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Finding Meaning for Suffering and Life

 

No one likes suffering. Suffering is evil. 

Modern Americans are determined to eliminate pain. We keep patenting stronger painkillers, designing softer and stretchier clothes, and inventing new ways for mattresses to perfectly conform to our temperature demands. 

But at the same time, many of us deliberately inflict pain on ourselves. On the healthier end of the spectrum, people work out and brag about their sore muscles, or proudly complain about their strict diets. Military boot camps are made deliberately miserable, partly to encourage physical and mental toughness, but also to give the soldiers a sense of unity and pride, since they succeeded where others did not. More unhealthily, some people form addictions to tattoos and body piercings, and finally there are the sad and desperate people who cut or otherwise abuse themselves. 

But why? Pain is always seen as something to be avoided. No one likes pain. And yet people deliberately seek it out. 

Reasons people seek pain

This is by no means a phenomenon which is limited to 21st century Americans. Most cultures have some ritual practice which involves discomfort if not actual pain. Many of these practices are religious in origin, such as fasting for Christians–and the Lenten fast used to be much stricter than it is now–or dangling yourself off hooks on procession floats for Hindus

Others are more social. In many tribal cultures boys need to prove themselves men by suffering some sort of ordeal–sometimes a prolonged, horrifying one. Girls too are often expected to undergo painful rituals to prepare them for adulthood. These ceremonies simply indicate that the initiate is now part of the tribal group, with all its rights and privileges. 

But pain remains something that humans try to avoid, and rightly so. Pain is a signal our body sends that something is wrong. Pain, except considered as information, is a physical evil. And so pain cannot be sought for its own sake. This would be contrary to human nature, which is ineradicably directed towards goodness. Why then do people in every place and every time seem to seek it out? 

While some more or less imbalanced people seek physical pain as a counter-irritant to mental pain, or in a misguided attempt to assuage feelings of guilt, the majority of people who deliberately undergo physical pain are looking for something else.

Everything worthwhile has a price

Nature teaches us that all good things come at a price. The beautiful flower must shrivel and die to produce the seed-bearing fruit, and the seed in its turn must die to produce a new plant. Trees must die to provide shelter and heat for humans, and animals must die so that other animals can live. No child is born into the world without pain. 

Everything worth having comes at a price, and for humans, the highest price is the price of pain. 

So painful tribal initiation rites, though some of the more horrifying are probably satanic perversions, have their purpose. Undergoing an excruciating initiation rite does not indicate a desire for pain as such. Rather it expresses the initiate’s desire to accomplish something great, something deeply worthwhile. If achieving full adult membership in a tribe comes only at tremendous cost, it must be worth a tremendous amount. What we value most we pay the most for, and vice versa. 

Religious rites that cause pain or discomfort are similarly logical. The purpose of religion is to honor God. And how can we as humans show that we value God above ourselves but by paying some price? Sacrifice of some valued object is a common element in pagan religious rituals, as is undergoing physical pain, mutilation, and even human sacrifice. The idea is that the favors asked of the gods are worth something, and the worshipper is willing to pay that price. The greater the favor, the higher the price. 

The Christian view

Christianity transforms this idea into something nobler. In Christianity, religion is not a servile grovelling for favors, but a simple recognition that God is God and we are creatures.  Fasting has always been a part of the Christian tradition. By fasting and other penances encouraged or allowed by the Church, the Christian shows himself and God that he values God and God’s laws more than he values himself and his own comfort. Religious vows–like the vow of celibacy that Catholic priests and religious take, or the vow of poverty that some religious take–take this idea even further.  The religious is saying that God is more important than even his primal human instincts to own property and reproduce. 

Even outside the realm of religious sacrifice, Christians also believe that pain and suffering can have real value in helping people grow in virtue. But Christianity also forbids mutilation, and encourages people to seek good health and happiness, and to alleviate the pain of others.

So Christianity and human nature seem to agree that pain is both valuable and to be avoided. And while this might seem like a contradiction, it is resolvable, because it’s not really about the pain. Many of us face frustration, loneliness, depression, and anxiety. But these sufferings, while they can be so painful as to overwhelm the spirit, do not build up the person in any way. You cannot strive against a feeling of pointlessness in your life, or achieve moral victory over depression. No spiritual writer recommends feeling anxiety as a way to God. 

