Jill laid on the floor of her home office with her head propped up against the wall as she stared blankly at her computer; she could hear the kids getting into trouble on the other side.
“Give me the remote!”
“No! You got to watch your dumb show already!”
“I told you, I have it until 8, then it’s your turn!”
BAM BAM BAM — Jill slapped her hand against the wall, and the argument fell silent.
Her gaze returned to the blank laptop screen resting on her stomach. Her fingers hovered over the keyboard and remained there, like toes apprehensive of a cold pool. The cursor on screen blinked and blinked. She closed the window. On her computer’s desktop, files covered the entire screen, all but blocking the family portrait she’d set as her wallpaper. Almost everyone’s face was a Microsoft Word document.
In her blank state of mind, Jill became acutely aware of the mess scattered across the office floor. Papers of great importance mingled with candy wrappers of less importance, two or three computer cables of mysterious origins, and an action figure who gave his life battling the family dog.
The report was due in a matter of hours. Once Jill finished that, she’d need to finish the taxes — that extension from April expired in three weeks. Oh, and the report required sifting through some old emails too. She’d glanced at them and then marked them “unread” several days ago so she wouldn’t forget to answer them.
In moments like these, Jill missed the structure of her old corporate life. The time clock that was once her enemy now seemed like an ally — a moat keeping work from encroaching upon her home life. How liberating, to just clock in, clock out, and leave your worries at the office. But Jill chose the freedom of being her own boss, and so she laid on the floor amidst the mess, with her future resting upon her motionless fingers.
Several minutes passed without a thought in her head, except the thought that was always there: do something. Doing nothing for a moment meant she was a moment behind her competitors. Jill thought so much about doing something she found herself wishing she didn’t have to sleep. She thought endlessly about optimizing and preparing so that the moment she took action she’d be a machine. That blinking cursor told her something was wrong with her process — the ideas weren’t flowing like water. More optimization was necessary before this report could be all it needed to be. There was something blocking her mind.
Jill sat the computer down on the floor. She stood and opened her office door for the first time in three hours. The kids looked up suddenly, poorly concealing their argument that had continued in hushed tones. Without a word, Jill passed into the kitchen.
“Mom…” whined Ben, her 9 year-old.
This child’s inability to read his mother’s mood was impeccable. Suppressing the urge to yell, Jill’s motherly instinct went into overdrive and informed her this cry meant he was hungry. Pizza proved able to him quiet, and the delivery guy certainly knew the fastest route to the house by now. She dialed, ordered, and left a $20 on the counter, grabbing a box of cookies for her own dinner, and slogged back to the office. The kids watched her tired, haggard frame enter the shadows of the darkened hallway as the sounds of their cartoons continued blaring. She stopped in the doorway. Ben turned down the volume.
Jill turned around. “This…is the bomb shelter. This door…is here to protect you…from me. I’m the bomb. If you want to set me off…open it.” Her eyes, staring like they never had to blink again, disappeared behind the closing door.
Leaning against the door, she took a breath. Did she really just say that to her own children? The thought brought her nearly to tears, but she had to be tough. Her business was for them, and her business required she be in a peaceful state of mind. She looked to her spot on the floor, a Jill-shaped snow angel among the mess. Walking to the kitchen hadn’t cleared her mind at all. She’d have to clean this room up before she could really get anything done.
The door opened. The kids looked back, scared to move. “We’re cleaning. Get in here,” muttered Jill. The boys silently followed into the bomb shelter. “This whole house is a mess. It is impossible to get anything done around here. I want you guys to turn off that TV and get this place in order. Get these toys outta here, I don’t know why toys are in my office. Your school stuff, put this away. Clean my office, clean the house…”
“Can we eat first?” asked Ben.
“Pizza, one-hand food, eat and clean,” she replied. She gave them each handfuls of their belongings and ordered them out. They whined. She reminded them: “Bomb. Shelter.” And slammed the door behind them. That guilty feeling sunk in again. They’d understand someday her hard work was all for them.
She gathered all her papers and ordered them…kind of. She’d really organize them later, but at least she’d stuff them in file cabinets for now. She picked up the floor, and even vacuumed. Within an hour, this became a place where she could write an award-winning report. Jill looked at the clock – 8:30. If the savages left any pizza, by now it was cold. The 11:59 deadline was too soon anyway.
Her desk was now clear of clutter. Jill picked up the computer from the floor and put it on the desk. She pulled out the chair with a smile, and sat with the perfect posture of a student whose teacher minded such things. She looked around at the clean, orderly room. Now she could do some damage.
At 8:30 PM. She glanced outside the window — darkness.
11:59 was the deadline she’d set for herself. She was her own boss now. And she could set a new deadline. After all, the day was gone. And she hadn’t even checked that email yet.
Jill left her office, shut the door. She went for a slice of pizza and found none. With the remainder of her box of cookies, Jill sat on the couch and watched her kids argue over what cartoon to watch next. Which is to say, she checked her phone. The emails were too much to tackle at this late hour. Facebook was a bit more appealing. Only 19 unread messages there. She knocked out two or three replies before migrating to the newsfeed. Apparently Crystal wasn’t getting along with her mother. Joseph hated when the barista got his name wrong. And the latest teen sensation had a new music video. “Ugh”, replied Jill to herself. Jill’s own reaction to the video caught her off guard. “Ugh?” she thought. “Why?” Why indeed, did a 36 year-old adult woman have such a strong reaction to an innocent 15 year-old trying to sing some songs? Suddenly a push notification popped up reminding Jill her farm in FarmTown had gone unattended since yesterday, and little else mattered.
