautiful writepad that hides everything on your screen to help you focus on your writing only:
  • Feedly: possibly the best RSS reader: a super simple interface and a great way to switch from Facebook vomit content to good reads:
  • Sparrow: another naked app, it’s hard not to love how efficient and clean this email client is: for Mac, for the iPhone

We’ve reached a breaking point in the way we handle technology. We don’t really control it any longer, in fact it’s pretty much the opposite, now. Yet it’s easy to block the intrusion of so much data and go slowly, enjoy the chaotic nature of our organic, indecisive human thought processes.

After all, our happiness depends on it. Should we be the boss in our own head, or let the ad-plastered digital histeria take over?

I made up my mind.

  • Stephanie

    These are great ideas. As a student, I spend far too much time browsing Facebook and too much time complaining about how there’s not enough time to get things done. I need to implement some of these tips, especially the one about planning what to do online before doing it. That way, I can do what needs to be done without feeling guilty!

    • Gaël Blanchemain

      Thanks Stephanie, try these tips out and let me know how they worked for you :)

  • Chris Bailey

    I completely agree with you on deciding what you want to do before you jump down rathole after rathole on the Internet (which seems to be getting easier every day). I think intention behind action is like wood behind an arrow, and it’s so much easier to be mindful when you start with that intention. Great list!

    • Gaël Blanchemain

      Yes, in fact, the intention conditions everything, it also reflects our general mindset, which is quite difficult to uncover and acknowledge. Definitely worth a post :)

  • Jerome

    Hi Gaël, this is my main subject of reflection these days.
    As an IT engineer I work in a world of “Gross Profit”, “Costs and Billing Rates”, and “Man-days” but I think you get the picture :)
    This subject is definitely a broad one, with things to do at the end-user side, which you depict very well, and also at the tech engineer side, which responsibility involves delivering digital content affecting more and more people.

    • Gaël Blanchemain

      So glad to hear there are conscious people on the other end of the production system! Thanks for giving your professional insights.

  • Mariel Boldis

    I love this. I stumbled across your blog reading one of your articles on reddit. I really like your take on technology and how it’s seemingly taking over us rather than the other way around. There are times I feel like I’m out of control spending hours on the internet maintaining my websites, reading other blogs, checking email, etc… and it really can get overwhelming sometimes. I’m practicing on managing my time better, so thank you for this read. Loved it!

    • Gaël Blanchemain

      Thanks Mariel, you’ll find a lot more on Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits, he worked a lot on solving the problems of connected humans trying to simplify their lives. I subscribed to your blog, I think it’s really well started.