Hypercontent, meet your foe: A schedule

by Mr. Sheehy

With my graduate school experience entering the application for degree stage (though there is that 4-hour competency exam and the portfolio defense, but I’m planning on being competent the day of the exam and the portfolio, if I do say so, seems defensible), I spent a bit of time considering how I might reacquire some of the habits of life that I used to enjoy. These habits are fairly basic and I narrowed them down to three priorities — reading, writing, and exercising. They’re my past-times, my staples, but in the weeks after my official coursework had ended, I still wasn’t doing any of them.

I couldn’t figure why for sure, but part of my theory is that for almost two years now I’ve had so much to do that I didn’t have to worry about being disciplined. When a moment freed up, I had no choice to slack. I had just one choice: work. Play with the girls when they’re awake, but after you put them to bed, back to work. Not that I did nothing else during that time; after all, I surely watched the Red Sox run through the playoffs last October, and I slipped a movie into the evening lineup every month or two. But mostly I did not get to choose what I read or to write what I truly wanted to write. And I can count on one hand the times I’ve exercised.

But with the margin comes room for choice, and here’s where I have to reinsert the discipline I’ve not needed. When the opening emerges, will I read some article on A List Apart about web design, or will I sit down with Solzhenitsyn and The Gulag Archipelago? What I really want to do is sit down with Solzhenitsyn, but I wasn’t doing it.

Instead, I was scanning the Web, checking six thousand places for six thousand things, falling into the mode of reading which I seem to have downloaded like a virus with my Google Reader, the mode so astutely described by Nicholas Carr in his recent article in The Atlantic:

Thanks to the ubiquity of text on the Internet, not to mention the popularity of text-messaging on cell phones, we may well be reading more today than we did in the 1970s or 1980s, when television was our medium of choice. But it’s a different kind of reading, and behind it lies a different kind of thinking—perhaps even a new sense of the self. “We are not only what we read,” says Maryanne Wolf . . . “We are how we read.” Wolf worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace.

At the end of this quote Maryanne Wolf states her concern that when we read this fast we are not making connections like we would with deep reading:

When we read online, she says, we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.

I find her statement funny because when we technology people get too excited we act like the ability to link content together – hypertext – is a wonderful tool for helping the reader to connect ideas. But the reader doesn’t make those connections while reading, she makes them while reflecting; if we do not take the time to reflect, we do not connect. This means the ones who are connecting these bits of information are the bloggers, the ones who in stopping to write are stopping to read more deeply and to reflect on it.

Anyway, my point is that I am not interested in being a cursory reader and cursory thinker.

Deep reading, as Maryanne Wolf argues, is indistinguishable from deep thinking.

I want to read deeply, and I am not ever going to agree with Google about what mental productivity is:

The more pieces of information we can “access” and the faster we can extract their gist, the more productive we become as thinkers.

I am productive when I am wise, I am wise when I dig deep, and I dig deep only when I read slowly and think clearly.

This is where I turned to my wife for a tip. She has turned to schedules as a solid salvation of her days with the girls. Routines allow her to do everything from minimize the nightmarish trips to Wal*Mart (Annie can’t make it in and out without crying) to grabbing a slice of personal time every afternoon (it’s a small slice, but she’ll take it). I figured I could use something like it, so I designed a weekly schedule. The schedule assigned a task for each of my nights, which are the times when the girls are asleep and I am able to do something grown-upy. It looked like this:

  • Monday: write
  • Tuesday: read and exercise
  • Wednesday: write
  • Thursday: read and exercise
  • Friday: fun (or web design)
  • Saturday: exercise and read/write or web design
  • Sunday: read and study the Bible more than I have time for in my daily reading of it

I can read and exercise on the same day because we have a recumbent exercise bike, which allows us to read while we pedal. That was a very wise purchase for us.

Anyway, I began my life on a schedule on Tuesday, and it worked great until Thursday, when I stayed up talking with my wife until late and then washed the dishes until 10:00. I had begun exercising at 10:00 on Tuesday but then it kept me up past 11:00 and I dragged my tail all Wednesday, which meant that by Wednesday night when I had the chance to write all I could manage was to create a list of details for later use. So on Thursday I just read until 10:30 and went to sleep, figuring that my work delivering furniture (summer job) substituted as at least an anaerobic workout. Such conflicts continued into the weekend, and by Sunday my schedule and I were shot. This week — week 2 of my scheduled life — saw me read somewhere under 16 pages and write none.

Life after grad school is busier than I realized. I am finding that reading it great, but so is having clean dishes, and that writing is fun, but so is knowing that my checking account is balanced. I am not wasting my time online, but I am not magically finding more time.

I suppose I could attempt a modified schedule, perhaps with only one day of writing and one of reading each week; or perhaps I’ll have to abandon one of my web design projects. Whatever I do, I am determined to make it an intentional choice, one where I do not accidentally allow my time to slip away in an undisciplined heap of hyperlinks.

I hope you do the same, which means if this article inspires you to stop reading my blog, realize that I won’t be offended. I’d take it as the highest compliment you could pay me.

Thanks for reading.