– So, what did you do while on holiday?
– Mostly nothing.
– Seriously? So what, you just killed time?
– Yes and no. It was great. I’ll elaborate.
I reached the end of July in a sorry state. Sleep-deprived, overworked, anguished by deadlines; both the ‘hard’ deadlines related to work assignments I had to deliver, and the ‘soft’ deadlines I routinely self-impose for my writing projects. I had to publish a new issue of Vantage Point magazine before going on holiday, even if it was just a ‘Single Special’. I had to write Episode 4 of my series Off The Grid (no, I still haven’t published it, but it’s coming soon.) I had to publish a Kindle version of both Volume 1 and 2 of Minigrooves, my ongoing collection of short stories (and I did, check this post)…
I had to do this, I had to do that. I managed to do most of this and that in time, and barely retain my sanity, but I felt I went very close to experiencing the dreaded burnout.
“This summer, holidays will be different,” I told myself and my wife, “I really, really need to stop, recharge, retool.”
I decided to leave the MacBook Pro, my main work machine, at home. My luggage would consist of clothes, a couple of film cameras, three iPhones, my iPad, a couple of notebooks to keep taking notes for my Low Fidelity novel, nothing else. (I can see your eyes widen as you read three iPhones, but I had to take with me my main iPhone 5 with the Spanish SIM, my old iPhone 3G with the Italian SIM to use while in Italy, and a SIM-less iPhone 4 so that I could insert a second Italian SIM with a generous data plan that I use every time I visit my parents. They don’t have a landline, so I use the iPhone 4 as a personal hotspot to bring Internet to the other devices my wife and I use while on holiday.)
As I planned what to take with me, it was clear that, despite my wishes to disconnect and enjoy some offline time, I wanted to be able to access the Internet to keep following tech news, blogs and the usual stuff, though certainly at a more leisurely pace. This is the typical halo effect of today’s ‘always-on’ mentality and lifestyle. The need to stay in the loop at all costs.
The generous data plan I mentioned before gives you 10 GB of traffic at high cellular speed for a month. If you use all that up before the month is over, you don’t get charged for any additional traffic, you can still navigate at the glacial speed of 32kbps.
My wife and I made a terrible mistake, a mistake I’m almost embarrassed to share, given that I consider myself a seasoned, tech-savvy person. We both left Automatic App Updates activated on all our devices (three iPhones and two iPads). The result: we burnt through 10 GB of data in a little more than a week. The 10 GB offer would renew a couple of days before our return home. My wife begrudgingly managed without the high connection speed and with having Internet to the very bare minimum. I soon realised I didn’t care at all.
I thought the so-called ‘fear of missing out’ would kick in soon, but nothing. The only thing I did was to check my email every two-three days because I couldn’t afford not to, but for the rest, I really didn’t care I was basically cut off from any online activity. I read books, played Mahjong, took some photos, wrote a bit, enjoyed the company of my wife and my parents, enjoyed the occasional excursion, but mostly I rested. My mind needed rest.
Was I worried that my presence on social media was getting scarce, possibly leading to drop of attention and followers? No. There are more important things in life. There are your parents, both with health problems, both needing help in a way or another. There is the realisation that you get to visit them mostly once a year, for three weeks, and that this is not going to last for long. The realisation that when you say goodbye the day you’re leaving, who knows, it may be the last time you see one of them, or both. So you give priority to spending some quality time with them.
Was I worried that the unread count in my RSS feed reader would soon increase and get out of control? Not really. Lots of articles are idle speculation on future devices; or a-few-lines commentary after some news bits that cease to be worth exploring faster than the time it would take me to catch up on them; or podcast episode announcements; or lists of iOS/Mac apps of the week, deals and accessories; and so on and so forth. In the end, I can read all the stuff that really matters in my feeds in about two afternoons.
Was I worried that, by neglecting my own projects for a while, they would lose relevance and whatever interest I’d managed to raise about them would quickly fade away? Not really, for two reasons: the first is that my own writing and projects will never lose relevance for me, no matter how long a hiatus I take from them. The second is that — sadly, quite sadly — the interest I have indeed managed to raise about them has been so little, that there isn’t even the perception I have been ‘losing ground’, if you get my drift. I have noticed that, no matter how my writing in general is appreciated, when I start promoting my fiction it’s like talking about astrophysics at a party among drunk law students — either people turn a deaf ear, or they look at you funny. Or they don’t even register what you’re saying.