It is not about the pain. Pain and discomfort in and of themselves are evil. Being more uncomfortable is not the recipe for virtuous living. 

Meaningful effort

What is necessary for both human flourishing and Christian perfection is not suffering as such, but meaningful effort. 

We humans need to strive. We need to overcome obstacles on the way to meaningful goals. What are games if not artificial obstacles we create so that we can overcome them? But there has to be a goal, a meaning to make the struggle worthwhile. 

The endurance required by tribal rituals is given meaning by the social context. However brutal these rituals might be, they are undergone because they give the participant a sense that he has accomplished something worthwhile. And when he joins the brotherhood of his tribe as a full adult, having passed the test, he is closer to his fellow tribesmen than he would be without that test. 

Suffering the pains of childbirth for the sake of a new life is meaningful. It is hard—I’ve done it three times, twice with no pain meds—but the results are worth it. 

Suffering the pains that hard physical labor brings in order to grow food for your family’s survival; that too is meaningful. But most of us have never had to do it, and that—I think—is a good thing. It is good that most humans do not have to work every waking hour to provide a bare survival diet… but with our prosperity and comfort comes the cost of having to find a new struggle. 

Finding meaning in ordinary life

Christianity offers meaning. The sufferings Christians undergo, whether chosen as penance, or simply accepted as God’s will, are given meaning by our Faith, and bring us closer to God. The connection between these actions (or sufferings) and their supernatural meaning is hard to see, however. 

To suffer discouragement and depression for the salvation of souls… where is the connection? Suffering loneliness for the good of your country? How does that work? 

We suffer, not the same way other Christians in other times and places have suffered, but we do suffer. No Roman emperors stand by with racks, whips and ravening lions to test our Faith. The specter of starvation rarely lifts in head—the last major famine in the West was over 100 years ago. Even the fast of Lent prescribed by the Church has been mitigated. 

Our sufferings come from health problems, financial worries, family drama, worry over our children’s future. And even if we manage to escape from those, mental anguish, loneliness, frustration, the pain of misunderstanding lie in wait. We might surround ourselves with more and more physical comforts and distractions to drown it out, but we cannot escape the suffering in our own minds. 

But this suffering is unconnected to anything. It is not the result of striving—as the pains of childbirth or physical labor are. It is the opposite. It is the result of having nothing to aim for, no goal on the other side of our obstacles. 

To be happy healthy humans, that is to say, virtuous humans, we need to strive for a difficult goal. It is the nature of humans to shrivel without a goal to live for. 

But what goal? And how shall we strive? What mission can we undertake? 

Yes, we strive for salvation. Yes, we strive to follow the commandments. We raise our families. We do our jobs. We do routine maintenance, the million sisyphean tasks of housekeeping and parenting. These things must be done. And we can “offer them up” along with our physical and mental pain. Spiritual writers like St Therese of Lisieux assure us that these tasks and pains and struggles can bring us closer to God, if taken in the right way. Far be it from me to contradict St Therese. 

What if we need more?

I wonder sometimes, however, if we expect too much from our mental muscles. It is hard to see the connection between routine tasks done every day (even with a morning offering) and the glorious service of God.  It is hard to see how renewing car registration paperwork or suburban loneliness relate to the passion and death of the God-man and the work of salvation. Maybe you, reader, are capable of this mental workout. I personally find it all but impossible. 

Much of the life of a religious involves the same daily grind as the life of a layperson. Monks and nuns have to take showers, scrub dishes, cook meals, and tidy things up, just like laypeople. But their lives are dedicated directly to the service of God, and everything about their rule is designed to remind them of this fact. They wear a uniform and live together with others who have made the same consecration. They have scheduled prayers and activities. 

The religious rule is, of course, not applicable to married people like myself. It would be inappropriate for me to wear a religious habit. The very existence of babies—those maddening and delightful creatures—renders order and schedule and fixed prayer (or sleep) routines impracticable. As for life in community—well, I do believe in single family dwellings and the autonomy of the married couple, within reason. 

Is it possible though that we spend more effort than necessary in doing the mental gymnastics of trying to see connection between our Faith and the daily grind, when perhaps what we should be looking for is a way to make more connection between them? 

