Tying Yourself to the Mast

Tying Yourself to the Mast

Create February 02, 2013 / By Annie Murphy Paul
Tying Yourself to the Mast

"We don't want our attention to wander from our work or our studies, but inevitably it does—and that's why we have to tie ourselves to the mast."

In the great epic poem The Odyssey, our hero Odysseus must find a way "to evade the voices of the marvellous Sirens in their flowering meadow." He commands the sailors on his ship: "You are to tie me hand and foot and stand me upright in the mast housing, and fasten the rope ends round the mast itself, and if I beg you to free me, bind me yet more tightly.” By intentionally limiting his own freedom, Odysseus is able to avoid giving into temptation.
Those of us who work and learn with the help of digital devices face temptation all the time: not from Sirens but from email, Facebook, Twitter, blogs and (fill in your favorite web distraction here). We don't want our attention to wander from our work or our studies, but inevitably it does—and that's why we have to tie ourselves to the mast, limiting our freedom in advance so that, paradoxically, we're free to do what we really want to do. Here are three ways to follow Odysseus's example:

1. Read a book. A printed book is so boring. It doesn't have hyperlinks, or comments sections, or interactive features. Which is exactly why it makes a sturdy mast to which to tie yourself if you really want to become immersed. And when we're truly immersed, we read and remember differently and better. A recent study that asked participants to either skim or read closely the Jane Austen novel Pride and Prejudicewhile in an MRI machine found that, for the people in the latter group, "the whole brain transformed in [its shift to] close reading"—a shift that didn't happen in people who read with less focused attention. So when you have a choice of formats, tie yourself to the mast by reading your books, magazines and newspapers offline.

2. Put your computer on lockdown. Zadie Smith uses it. So does Dave Eggers. When these and other well-known novelists want to get writing done, they turn off their computers' Internet capabilities with a program called Freedom. While it may seem perverse to deprive yourself of the wonders of the web, you're actually giving yourself something more important: a chance to enter into a state of deep engagement with your work or your studies that is ultimately much more rewarding than the fleeting thrill of checking your email.

3. Institute an "unplugged project." In a study published last year in the journalCommunication Teacher, researcher Wendy L. Bjorklund and her co-authors described an "unplugged project" they carried out with a group of hyper-connected college students (are there any other kind?). First, Bjorklund had them record all their digital media use (including cell phones, iPods, TV, video games etc.) for a 24-hour period. Then she asked them to refrain from all digital media use for another 24-hour interval. Finally, the students wrote a short paper about the experience, answering questions like, "What was the hardest part about the 24 hours? The easiest part?" and "Will you in any way change your use of technology based on what you have learned?" 
The writing exercise is really key here: most of us have experienced the slow creep of technology into our lives without ever reflecting much on what it means. (Or, if you're young enough, you've never known anything else.) So try unplugging for a while, and thinking about how it feels. After a spell of tying yourself to the mast, you may decide that you like being saved from the siren of distraction.  


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