Rosalyn Picard from MIT describes a study of college students where half were allowed to use social media as they normally would; the other half were limited to 10 minutes a day. The group using a limited amount of SM showed clinically significant reductions of loneliness and depression. Those who used it without any change showed no reduction in loneliness or depression.

This past year has taught us a lot, including how much we depend on our screens – and how much it affects us. There is a lot of good about our access to the internet, of course, but it’s not all healthy. There’s a part of us that instinctively knows this. Zoom fatigue isn’t just being tired of staring at a screen – it’s also a recognition that this isn’t full, real interaction.

With many of us spending more time at home and with limited physical interaction over the past 14 months, this has accelerated the trend that now has over 50% of us spending over 50% of our waking time online. Think about that for a second: most Americans spend most of their conscious time staring at a screen. As Adam Seagrave points out, this means that our minds are in one place, while our bodies are in another.

Photographer Eric Pickersgill has taken a series of pictures, where he makes one change. He removes the screens from his subjects’ hands. Pickersgill then has them pose as they were, only screen-less. It’s quite revealing to see how screens change how we interact with others. Take 90 seconds and look at some of the pictures, and see how you react. (And yes, it is ironic that you are looking on a screen at pictures of people not interacting as if they were still holding their screens. Somehow it seems an apt metaphor for life in 2021.)

Of course, phones and screens have become a necessary part of our lives. And for many of us, it’s how we do our job and interact with others. Even so, we weren’t made to live on them. As someone has said, When our phones had leashes, we were free. Now our phones are free, and we have leashes.

With that in mind, I’ve recently been thinking about ways I can incorporate screen-free times in my day. And because it’s how my mind works, I came up with an acronym to help me to consider how many of these I’ve been able to help frame my work day:

X – Exercise. Ideally, I want to take a walk or do a workout at the beginning of my day. Doesn’t always happen. (And, yes, I realize exercise doesn’t begin with an X. Close enough.) Also, I don’t check email first thing in the morning, and other than music, I try to avoid getting on my phone as I start my day. And I don’t do social media. That’s my choice. I know others who love it. For me, I found that I couldn’t help but compare myself to others. Plus, social media is designed to keep me scrolling, and I just don’t want to give Silicon Valley that much of my time or my thoughts.

P – Pray. I need this at the beginning of my day, for sure. But at least once a week, I want to join some of the folks on the floor at my office who gather for conversation and prayer every morning. I could write a whole post on this time of prayer – and maybe I will – but it involves people from different countries and who have been to many different countries. I am continually encouraged, challenged and enlightened. 

L – Lunch. On days I’m in the office at lunchtime, I’ve tended to eat in my cube in front of a screen. And much of the time, I’m reading stuff on that screen that is a current event or issue that only serves to spike an emotion, rather than an action. Much of the time, my lunch reading is more about something that is happening somewhere in the world – or the world of ideas – over which I have no control. (This is another challenge of screens and their connection to the internet. We now have instant access to news from around the world – much of it bad, and much of it we are powerless to do anything about, other than fret, fume, or post on facebook. I’m learning that much of what passes through the screen to my eyes and into my mind is not helpful. And much of what I can do to respond and address real issues is usually right in front of me – away from a screen.)

    Anyway, recently I decided I need to get away from my screens (and often my cube) when I eat. So, when I’m in the office, I may go eat in the break room. A couple of times where I’ve done that, it’s led to interesting conversation – in real life. Another time, I didn’t get away from the microwave before I finished eating my burgoo, continuing a conversation begun as the microwave did its work. I’ve gone out to a nearby restaurant with a colleague, and today (today!) I’ve got to get upstairs to set a time for lunch with a friend one floor up. And on days I’m not eating with or near someone, I want to eat while reading something not on a screen.

O – Outside. It’s very important to get outside. The sun, the breeze, the trees, and all that grows and flows – they are free therapy. I’m blessed that my job has me out and about most days, so I get to include this a few moments at a time. But on days I’m in the office all day, if I’m not careful, I haven’t gotten off my floor and out the door.

R – Read. If I’ve got some margin – even just 10-15 minutes – I want to spend some of my work time reading something long-form, in print. Reading a book is something we do too little of, but very few things can help us think more deeply about issues we face than reading something that can’t be packaged in a tweet, a short video, or even a blog post. When it comes to any hot topic we face today (Covid! Race! Politics! Church Politics! Church Unity! Climate! Gender!), we’re not going to tweet our way out of it. We’re going to have to have real conversations that struggle with nuance and messy details and questions we can’t easily answer. And one way we’re going to have real conversations that really contribute to greater understanding and action, is when we read or listen to something that takes more than 5 minutes and requires some real thought – and possibly change of mind.

So, each day at work, I try to remember this acronym: XPLOR. My hope is that it will remind me to “explore” the world around me, a little bit more – engaging with people and ideas and God and nature and my body in ways that invite me, and those around me, to a fuller, more embodied life, right where I’m living.

Ok, that’s enough. Time to put down this screen and go xplor-ing.

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