I haven’t yet come up with a solution to this question. Are active and dynamic religious third orders for married people the answer?  Or community living and radical charity as practiced in the Catholic Worker houses associated with Tradistae? Stronger parish associations? 

We don’t need more suffering in our lives. What we need are more reasons to suffer. We need friends who will suffer and pray with us and for us; who will hold us accountable and encourage us. We need concrete goals to work for, a way of bringing our Faith to life in physical reality.

I don’t know what this looks like. If you have any ideas, please share them with me. 

 

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No More Polite Lies

I recently heard it said that white lies were the lubricant of society—that everyone lies constantly and that social life would be intolerable if we didn’t. If you go to a dinner party and the conversation was mediocre and the food bland, you say, “It was delicious and I had a wonderful time.” A lie…. But doesn’t society work better when everyone tells that sort of lie? When we smooth out the rough edges of reality for our neighbors, and let them see only what they want to see? 

This is merciful. This is right. Or at the very least, it’s how you have to do things to be liked. Or so we tell ourselves. But this is itself a lie, a deeply destructive one. 

“White lies” rob the hearer

Perhaps white lies take the sting out of failure, but they also take the shine from achievement. 

Let’s suppose I host a dinner party—as all who are able should—and it is an utter failure, but people tell me, “I had such a great time. Your cooking is fabulous.” In their mind, they are sparing me embarrassment, making me feel better, and in general being good, responsible friends. But I am not an idiot. I know if I did a decent job cooking or not. I know if I planned badly and invited an incompatible group of people. Their praise will fall flat.

Worse, if my failures are praised as wonderful, what about when I think I have succeeded? Will I receive the same feedback? Will I be told, “I had such a great time. Your cooking is fabulous?” If I am told I succeeded when I didn’t, how will I know when I have really done something good? There will always be that lingering doubt. “Maybe they’re just saying that to make me feel better?” 

Imagine for a moment how glorious it would be to know that no one would ever tell you a lie about yourself to make you feel better. That any praise you received was the person’s absolutely sincere and convinced opinion.

“White lies” are not the only way to be polite. 

This is not to say that we should say whatever nasty thoughts come to the top of our minds all the time. Telling all of the truth all of the time is hardly the right answer. It would be horribly impolite and possibly even cruel to tell the hostess of a dinner party, “I was bored out of my mind and the roast was dry.” But it’s not as though there are only two options: either be rude or lie. 

Suppose the meal was really terrible. Suppose you were bored out of your mind. Was nothing about the experience good? Maybe as you leave you can tell the hostess, “Thank you so much for inviting us. That was such a lovely bouquet you had on your table.” Or “That pie was good.” If you honestly cannot think of a single truthful compliment—and I think it would have to have been a remarkably bad evening for that—then simply say, “Thank you so much for inviting us.” 

It is not rude. And you have not degraded the truth by saying it. 

“White lies” rob the teller

To go back to our failed dinner party—not that anyone wants to go back to one of those—imagine that you do always fall back on the white lie so that you don’t have to say the unpleasant things in your mind. Then there’s no motivation for you to change the things you notice. It’s not socially unacceptable to have negative thoughts… just to express them. Even if you never express your unpleasant thoughts, they still poison you. You will come home from that lousy dinner party after telling the hostess what a wonderful time you had and how much you enjoyed the food, and your thoughts will be something like this: “Wow. What a waste of an evening. What horrible food. I really can’t stand that one guy who was there telling lame jokes. I should just stay home next time someone invites me out. It would save a lot of trouble. I’m so disappointed in humanity.” 

But now suppose for a moment that you had made a pact with yourself never to say anything you did not honestly think. You would have to search your mind for something positive about the evening. Perhaps there was nice wine, or maybe the hostess set the table in an elegant way. Perhaps you were just grateful to get out of the house and the dinner party was an excuse.

Whatever the case, you are now looking for the positive. Courteous truthfulness is like keeping a gratitude journal. It forces you to look beyond the negative and see the other story you could be telling yourself. 

Let’s start being courteously truthful instead of telling polite lies. It makes everyone’s life better, starting with yours. 

 

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How Your Tech Changes You

This is the third and last part of my series on relating to technology in a healthy way. I’d love you hear your thoughts in the comments.  If you haven’t read the other two parts, they can be found here: Part 1 and Part 2 

(This post contains some affiliate links. These links allow me to earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.)

