How To Not Be A Cyborg When You Work On Computers

When I was a kid, we had a family desktop computer that we kept in the living room. Since I had a brother and two sisters in addition to my parents, we had to ration our computer time to allow everyone to get on our amazing dailup connection and do whatever we liked to do. Because of that, we were limited to two hours of computer time a day.

It was sometimes difficult to see my siblings doing things on the computer that I thought were a waste of time. Things like looking up statistics on sports teams or browsing the online American Girl catalog. I'll leave which of my siblings were doing each activity up to the imagination! When I was on the computer, it was my time to learn and to create. I was learning how to manipulate images, make 3D animations and write HTML. I was producing movies, graphic designs and static websites. They were all horrible and I would be ashamed of anything I made in high-school, but the point was that I was trying to maximize my scarce resource of time to produce something that would last. This came in the form of self-education and finished projects.

In order to maximize my time, I would do as much as I could in preparation of my time on the computer. I would makes lists of the things I planned to accomplish when I finally got my turn. If I was working on an animation, I would storyboard it out by hand. If I was making a website, I would sketch it out on paper so I had a good idea of where my tables would span. I don't layout web pages in tables anymore, but it was the late 90s and tables were all we had at that point. I didn't realize it at the time, but one of the reasons I was so productive was that my time on the computer was a scarce resource that I couldn't afford to waste.

Now, I have my own personal laptop. Taking care of adult responsibilities and children aside, I could literally be on it 24/7. Working in computer programming, it's actually an expectation of my job that I spend 8 hours each working day on the computer. However, I have found several hacks to keep me from being on the computer all the time.

The great thing about limiting my time on devices is that it gives me more balance between work and the rest of my life. When I'm not always on the computer, I have more time to prepare for when I do get on the computer by planning my workday, thinking more clearly, and clearing my mind so that I am fresh when I do get on.

Being a human, I don't always perfectly follow these guidelines, but when I do, I've found that they really help me to get the most out of my time. When I get the most out of my time, I can concentrate on the things that really matter, like my family.

So, without further ado, here are my guidelines for not being a cyborg:

Plan Your Day Before You See a Screen

Before I start my work for the day, I like to list out the things I want to accomplish. If there are more than 3 items on my list, I move the less urgent items to a list for the next day. Throughout the day, I can refer to my list to determine if I'm getting the things done that I set out to do. The added benefit of getting to check items off the list is a reward unto itself.

Have Work Hours

This one is a little harder for me because I work from home and our oldest son has autism and our youngest son is a baby, so I often need to help my wife during the day. However, this is one of the best ways to protect a balance between work and life outside of work. The trick here is to set a schedule for when you will be working and when you will not be working. This schedule should include breaks. It is unrealistic to think you can work at a computer for 8 or more hours straight without needing a break.

If you have kids or animals inside, or if you have a chatty co-worker in the next cubicle, you have to be flexible. There will be some distractions. The key is to minimize distractions as much as possible. It is no secret that anytime you are torn out of a focused state of work, it can take as much as 15 minutes to get yourself back to the place you were at before the distraction.

Read Books, Not RSS Feeds

This is something I have recently been trying to get better at. The temptation at the end of a day is to open my RSS reader on my smartphone and get the quick and easy satisfaction of reading several blog posts and articles rather than reading a book. The benefit of reading a book is that it is on paper, or at least on a Kindle that reads like paper. For someone who spends a lot of time looking at a monitor, it is important to save your eyes whenever you can.

There is also the benefit of getting a better education on a given topic. Most blog posts are concise by design and while they give you a quick look into a concept or idea, the length of a book is more ideal for fleshing it out.

Articles and blog posts also limit you to the ideas of people from one time in history, namely today. This can be an advantage or a disadvantage. The advantage with blog posts comes when we are learning about things that are current and not timeless. For example, reading about a new technology makes more sense from a blog than a book, because tech is constantly evolving.

Give Up the Smartphone Nervous Tick

Have you ever forgotten to bring your phone when you went to pick up some fast food? It's crazy to look around at all of the people with their noses in their devices. It's almost awkward to not have a phone to look at. The sad thing is that you can miss out on the world around you if you are immersed in the digital world while you walk around from place to place.

Try leaving your phone in the car when you meet your friends. At least you will be engaged in the conversation even if they aren't.

Write Things On Paper

Writing on paper is becoming a thing of the past, but there are tools like Evernote that make it easy to get your scribbles into a digital format if you need to.

I don't write blog posts on paper, but I tend to take notes in my sketchbook along with my sketches. It's interesting to me to see how the things that I'm taking notes about and the sketches that I draw tend to line up. I am a visual thinker, so an illustration is often easier for me to understand than words.

I'm sure there are a ton of things you could do in addition to this to be able to live a full life and still work on a computer, but these were just some thoughts I had on the topic.

Do you think it is important to create a separation between work and non-work activities? What do you do to maintain that separation?

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