We all need to take it offline now and then

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We're at a particularly interesting time in technology, the Internet, the open source movements, and what accessibility means. We get the ability to be a lot of different people that were not possible before: web designer, cloud architect, open source project manager, open source developer, and more. Working from home is viable with an Internet connection in a way that wasn’t available in the early 1990s. And, when was the last time you looked at the Yellow Pages? (I was on vacation in the Bahamas and was curious. That was it for me.)

Also available now, with the Internet in our pocket at all times, are different ways to express ourselves and communicate. The way my grandparents use text messaging is different from the way that my teenage cousin uses her phone, but if you put their two messages side by side, can you tell who sent which message? I've recieved a text message from an older relative that had the same indecipherable text speak as a text message from my 14 year old cousin—and it wasn't because of autocorrect. I can justify this to myself by reasoning that it’s about learning a technology—that this new technology has no attachment to proper English and that perhaps these two just have the same personal communication style. But, this theory has a lot of holes in it, which I dislike.

It’s true, the ways in which we communicate have become different; I myself have trouble motivating myself to write things that are longer than a haiku in one sitting, and I know I'm not the only one. The valuable thing now is not about being ON all the time, it's about protecting our ability to focus. You can have all of the productivity tools in the world but your writing will be scattered and your communications won't be as clear if you're constantly distracted by the world around you. This is one of the biggest challenges of any generation using these new technologies.

We figured out how to overstimulate ourselves very effectively, and in the end we call it multi-tasking and work. We praise and give raises to the people who can pull it off better than the people who work slowly and methodically on single tasks.

I don't think this is going to be our undoing as a culture, and I certainly don't think we need to get all Pygmalion on everyone about how learning to code is going to fix all of our problems. Learning to code gives you an ability to think through problems, but it certainly doesn't give you focus. The practice of coding as a profession gives you practice in solving puzzles, and it’s very satisfying at the end of the day to be able to point to the ‘things you solved’. Coding as a job also opens other doors, but it’s one piece of a larger puzzle.

And if you’re working on an open source project, you are gaining more experience by working with many different kinds of people in different environments, which is even more valuable when you realize that the community is self-selected and most people are volunteers. They're not being paid by lines of code written for a project, they're doing it because they value the project and their ability to contribute to the community. There are other reasons too, and I don't mean to proscribe everyone's reasons in the same way, but at the end of the day, you're working with people you like on something you believe in. That part isn't going to change.

What will change is that the people who are able to focus and fight being able to do a million things at once will find it easier to keep going. We talk a lot about burnout in our communities and how to work against it—by finding other things in our lives that keep us stable and happy that aren't tied to our work. We ask each other and ourselves things like: How can I be on-call for years at a time? When can I stop saying yes to everything that comes my way?

Do you remember waiting by the phone for someone to call, or even public telephones at all? Changing times and technologies is not about who we're being at work, it's about who we're being in a world that can teach us how to best draw the lines between or blur the lines between our work and home, the casual and formal, and our professional and personal lives. For me, I've made a decision to get back into scuba diving for a different experience of the world. It's also pretty difficult to be online at 50 feet underwater. I come back refreshed and with a greater, broader perspective than before, beyond a particular moment at work or on the Internet.

I’d love to hear what you think. What are the other big issues that we need to confront on the lines of the personal and professional? On the lines of real life and online life?


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I'm a community lead at Red Hat! I'm a writer! I'm a technologist! I live in Portland, OR and I'm surrounded by open source and open source communities. Sometimes I write about of these things!



Thanks for the great article.

I fully agree with your argument and its motivation, but struggle with it with when it comes to practice.

One way to get there is this idea of "No email Thursdays",
to take one day of the week in which we don't look at email (in this case, we should extend it to twitter, facebook, instagram...), and focus on "getting things done", or "reading that chapter that we have been postponing", or "truly meeting with people".

An official day of e-disconnection (that could be different for different people), makes easier to temper our urge for checking our electronic messages.

That would be pretty amazing. I struggle with prioritizing the 'Urgent' over the 'Important', which means that email will take hold over some really critical things that will be missed if they're not done.

I tend to take a few minutes after initial email + coffee to remember 'how to be a person', but that doesn't fix it much.
Maybe that's the next post!

I tend to agree with Amye Scavarda - It is about priorities. Setting them requires quiet, personal reflection and a degree of wisdom that is hard to muster in a jumbled fast moving environment.

I think (and it is open for discussion) that opensource in particular and IT in general should be viewed as a tool to achieve important goals, not an end unto itself.

For any human being, the first priority is acquiring the basic necessities for life itself. To use the old fashioned phrase, everyone has to "make a living". In affluent Western societies, we may take food, clothing and shelter as a given. It isn't. So, perhaps the first question for reflection might be, "How can I use technology to create more than I consume"?

The act of creating more than I consume (being productive) brings with it a treasure trove of intangible benefits - self-esteem, respect, dignity, security, freedom, inner peace, independence and a host of other personal assets that cannot be assigned a monetary value. To enjoy these benefits, I need for those around me to create more than they consume so they have no reason to resent me and try to take what I have.

For purely selfish reasons, the second question might be, "How can I use technology to help others create more than they consume"?

These are just ideas for discussion. I don't have the answers but I keep seeking.

Your title was about taking it off line and you made a point about scuba diving. Here's another, try skydiving.

I may be the only one that considers this a stress reliever but if you want to understand focus there's little like stepping out the door at 14,000 feet to clear your head.

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