A few more thoughts on our relationship with technology. 

The tools we use change us. Archeologists can tell the difference between the skeletons of sword-wielding warriors and ordinary people because using the sword at that level actually changes the structure of the warriors’ body. The British archers who ended the age of armored knights on horseback as the ultimate weapon of war similarly became one with their bows. An archer’s bow arm became highly overdeveloped, and this is visible even in the skeleton. 

These are extreme examples, but every tool we use changes us both physically and mentally. The swordsman becomes one with his sword when he fights. He does not “use his sword” to fight. He fights, and the sword is an extension of himself that gives him new powers. 

Our phones and computers are extensions of our powers as well. 

My phone gives me the ability to speak to people across the world, to learn new things, to take notes about things that are important to me. I have become accustomed to having these powers, and I do not think this a bad thing. In a certain very real sense, we do become one with our phones and computers. It is not surprising that many people become anxious without their phones. I am sure many swordsmen feel incomplete without their weapons. They are missing a part of what they have come to think of as themselves. How could they not be anxious? 

It’s fine to become one with your tools. In fact, only when you are one with your tools can you work at your highest potential. The only trouble is if your tools somehow diminish you, if you lose the abilities you had before you had the tool. 

If the swordsman gains the ability to fight with his sword, he gains as a warrior, but if he can never set the sword down, he will be diminished as a man. It would be hard to write, to eat, or to show affection while constantly holding a naked blade in your hand. 

The same is true of our phones. We gain abilities from our phones, but if we can never put them down we lose parts of our humanity. The information they make available to us is wonderful, but we can’t lose our ability to just be bored occasionally. As Manoush Zomorodi says on page 5 of Bored and Brilliant, “We may feel like we are doing very little when we endlessly fold laundry, but our brains are actually hard at work. When our minds wander, we activate something called the ‘default mode,’ the mental place where we solve problems and generate our best ideas, and engage in what’s known as ‘autobiographical planning,’ which is how we make sense of our world and our lives and set future goals. The default mode is also involved in how we try to understand and empathize with other people, and make moral judgments.” These are important powers which we can only access if we’re just a little bit bored. If we have a constant stream of phone calls, texts, games, and videos keeping our brains constantly busy, we will never go into “default mode” and we will be less than we could be as a result. 

Keep the control in your hands

It’s also important to keep our tools as tools and not let them make us slaves. We should have tools that fit us, not force ourselves to conform to our tools. Really good sword fighters often had swords specially made for them, or at least chose a sword that suited them better than others. 

We should customize our devices to do what we want them to do for us, and to not do what we do not want them to do. I want my phone to enhance my ability to communicate with friends, to organize my life, and to share my ideas with others. Otherwise I want it to be as unobtrusive as possible. I have turned off all notifications except email, text, calls, and my library app, and have muted everything except calls from my contacts. I have no games and no social media. (I kind of wish the news wasn’t so easily accessible, but I don’t usually have a problem with it.)

I installed Google Docs for writing, Todoist for organizing, and I take lots of pictures of my kids so I can send them to my parents and in-laws. I have been trying to call my friends more than I text them lately, as I think the level of connection achieved is higher, and I can do other things (like laundry and dishes) while talking, but not while texting. 

My phone—while I do use it very extensively–is my tool and not my master. It is an extension of myself that I am comfortable with and which I believe makes me better at being what I want to be. 

I hope you’ve found these ideas useful and interesting, and that you are inspired to make your devices healthy and welcome extensions of yourself. It will probably take a long time and a lot of adjustment to find the exact set of tools and rules that helps you lead your best life, but it is worth every bit of effort you put in. Your future self will thank you, as will your friends and family. 

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Tech and Your Family

This is the second part of a three part series on making technology work for you. If you haven’t read the first section yet, please find it here. (This post contains some affiliate links. These links allow me to earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.)

Now that you have come up with a real plan for how to manage technology in your life, you are ready to look into managing your kids’ technology. But even with a coherent plan, you can’t just make rules, even highly intentional and rational rules, and expect smooth sailing, especially if you’re talking about teenagers. 

