Real Life with Shawn Blanc

Shawn Blanc

Continuing today with Mr. Shawn Blanc, the Real Life series delves into the fascinating depths of productivity, the definition of the technological experience, and the nature of forging a career in this immaterial environment.

The Real Life series is an ongoing discussion between friends. A conversation built upon the tenets of introspection, reflection, and the thoughtful consideration of the past, present, and future.

MA: Shawn, as a self-employed writer, new parent, and widely respected personality, how has technology made a true impact upon your life?

SB: Nowadays, for a guy like me, it’s pretty much impossible to find an area of my life that hasn’t been impacted by technology.

When my wife and I started dating nearly 10 years ago — we dated long distance, she in Boulder and I in Kansas City — we kept in touch through modern technologies like cell phones, email, AOL’s Instant Messenger. As new parents, we did so much research on the Internet to find out about birth plans and procedures, common practices in hospitals, vaccination schedules, and more.

Probably the most visible impact that technology has had on me is in regards to my professinal life. As a former print-designer-turned-writer my entire self-employed professional career has stood on the shoulders of modern technology. And if that were not enough, I now make my living by using technology to write about technology. There’s a joke in there somewhere.

I love what I do and I am grateful for the ways different technologies have advanced and enriched my life. Gadgets that are both fun to use and which allow me to do projects and create things that beforehand would have been difficult if not impossible.

MA: Although enriched, do you ever worry that technology is, perhaps, too entwined within your life? That is, do you purposefully try to keep some things outside of the bounds of the digital world?

For instance, as a new father, do you intend to have digital media and technology as a portion of your son’s formative years, or will you withhold such advances?

SB: I’ve never felt that technology itself was too entwined in my life, though I have gone through seasons where I feel the need to slow down or step away. But that could be true for any and all hobbies or distractions. There are people who admit to spending too much time wrenching on the car, or too much time golfing, or whatever it may be.

Technology, gadgets, and the like are not bad in and of themselves, it’s us who need self-control to live balanced and purposeful lives.

When I was growing up my parents only allowed me to watch TV and play video games for a set number of hours per week. I expect I’ll do the same with my kids as they grow up. It’s not to withhold things from them but simply to set the standards for self-control that they won’t yet be capable of setting themselves. If I had had things my way as a kid I would have played Nintendo for 16 hours a day.

MA: Focusing on self-control and balance, I notice that a constant point of interest for you — particularly prevalent during episodes of Shawn Today — is the art of productively scheduling and organizing your time.

Now that you’re self-employed and working from home — particularly with a newborn so close at hand — do you feel that you’ve achieved an appropriate level of balance? I imagine there’s plenty of temptation in both the digital and physical worlds in which you reside. Does this necessitate strict segregation of “real life” from “digital life,” or have you successfully defined a middle ground for yourself?

SB: Segregating “real life” from “digital life” is a matter of time management and, like I mentioned earlier, self-control.

Time management is how I define the time-boundaries in which I am working at my computer. If someone works a 9-5 job then those boundaries are pre-defined for them. They start at 9:00 am and end at 5:00 pm. But as someone who works for himself from home, I have to set those boundaries for myself. I find that if I don’t keep a somewhat consistent work schedule then it’s easy for work to encroach on family or personal time.

Something I think we could all relate to is how easy the iPhone has made it for our digital lives to encroach on our real lives. Also known as checking Twitter in the line at the grocery store, checking email while waiting at a stop light, or posting to Instagram when at the dinner table. If you consider this type of overlap to be bad (or at least rude), the only real solution is self-control. Surely we’re adult enough to be able to leave our phones in our pockets while we’re at the dinner table with friends and family.

Relatedly, I recently began wearing a wristwatch again. So often when I pull out my iPhone to check the time I find myself also unlocking it to check Twitter, email, and the like. If the iPhone is the cigarette of this century, then my wristwatch is a nicotine patch; giving me one less excuse to pull out my iPhone when I don’t need to.

MA: The notion of anchoring your digital interactions through the simple, tangible nature of a wristwatch is a fascinating concept. Moreover, I think it speaks volumes about the dedication an individual must hold toward the fundamental tenet of self-control.

Self-control is no longer a matter of avoiding the occasional sweet food or snack, but in actually severing our ties with this ubiquitous and ever-lowering cloud of information.

In many respects, the concept of a “cloud” strikes me as funny. Given the increasing difficulty to avoid the Internet, the cloud seems to have become more of a fog. Regardless of the self-control we might hold dearly, our vision is perpetually in danger of being encroached by this ever-thickening world of distortion around us.

In this vein, are there any other ways you try to anchor yourself to the “real world?” For instance, do you read physically bound books and magazines, or do you leave your phone at home and go for a walk?

Or, conversely, do you consider that even remotely necessary? Do you feel that you have a firm grasp of your self-control in this environment?