Something pressed against her lap. Distracted from the game, Jill looked down to see Ben’s head as he slept. She put the phone down on the armrest, and ran her fingers through his hair. She looked to her other son, who was absorbed in the glow of the television. They were doing nothing to make her proud, but here she felt proud of them nonetheless. If only she could get herself together for these deserving kids.
Later that night in bed, Jill laid alone with her laptop. She scrolled through the “New Release” section on Netflix, then flipped to her “Watch Later” list. Better to pick one from here — she had over 200 movies she’d tagged already. Jill watched 15 minutes of one movie then stopped, deciding she wasn’t really in the mood for a drama. She kept it on the list though; surely she’d watch it sometime. She watched a bit of a comedy that wasn’t all that funny, and thought maybe watching a few short YouTube videos was what she needed. She clicked on a funny cat video, and received recommendations for 25 other videos she might like. Some held her attention for 15 seconds before the next one caught her eye. Clicking became more of the point than watching.
When she received a recommendation to watch that first cat video again, she decided to go to sleep. This meant closing the laptop and messing with her phone for another half-hour. The last few minutes of the day were usually for OkCupid. Sorting out the creeps from the potential decent dates was quite the chore with over 50 messages a day. Not that she had time for dating anyway.
She noticed the clock on her phone. 11:16. If she had the perfect idea right then, fully-formed, and typed at 80 WPM she could reach her deadline. She closed her eyes.
Behind her eyelids, she felt her eyes zigging and zagging. In her head, a small electrical storm. No headache, no pain, but somehow she swore that with the absence of external stimulation, she could physically feel her brain in the act of thinking. And it would not. Shut. Up. Jill often wished she didn’t have to sleep. But just as often, she wished she could…
Does Jill sound like you?
Do you remember your first trip to the library as a child? If you were a book-loving kid like me, who cherished the 20 or 30 books in his own small collection, that moment of stepping into a gigantic public library filled with books was a near-overwhelming experience. Today, you have millions of libraries somewhere behind the screen you’re using right now — but you cannot see the walls. With the internet, you enter a space daily your brain cannot possibly comprehend. What does that do to the mind?
You are expected in the modern technological era to be fluidly part of something imperceivable. Or didn’t you get the email stating so? I sent it to you this morning at 8:30 and it’s already noon — don’t you check your emails? Oh sure, you missed it. Hey, when your phone goes “da-DING”, that means you got an email, you should know that by now. No, not “DA-ding” — that’s a text.
Clear the clutter, clear the mess
We all feel better in a clean and orderly physical space. The human brain thrives on figuring things out, and as long as your eyes see a messy floor, a portion of your brain dedicates itself to making sense of it until finally someone actually cleans the floor. Even when you leave the house, part of your brain is still working on the messy floor problem. You carry a mess wherever you go, until it’s clean. My parents used to make us clean the house just before vacations. I trusted they had a reason, though nobody was coming to visit while we were gone. As an adult whose responsibility it is to keep his own house clean, I now know my parents just wanted to fully enjoy their vacations.
But what if you can never see the mess? Then there’s truly no such thing as “out of sight, out of mind”. Digital weight lives wholly in the mind. Physical messes will remind you of themselves every time you walk in the room, they are their own “string on the finger”. Without some proper management system in place, digital responsibilities become nebulous feelings of dread and anxiety. Quick: how many digital tasks do you have on your docket, versus how many things can you see on your floor?
What is Digital Weight?
The saddest thing about our digital weight crisis is how much we give ourselves that’s wholly unnecessary. I had a racing game on my phone — a fun game, supposedly a diversion from responsibility — with many additional cars and tracks that needed “unlocking”. The game just seemed like its own “to-do” list, and even if I “completed” the game, there was surely a new update with more tasks around the corner. It was one more giant “incomplete” I volunteered for along with Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other distractions. So many of these apps we download are now “social” too, which means “we’re gonna pester your friends until they download it too”. How many social networks do you really need anyway? Are they really so different that they’re each worth another 15 minutes of your day?
Here’s an exercise to help you determine what digital weight is necessary, and what isn’t. How many accounts would you say you have online? Your email, your bank, Amazon, everything. A conservative guess today might be this: enough accounts that if each had a unique password, you’d never remember most of them. I dare you to spend an afternoon changing every one of your account passwords to something new and unique. I mean no using one password for everything, no patterns, all entirely different. Whichever accounts you can’t remember, you abandon forever. Who’s up for the challenge?
The digital world is meant to be of service to the real world. Joyfulness in the 21st century requires we keep that notion in proper order.
- Do you feel digital weight affects you differently from “real world” weight?
- What systems do you have in place to manage your digital life?
- In what ways can you lighten your digital load?
I invite you to shift from judging yourself to fulfilling your purpose with inner peace. Call me for a 25-minute complementary chat.
I encourage you to enjoy life daily.