Start with yourself

I have done a lot of reading on this subject. Some of the authors were parents, some were counselors who deal with parents and children, and some were just very productive people. 

Based on my research, my own experience, and what my gut tells me, the first step for any successful control of your teen’s tech use is to set an example of intentional and virtuous technology use. 

As a responsible adult you likely have a lot of reasonable and necessary uses for technology. And you might also waste lots of time. To your kids, the two look identical. (You might have trouble telling the difference sometimes too–I know I do.) So a good way to be more intentional with your own tech use, and to set a good example is simply to tell your kids what you are doing when you are using your phone or computer. “Hey, honey, I’m going to check my email.” “I am going to look up a recipe for roasting a chicken.” “I am looking for a craft idea to do with you this afternoon.” “I am reading an article about___.” “I am texting your grandmother pictures of you.” “I am texting my friend.” 

Just saying what you are doing on your phone can help you stay focused on what you are going to do, as well as let your child know that you are actually doing something reasonable with the time you are looking at your phone instead of him.

It’s also important that you be able to set your phone down. Give your kids phone-free quality time. Put the phones in another room during dinner. (More about family dinners later.) It turns out this is more important than you might think. On page 56 of his book, The Distraction Addiction, Alex Pang describes a study in which pairs of people were randomly assigned to have conversations with each other, either with a visible smartphone present, or without a phone present. The study he cites noted, “It was found that conversations in the absence of mobile communication technologies were rated as significantly superior compared with those in the presence of a mobile device, above and beyond the effects of age, gender, ethnicity, and mood.”

So make sure you can set your own phone aside if you want to make effective rules for your kids. 

Make sure that screen time is not the only option

A lot of families struggle with screen time rules because screen time is by far the most alluring option open for their kids. They can do something screen-related or they can do… nothing? Chores? This might be the single most important step to take in making sure your kids have a healthy relationship with tech–making sure they have other things in their lives as well. 

Do they have friends that they can have over or go and visit? Do they have real-life hobbies? Growing plants, raising pets, building models, biking or hiking with friends, etc. are all good things that teach real-life skills and are just plain good for you both physically and mentally. These and other activities are what Cal Newport calls “high quality leisure activities” because they require input, and are deeply satisfying. High quality leisure activities are also great opportunities for parents to spend quality time with their older children, and for siblings to spend quality time with each other and really enjoy one another. 

It’s important to set rules, and enforce them, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect screen time limitations to be followed if the alternative is staring at the wall. 

Set clear and reasonable boundaries. 

Smartphones are very powerful. They have access to literally the entire internet, with all of the information, and all of the filth that entails. They can have addictive games installed on them, and have a million other ways of encouraging you to spend all your time looking at them. 

They also have great potential to help you live your life better. I use mine for my productivity system, writing blog posts and books, and talking to my friends. 

Since the internet and internet connected devices are so powerful, it is important to give kids guidance and boundaries for their use. Below are the rules I would suggest. 

My tech rules

(For the record, my kids are 3 and under. I imagine by the time my kids are teenagers this conversation will be somewhat different. I taught middle school and highschool for a few years though–and loved it–so teens are not an unknown topic for me. These are the rules I would recommend to any of my friends who do have teens.) 

I don’t think kids under 18 should have full-function smartphones. They are designed by very very smart people to be addictive, and your teen’s brain has not developed fully. Any addiction they form as a teen will be much harder to break. That being said, if your kid is driving, or otherwise leaving the house alone, it seems sane to allow them to have a way of calling their parents/bosses or other important people in their lives. There are a number of devices that allow only calling, texting, and some offline apps. I recommend getting one of these for a minor child who will be leaving the house alone. The device can be returned to you when the child returns home, which should allow for proper supervision. 

If you do give your child a smartphone, don’t let him have it in his bedroom. People (adults or children) are most likely to do stupid things on their phones alone at night, and it’s also really bad for your sleep. 

Boundaries for teens

If your child is in middle or highschool, he will likely need internet access for his school work, and a computer for typing papers. I think it’s important for kids to learn how to type properly before leaving school. I recommend a program like Mavis Beacon, or whatever they use nowadays. I recommend giving students access to a computer in a public area (and only in a public area) and having an effective internet filter like Covenant Eyes

Your child may need to have his own email account. If you have a decent relationship with your kid, this shouldn’t be a problem, though depending on the age of the child, it might work well to have them share their passwords with you. I would not allow my teenage children to have social media accounts. (The only exception I can see myself making to this rule at this point would be if my teenager had a business and was using a social media page exclusively for business purposes. In this case I would imagine that adult advice in managing the account would be both helpful and welcome.)