I’m not saying it’s not worth taking care of my projects and products. I’m just realising that something must be wrong with the way I advertise them or the way I approach their promotion. Maybe I’m not annoying enough. Maybe I should work on first creating connections with a few prominent people (as far as online presence and influence go), then expand my reach with their help. Maybe I keep trying to convince the wrong audience, people who are simply only interested in my tech-related writing and could not care less about my fiction. (But Matt Gemmell proves that a tech-oriented audience can indeed be interested in reading a novel written by a developer-recently-turned-writer — as for me, I’ve been writing fiction for 26 years!)
I’m digressing. My point is, I wasn’t worried about my projects and products losing traction while I was offline, because I’m planning some changes for the upcoming months anyway, so there wasn’t and isn’t anything to worry about. People will not magically start caring anyway, so making changes and redefining approaches is up to me.
During my time away from the Internet, what I did was mostly nothing, but it was the best nothing I experienced in a long time. It was a space that soon gave way to deep introspection. I thought about my routine, both the general daily routine — when I go to sleep, when I get up, how much time I spend at the computer or before a screen during the day, etc. — and the routine inside that time I spend at the computer. And there isn’t a better time than when you’re completely removed from such routine, that you can zoom out and take a better look at it. And you start noticing little silly things, like the amount of effort and energies you must invest to keep up-to-date with what goes on in technology (and many other disciplines) today, to then be able to add your voice to that cauldron of a debate, which keeps getting bigger every day and you end up drowning in irrelevancy most of the time anyway.
Writing online today, no matter how often you ‘show up’, often feels like a permanent state of paying one’s dues. Authority is achieved randomly: the public doesn’t seem to care if you’ve written about technology for the past 12 years or for just a few weeks. If the right people link to your piece and appreciate it, it’s a brilliant contribution and you’re worthy of attention, at least for a few days. You soon find out that you’re organising your approach to follow that model, so you read a lot, write a lot (quantity and ‘showing up’ frequency over quality), and every day you sit at your computer or mobile device and you’ve basically become a hamster spinning in your wheel. When you’re in your twenties and full of energy and passion and enthusiasm, this is fine. You may even have successfully found a way to monetise it — good for you. When you’re in your forties, have been doing it since your late twenties, and your efforts never seem to be enough, no matter how much quality you put in what you produce, your enthusiasm… gets reconfigured.
In this scenario, a disconnect is useful to understand that you have to stop being manipulated by the Internet and social media’s mechanisms. The worry related to how irrelevant the Internet makes you feel has to go away. The ‘fear of missing out’ is bullshit. The first time I accessed my Twitter timeline on the iPhone when I returned home, it felt as if nothing had changed. And nothing did. The same kinds of tweets: political satire, stupid nitpicking about first world problems, the same old banter, the same kind of meaningless memes, snarky remarks and subtweets, etc. etc. The first promoted tweet I saw was for some kind of product or service and began as follows: “Work from anywhere with this…” — another trap of this ‘always-on’ lifestyle. Working from anywhere might be convenient for certain people, but if you stop and think hard about it for a moment, it’s insane. These lines dividing work and leisure/time off, getting progressively more blurred to the point of disappearing, are creating a ridiculous, energy-sucking lifestyle. I don’t want to work from anywhere. I don’t want to bring technological gadgets everywhere so that I may do something work-related no matter what time it is or even if I’m technically on holiday. This blending of work/leisure feels more and more unhealthy to me. It’s like wearing a VR headset most of the time. It may be a fun experience when it’s on and you’re sucked in. But who are you, what are you when you remove it and realise just how exhausted you are? And was it really worthwhile?
My recent disconnect was bigger than anticipated, bigger than what I wanted, but turned out to be exactly what I needed at this juncture. I have realised that sometimes you have to get to a particular stage to fully understand how you need to ‘reboot’. In my case, the key was the realisation that I needed to truly stop caring about a series of aspects, mechanisms, and false problems related to the online sphere. To reach a sort of detachment that should be extremely useful in redefining my approach from now on.