SB: Yes I do read physically bound books, and I use a pen to write in a physical Moleskine journal. But I do this because I enjoy it, not as a some sort of fleeting anchor to try and keep me grounded in the “real world” because I don’t think the issue is about being anchored in the “real world”. Rather, I think it has to do with managing the ubiquitous distractions in our life.

Twitter, email, my Instapaper queue, these are just as much a part of the real world as my physical books are. The difference is that, thanks to our iPhones, these digital goods are always with us and always accessible. They are so ubiquitous in fact that it’s fair to argue our usage of them could border on addiction.

Maybe addicted is too strong of a term. But maybe not; remember when people used BlackBerrys and called them CrackBerrys?

There are more than a few behavioral parallels between obsessive Twitter or email checking and things like problem gambling or other impulse control disorders. From the Wikipedia definition of impulse control disorders:

Impulsivity, the key feature of these disorders, can be thought of as seeking a small, short term gain; in the case of these behaviours, this gain is at the expense of a large and long term loss.

How often do we check Twitter to see if there is something new breaking or if someone has @replied to us? How often to we check our email to see if we’ve got a new message? How often do we check Instagram to see if someone has liked one of our photos? Isn’t this behavior like putting a nickel in the slot machine and pulling the lever to see if we’ll win? Sometimes you win and someone has @replied to you or sent you an email, and sometimes there’s nothing. But if you “win” just frequently enough then it’s all that’s needed for you to keep trying when you’re at that stoplight or in line at the grocery store or at the dinner table with your family.

Granted, impulsively checking our social networks isn’t nearly as destructive to our lives as gambling away out paycheck, but the mental state of addiction is similar. And that makes me concerned for our long-term ability to focus, to think independently, to carry on meaningful conversations, to build relationships, to innovate and create, and more.

One of my all-time favorite Paul Graham essays is “The Top Idea in Your Mind”. In it he writes:

I think most people have one top idea in their mind at any given time. That’s the idea their thoughts will drift toward when they’re allowed to drift freely. And this idea will thus tend to get all the benefit of that type of thinking, while others are starved of it.

And so it’s not about drawing a line between the digital world and the real world, but about not always reaching for our iPhones. Because our minds need chunks of unstimulated time. Boredom is not the enemy.

MA: In many respects, I think that’s a truly poignant lens through which we can understand the relationship between the digital and tangible worlds.

The concept of the digital world — particularly Twitter — as a competitive game in which you “win” with each update is, I think, truly fascinating to consider. Competition is one of the greatest driving forces of the physical world, and it’s important consider how such a fundamental element of the human experience has translated into the digital environment. Particularly given the element of impulsivity.

Through all of this, your perspective seems steeped within the contemporary. Rather than regarding the digital world as a separate entity, you simply — and accurately — view it as simply a characteristic of modern society. The challenges of the digital world are, therefore, simply the challenges of the tangible “meatspace.” In the words of Paul Miller:

What is internet fluff, and what is internet marrow? What’s the line between “virtual” and “real”? If it’s not tangible, is it necessarily inconsequential? And how am I to know? Especially with a blindfold on. Ideas have consequences, and if an idea falls in an internet message board, and I’m not there to retweet it, it does make a sound.

In this vein, as a full-time Internet writer, what’s next for you? Insofar as your career broaches the digital and tangible, you have a relatively boundless future ahead of you. How do you intend to explore this in your second year as a full-time writer?

SB: That’s a great question. I hope I haven’t communicated that I am against checking Twitter. I just feel strongly that these these can erode away our time and our focus if we don’t manage them.

I read once that money makes a horrible master but an excellent slave. If we budget and manage our finances, we have a much higher chance of accomplish our financial goals. But if we just spend whatever we want whenever we want, without regard for the consequences on our financial health then we’ll likely never reach those fiscal goals.

And the same is true for our time. Without a budget (or, put another way, an action plan) for how we’re going to spend our day, then we easily end up squandering our time — spending it on the tyranny of the urgent or on what feels important in the moment. And so why not check email in scheduled blocks of time instead of incessantly throughout the day?

And so, to answer your question about what’s next for me, it has a lot to do with exactly what we’ve been talking about. I am very much wanting to improve my daily productivity by working smarter and with more focus so that I can create more things. I have a few projects in mind that I would like to start, but I so often feel like I don’t know where I’d find the time to do them. That’s why I want to get even better at personal time management.

Or, put another way, I want to explore ways to be creative on a schedule.

I don’t know about you, but I have this paradigm that creative work can only be done on the spur of the moment. That you have to keep an open schedule so when the mood strikes you you’re free to write.

But does creativity really work that way? I’m not convinced.

This article is the third iteration of ONE37’s recurring interview series, Real Life. You can catch up with Shawn on Twitter, or his popular self-titled weblog,