As for computer games, that is a personal decision that each parent has to make on their own. Different people are more or less likely to form addictions. If you know you have a tendency in that direction, you should be more careful with your kids, because addictive behavior is influenced by genetics. I think my rule would be absolutely never more than an hour a day of entertainment screen time, and gaming only as a social activity. (The only exceptions I would make to the social rule would be games that teach you to type, or other practical skills.)  I don’t think I’d let kids under 10 or 12 play either. 

These are just my rules. Everyone has their own needs and difficulties. But no matter who you are, no matter what your rules are, you need to have a good relationship with your kids to make it work. 

No rules will work unless you do this

Having the perfect rules, and having perfect technology habits yourself is not enough. If you take nothing else away from this blog post, I want you to take this away: The most important thing you can do to keep your kids safe on the internet (or elsewhere) is to develop an open and loving relationship with them. 

Let them know that they can talk to you about anything. You don’t want your kids being too embarrassed to ask you about the disturbing pictures they saw on someone else’s computer. You don’t want them to be too scared to tell you if someone tried to take advantage of them. 

Here is some advice therapists, counselors, priests and others often give on this subject: 

Eat dinner as a family, and make it a pleasant daily ritual. It’s good for your health and for your relationships. And talk during dinner. Talk about anything and everything. Most of all, let your kids talk. Let them ask questions, tell stories, and argue (courteously of course).

Make sure your children know you love them no matter what. Children have love languages too. If you’re not sure your kids know you love them, make sure of it. Discipline should show love, not make your kids doubt it. There are many ways to discipline, and you need to find one that works for each of your kids. Whatever you pick, it is vital that it leaves your children very clear about what expectations and consequences are, and also leaves them feeling loved and respected. Make sure your relationship with your kids is based on love, not fear. 

Teach your kids about their bodies.

Making sure children know how their bodies work and what appropriate and inappropriate touch are like, and what to do if they see or experience anything inappropriate. This knowledge must be age appropriate, but the general consensus is that it’s better to go too early than too late. 

When you do teach them about their bodies, be sure not to leave them with a sense of shame or embarrassment at the topic. If your child senses that you are embarrassed by the topic, it can lead to an unwillingness to discuss problems that arise, and even marital difficulties later on. 

If you are for any reason incapable of giving a reverent, honest and open explanation of bodily processes to your child, then it might be a good idea to ask a trusted friend to explain it. 

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Managing Technology in Your Life Part 1

Several months ago someone asked me to write about teens and technology use.  I thought it sounded like a fun topic, so I researched the subject. I fell down a rabbit hole of books about tech and kids, tech and society, social media, etc. Then I read Digital Minimalism–by far the best of the lot–and was thoroughly overcome with a sense of inferiority. I knew that no blog post I could ever write would be anywhere near as good as that book. And I also knew that I couldn’t just write a blog post that said, “Read Digital Minimalism. Just do it. You will be happier.” 

So I didn’t write at all. But I finally decided that I just had to share its ideas. You should really just read Digital Minimalism, but I will try to make this blog post the next best thing. 

Start with a plan

When you’re coming up with screen time rules for your kids, the most important thing is to have a coherent idea of the role you want tech to play in your life. Making up arbitrary rules doesn’t work. You need a coherent and principled system, like digital minimalism. 

On his blog, Cal Newport (author of the book Digital Minimalism) defines digital minimalism as “a philosophy that helps you question what digital communication tools (and behaviors surrounding these tools) add the most value to your life.”

It’s not about going home and throwing out your TV, your smart phone, or your laptop, unless you decide rationally and intentionally that this is what is best for you and your family. You might, but that’s not really the point. The point is to use your technologies to help you get what you want, rather than letting them run your life. 

What do you want?

So the first step in coming up with a tech plan is to list your goals as a person and as a family. What would your perfect life look like? What do you want to achieve? What kind of leisure activities would you like to spend your time on? What would you like your kids to be and do? What sort of quality time do you want to spend with your children? What talents do you want to develop? What talents do you want your kids to develop? What big financial, relationship or personal goals do you have in your life? 

