Lawyers are some of the most anxious people I know. As I’ve written about before, high anxiety is so common in the profession that many attorneys don’t even understand that there are other ways of being.
While the anxiety levels have been a constant for as long as I’ve been around law, it has become harder than ever to for most lawyers to decompress. That’s because the rampant addiction to screens has stolen those pockets of time that we used to have to mentally wander and process all the crap in our lives.
If you have a creative streak you want to start tapping into, screen addiction is even more damaging.
Screens encourage focus on that thing immediately in front of you. When your attention is fixated on flickering pixels, even funny ones of cat videos, there is no space for off-topic thoughts to saunter in and gad about.
Make no mistake, for creative types in and out of law, this is a death knell.
The Peril of Rollercoasters
If we don’t cultivate time without our beloved screens, we don’t even allow ourselves to think about the information that we pick up from them, let alone anything else. It’s the thinking, and mind-wandering, which make up the base of the creativity pyramid. When creative minds wander, they often put together disparate, seemingly unrelated ideas. Without that time of contemplation and unfocused pondering, creativity nosedives.
Picking up a screen is the mental equivalent of getting on a rollercoaster: All of your attention is focused on the ride. The chances are not good that you will notice the lovely stray patch of daffodils growing near the base of the coaster’s structure. Which is too bad, because that could have been the inspiration for a painting, or a musing about beauty in the midst of industrial decay, or a short story plot about how did that stray patch get there, anyway?
We are living in the midst of one of the biggest historic shifts the world has seen since Gutenberg. Rather than having to hunt down information and ideas, we have vast digital libraries, Facebook, and Pinterest. We don’t wait for the paper to be delivered, or the news to come on; Twitter and websites keep us up-to-the-second.
It really is addictive, in the clinical meaning of that term. Addictions, as psychology types will tell us, are often ways to hide from things that are fairly unpleasant in our lives. We latch on to the addiction object to the exclusion of our own health and well-being.
After not checking her mobile for a while, a publishing executive confesses she gets “a jangly feeling. You miss that hit you get when there’s a text. You know it’s not right to check your phone when you’re with someone, but it’s addictive.”
Workaholic Attorneys, This Means You
While our culture worships workaholics, they are as mentally unhealthy as substance addicts. They use work to avoid the gaping holes in there lives: Poor relationships, lack of meaning and purpose, and so on.
There’s new research, in fact, that suggests many (but certainly not all) substance addicts get better when they learn how to forge healthy, meaningful relationships. The struggle of addiction, then, might not be biochemistry and physiology (for many), but a way to cope with a deep sense of disconnection from others.
Both attorneys and creative types often feel disconnected, though not always for the same reasons. The average attorney is usually poor at interpersonal relationship skills. Their focus on rules, logic and order often blinds them to the emotional fallout they can create, if they ignore the impact of their actions on feelings of those they work with. Those ignored feelings result in sharply decreased productivity, and disengagement at work. Ultimately, those bruised feelings tend to walk out the door, taking a lot of institutional knowledge and training investment with them.
Creatives, on the other hand, often possess deep amounts of empathy. It can be overwhelming. So creatives often wreck relationships to avoid feeling overwhelmed by emotions they don’t know how to manage.
Either way, people use screens to substitute for some difficult emotional work.
Managing the Firehose
Our biggest task now, as humans inhabiting a world of profound abundance, is to manage the influx of it into your life. The failure to manage that massive firehose leaves most of us overwhelmed, overstimulated, and anxious as all hell.
One of the ways to manage the firehose is periodic digital fasts. That’s right: Divorcing yourself from all things digital. Yes, I can hear the screams of protest—-but also feel the eyes and ears tilted, at the fantasy idea of not being enslaved to a screen.
Long ago, in the Ancient Pre-email Era, I spent a weekend doing a digital fast. This was during the first time I worked through The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. Cameron advocates for a week-long abstention from ALL sources of media, including:
When she first wrote about her media fast, as she called it in the early 1990s, smartphones were barely a glimmer in Steve Jobs’ eye. Now, besieged with smartphones, tablets, laptops, and even watches a gazillion times more powerful than that Commodore 64 my family had, we need to implement her idea more than ever.
Back then, I only did my fast for a long weekend, and I didn’t pull it off perfectly. I got in a lot of horseback riding and work at the stable, talking to friends, and writing. I may have even tackled my perennial albatross of decluttering.
But not having the TV on at all? Failed. I caved and turned on the Weather Channel, with its (then) detailed blue screen of Local Weather on the 8s, but on mute. And kind of hungrily watched the same thing parade across the 22” TV screen a few times.
Recently, without quite planning to, I did nearly the same thing. I went on a craft retreat with one of my besties, We stayed at a state park cabin, which was fairly quiet. Between crafting, naps and some exhilarating junktiqueing, we didn’t even turn on the TV until after 7 Saturday night. I consulted the Oracle of Phone for only a few minutes here and there.
At the end of both weekends, decades apart, I experienced the same thing: Supreme relaxation, and calmness. Particularly after the first fast, when I was better about not watching TV, I had the most delicious feeling of mental space.
Even if you can’t manage a week or a weekend, I urge you to give even a single day a try. You will be amazed. For the first time in a while, I’d be willing to wager, you will start to hear that soft, yet persistent inner voice.
The opportunity to simply let our minds drift sounds so unimportant, doesn’t it? But it is vital. A mind without a project to obsess over, a problem to solve, a stimulus to respond to, has the time it needs to process. Unstructured time is how we digest some of our lives. With the constant barrage of screens, we have more mental food to digest, and thus an even higher need for mental wandering.
For highly creative people, these empty little spaces are where ideas often start. It’s no accident that some of our best ideas come in the shower, or out on a walk (sans earbuds), or while commuting. I have a client who recently gave up a very long commute for a nearly non-existent one. She is keenly missing the time she had to simply think about her novel during the drive. (She is not, though, missing the crushing commute.)
Invite some empty pockets of time into your life. Don’t take work to do while you wait a few minutes somewhere. Put yourself on a screen budget/diet:
- No screen until you’ve been awake for at least 45 minutes.
- No screen an hour before you go to bed.
- No screen to fill in a few minutes of waiting here and there, to stave off boredom or to be “productive.”
- No screen during meals, whether by yourself or with others.
I know, I know. How will you keep up? What about the partner who is trying to reach you? What if something big happens, how will you know?
Well, I’m betting that the majority of the “keeping up” stuff doesn’t really make a difference. Think about it. By the end of the week, will it really have mattered whether you knew a certain factoid before 10 a.m.?
If a partner or important coworker is trying to reach you, there’s always texting or, gasp! calling you. If the partner won’t change her or his ways to contact you, and insists on email, start training that person now to expect slower response times. Work on making them wait 5 or 10 minutes at first. Then, advance to 15 minutes. Try to increase to a half hour minimum. If they complain, just say you were somewhere that you couldn’t respond right away. The bathroom and a doctor’s appointment are usually good covers.
And if something truly huge happens, like a September 11? Trust me, you’ll find out.
With a holiday weekend looming, this might be a perfect time to take a digital fast out for a spin. Plan some activities you’ve been putting off, like bungee jumping or lying in a hammock all day. Find at least one thing to do that involves as many senses as possible, and that delights you.
If you do take the digital fast plunge, I’d love to hear how it was.
Jennifer Alvey is a recovering attorney who loves helping unhappy lawyers tap into their creativity and zest for life and work. If you would like some help with that, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a discounted sample coaching session.