Deal with Real


When I first got a smartphone I was resistant. I had seen what social media turned some people into – mindless vegetables hunched over poking at the glow in front of their eyes while the world around them soared by. I was embarrassed for them.

When I started Mortise & Tenon 3 years ago, my relationship to this technology changed because I wanted to connect with like-minded folks around the globe. I knew Blue Hill, Maine wasn’t going to support its own woodworking magazine. During my first couple weeks with the phone, I remained suspicious and used it sparingly. I posted a few blurry photos on Instagram and not too much happened. But then, over time, my photos got more “likes” and I eventually even got some strangers commenting. This began a dialogue with like-minded furniture makers. More than that, they were posting their own compelling content and shared the way they did things. How cool! It didn’t take long for my social media usage to snowball into a regular habit. It eventually developed into an addiction.

But I thought I knew better. How did I find myself there? Many researchers have studied this phenomenon (new studies are coming out all the time) but my opinion is that it all boils down to feeding a spirit of self-orientation. Think about it: what is driving the need to check every 10 minutes to see how many “likes” you got and if people are commenting with praise? If I’m honest, what drives this behavior in me is vanity and pride. Social media is powerfully designed to feed this narcissism and it works because – in the words of the ancient theologians – our hearts are incurvatus in se (curved in on ourselves).

Losing Touch with Tangible Life

On top of the danger of self-absorption, the constant draw to check for new updates or replies jeopardizes our ability to stay present in the real world. If left unchecked it can blossom into an obsession (fed by the “fear of missing out”). We begin to lose the ability to focus on real-life communications because this preoccupation runs in “the back of our mind” as we shuffle through our lives. It’s as if we’re in our own world.

The research is unambiguous: there is no such thing as “multi-tasking”. Science has proven that our brains are not able to think about more than one thing at a time – we are simply jumping back and forth from disparate thoughts quickly. This chaotic thought pattern degrades focus and productivity.

How many of us can honestly say we’ve never been on a family outing in which we found our thoughts regularly wandering toward social media dialogue? Even as our toddler rides on our shoulders and our spouse is telling us a story, our mind keeps jutting back to composing the witty Twitter response we’re expected to come up with.

Resolved to Change

Mike and I are determined to get back in the driver’s seat of this technology because when our servant becomes our master, we must regain control. “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls.” Without discipline, we leave ourselves vulnerable.

At the same time, we are both determined not to overreact. We see the benefits of real-time interconnectivity and the ability to search out information quickly and easily. We don’t blame digital technology, per se, but we believe that we must do all we can to resist the demand social media has on our minds and lives. As Mike puts it, from now on, we want to “deal with real”.

Here are a few basic steps and resolutions I’ve been implementing to address this problem in my own life.

  1. Actively monitor my usage – It’s hard to decrease your device usage if you can’t even quantify it. (Most people’s screen time is double what they think it is.) I use an iOS app called Moment. Mike’s Android app is called QualityTime. They run in the background of our phones and keep track of every unlocked moment. I set a daily limit that I’m comfortable with and have the app notify me every 15 minutes of usage. It will not fix obsession by itself but it does prevent me from losing track of time.
  2. Never check my phone in public – Our culture has a long way to go in developing manners around answering phone calls or checking phone messages when in the company of others. It’s rude and I’m resolved to change that in my own life.
  3. Set time guidelines – This one is flexible but, in general, I like to keep my usage during the work day (because it’s all related to work, anyway). When I’m home, I want to be mentally present for my family.
  4. Take periodic digital fasts – Besides my customary Sunday social media absence, I plan on taking periodic days in which I do not look at a screen all day. That day is to be dedicated exclusively to working in the shop or around the homestead and spending time with my family.
  5. Restrict my social media interactions to those that are constructive – I’m no longer wasting my time responding to know-it-all, confrontational, or otherwise unhelpful comments. In truth, very few comments are seeking direct answers. This does as much for my blood pressure as it does for my stopwatch.

I hope this post has nothing to do with you or your habits. I hope you have more self-control in this area than I do. If not… if you wish you were more connected to real life, making things and connecting with people, and spent less time online fantasizing about an imaginary better life, I recommend you make your own list of steps toward change. Be principled. Be strong. Resolve.

- Joshua


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