Really take some time to think about these questions, because the answers will be the basis not only for a sound tech strategy, but also for a happier and more fulfilling life.

What tech do you use?

The second step: List all of the tech you (and your family) regularly use. This includes devices (eg. Laptop, smart speakers, ipods, smart phones, TV, gaming consoles, etc.) It also includes services and social media platforms. (eg. Cable, Netflix, Facebook, Instagram, etc.) 

Be thorough. Really take stock of the technologies you use and how you use them. And how much you use them–which might be hard. A time tracker might be useful for this. There are automatic time tracking programs for both computers and phones which can tell you how much time you spend on which apps. If you want to track all your activities, not just the ones on particular devices, you can also use the pen and paper method, or there are apps that you can use on your phone to track your activities of all kinds. It can be quite interesting to see how much time you spend on different things, but time tracking is hard. I tried it for about 3 days (using a simple app) and by the third day I gave up, exhausted from the effort of trying to be always aware of what I was doing. 

Cal Newport actually recommends taking a 30 day break from all inessential technologies just as a sort of detox, so you can think more clearly about what you have been spending your time on and whether you want those things back in your life. This might actually be easier than tracking your activities.

Is your tech helping you get what you want? 

Step three is to compare your two lists. Look at each technology in your life and ask yourself three questions. 

  1. Does this device or service help me achieve any of the things I have decided that I value? 
  2. Is this device or technology the best or only way to achieve that goal? 
  3. How can I minimize the downsides of this technology and improve its effectiveness for my purposes?

If anything on your list does not pass the first test, then get rid of it. If it’s not making you happier or helping you achieve your goals, then you don’t want it in your life. 

The second question is where things get more complicated. An example would be Facebook. Let’s say I’ve decided that keeping in touch with my family is very important to me, and Facebook helps me do that. But is Facebook the best technology for helping you stay in touch with family? Or when you log in, do you mainly see angry political ranting and cat videos that distract you for the next 15 minutes (or the next hour) and take you away from your family who is present. Consider alternatives. I, for example, don’t use Facebook for anything personal. I have some friends who live elsewhere who I want to keep in touch with, and I have chosen to use a group chat instead of Facebook, because I think that this maximizes my meaningful interaction with my actual friends in ways that Facebook does not. 

But maybe you decide that Facebook is indeed the best choice for you. This is where question 3 comes in. How can you use Facebook so that you minimize the negative consequences of it? I do use Facebook. I used to find it irritating, frustrating and time wasting. I was frustrated that my email was constantly full of updates. But I had found that it was the most effective way to advertise my blog, so I had to figure out how to mitigate the negative consequences of having it in my life.

Because my only purpose for having Facebook is to advertise my writing, I blocked all email notifications. I have Facebook only on my laptop, and not on my phone. I post links when I write a new blog post, and then I leave. I have learned that looking at my Facebook feed makes me angry and sad, so I pretty much limit my Facebook use to posting links and leaving. (I also occasionally network using the private messenger function, but never on my phone.) This works very well for me.

Other people might need to use Facebook because of a Facebook group that they participate in. It is possible to bookmark that group’s page, so that when you need to check your group you can go directly there without looking at things that irritate and distract you.

These are just examples. Maybe the technology you’re looking at is Netflix. Maybe you have decided that watching a TV show or film with your spouse or your kids is a valuable way of connecting with them, and that Netflix is the best way of accomplishing that. But maybe you are frustrated because you find that every time you look at Netflix you spend half an hour being irritated because you can’t figure out what you want to watch. Maybe a good choice for you would be to make a rule that you don’t open up Netflix unless you have already decided what to watch, or that you will set a 10 minute timer, after which you will pick whatever has looked best so far.

The point is that every technology you have, every service you subscribe to, everything you own, takes a certain amount of space, time, mental energy, and sometimes money to maintain. Is it worth it, and how can it be minimized? This is the decision you have to make, based on your own goals for you and your family

Now that you have made a coherent and principled system for making technology decisions, now you are ready to tackle the sticky issue of how much and what technologies are appropriate for your child to use. 

That will be for next time.