Pruning Season

150 150 Frances
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Dear Kristin,

For the avid reader, the internet provides an embarrassment of riches. It’s a universe of interesting articles and reviews, blog posts and opinion pieces, each one filled with its own galaxy of rabbit holes to go down. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone online to look up a fact and found myself emerging hours later a million miles away from where I started my search.

As a result, I’ve read all sorts of interesting things and learned all sorts of fun facts–but I fear I’ve also ruined my brain, or at the very least my attention span. And this behavior has seeped into other parts of my life. I’ll be reading a book (something that’s gotten harder and harder to do over the last few years, my attention span being what it is these days) and the author will mention a book they read, and I immediately go online and put the book on hold at the library. On any given week, I’ve got twenty books checked out, and I might read one of them–if that. Most of them were impulse checkouts that I’ve lost interest in by the time I bring them home.

Earlier in the fall, we talked about the lack of routine in our lives. I think one of my problems is a lack of focus. I want to read everything, take on every interesting project, keep up via Instagram and Facebook with what my friends are doing. Choices abound, and without the constraints of children needing to be picked up and dropped off and fed and nagged, I find myself pushed in this direction and that from one day to the next without any bumpers to get me back on course. The problem is, when it comes to the internet, most of this pinballing is highly entertaining. It’s fun to scroll through a litany of quilts on Instagram. I love reading my favorite advice columnists (Carolyn Hax in the Washington Post) and checking out celebrity fashion fails on Go Fug Yourself. But in the words of Neil Postman, sometimes I feel like I’m amusing myself to death.

Not literally, of course. I’m healthy as a horse. But at the end of the day, I often feel like I’ve left a lot of important work undone. Not work-work–I write every morning, meet deadlines, do what I need to do to get paid–but the tasks that feed me in important ways. Journaling, deep reading, even quilting and working outside. The work of the soul. 

You and I have been talking about the role social media plays in our lives lately–actually, it’s a recurring conversation. Compared to a lot of people I know, especially my younger friends, I don’t think either of us are heavy users. Nonetheless, it creates the same kind of fragmentation–of time, of mind–that falling through any internet rabbit hole does. No matter how carefully we curate our Instagram and Facebook feeds, someone’s going to post something startling or fascinating or infuriating that hijacks our brains, at least for a little bit. Not to mention what happens when we post–or at least when I post. Every “like” is a little endorphin rush–You like me, you really like me!–that keeps me coming back for more. It’s embarrassing, to be honest.

As we head into winter (and for those who observe, the Advent season), I want to do some pruning in my life. There are any number of reasons to prune a plant–to get rid of dead or diseased branches, yes, but also to encourage new growth (as well as the direction of growth). I feel like some of my habits need pruning, especially those around my internet use. I’ve already put one new practice in place: instead of reading through email and online newspapers while I drink my coffee in the morning, I read a chapter or two of a book. I keep my phone in the other room so I’m not tempted to stop reading to look something up.

The second practice I want to implement is staying off the internet on Sundays. Staying off social media isn’t a problem; it’s the rest of it–from checking the weather to looking for recipes on the New York Times Food section. I want to get my attention span back. I want to go deeper. Right now I feel like I’m spending most of my time in the shallows, and that’s not where I want to be.


Dear Frances,

I love the analogy of pruning. I don’t think either of us needs to completely revamp our lives, just a few snips here and there to send new energy into the parts of our lives that we want to cultivate.

So many of your thoughts resonate with me, like constantly going down rabbit holes. Whether it’s the news, social media, or even watching a TV show, something always seems to come up that has me looking up a tidbit of information. Remember when we just had to settle for not knowing everything? My kids find this unfathomable. And the fragmentation of my thoughts–even when I’m working, I am constantly interrupted by email, texts, or Slack messages. And the sad part is that I welcome that distraction. That little endorphin hit. I believe it was in Cal Newport’s book Deep Work where he said something like only one in a hundred email messages contains anything fun, but it’s often enough for us to have the compulsion to check every time a notification pops up. It’s the modern version of Pavlov’s dog.

Another issue for me is constantly being plugged in. I am almost never alone with my own thoughts anymore. As much as I love podcasts and audiobooks, I’m realizing that I’ve always got my earbuds in. If I’m walking, cleaning, folding clothes, or stitching–I’m listening or watching something. I’m convinced that the reason most people get their best ideas in the shower is that it’s the only time your brain has a chance to run free. Ben found himself thinking similar thoughts and realized that he needed to unplug more so that he “had a chance to think original thoughts”. It’s so true, if we are always consuming, then we are never creating.

Last year I got an MRI on my foot. I had to lay perfectly still for an hour with nothing but my own thoughts to keep me company. It was a real struggle at first. I spent some time in prayer and then just let my mind wander, mostly thinking about how I never do this anymore. I wonder if the thoughts that keep me up at night would dissipate a bit if I let them play out in the daylight hours. I think I need to give my brain more time to process instead of the constant assault of inputs.

This sentence really hit hard for me: But sometimes at the end of the day, I feel like I’ve left a lot of important work undone.

Same, as the kids say, same. But again, not work-work. I hit my deadlines and keep up on the laundry, cooking, and cleaning. It’s soul work I’m talking about. As you know, I’m always talking about journaling. “I need to work through that in a journal. I need to journal that out to get to the bottom of that. I hope to spend some time journaling today” are all things you’ve heard me say a million times. But somehow days pass and I rarely get to it. It’s hard work to attend to the soul. It’s much easier to slip in those earbuds and watch another YouTube video or cozy mystery (not that there’s anything wrong with either of those in moderation!).

For me, fragmentation comes with transitions. Whenever I’m moving from one activity to the other, tasks at work, or just sitting down for a few minutes, the compulsion to pick up my phone and open Instagram is strong. Just a quick check and a scroll through stories–you know what I mean. But more often than not, it’s unfulfilling. There are two sides to that coin. I credit social media with helping me find my tribe. I love being a part of the quilting and crafting community! I love being informed and inspired by others’ creativity. But there need to be guardrails in place for me. I took Instagram and Facebook off my phone at the beginning of the year. It’s on my tablet, but not my phone. That was to keep me from checking social media when I should be working. Instagram has snuck back on my phone, and I think I need to delete it again. I’d like to switch my “transition” activity to reading again. I’ve got Mary Oliver’s poetry book Devotions sitting out now and that is the perfect thing to pick up and read for a few minutes to help my brain switch gears. Or even pick up whatever fiction book I happen to be reading. Just leave the phone alone, Kristin,

Speaking of reading, I know we differ on this topic, but I have come to love reading e-books. I actually prefer them to paper books at this point (oh the horror!). But, I have also learned that I am much better off reading those e-books on my Kindle instead of on the Kindle app on my iPad. Again, the temptation to jump out of the book and look something up or scroll social media can just be too much. I love how my Kindle is just a dedicated reader, plus is so much easier on my eyes!

As we head into the holidays, it’s a great time to look at areas to prune. Hopefully, it will create some space for growth and get rid of things that are not serving us right now. I love your idea of starting your days off without news and social media. I want to be informed, but I’m thinking about moving reading the news to lunchtime. In the morning, I’d like to do my own version of morning pages or a brain dump to just clear the decks of my brain. Once I’ve created a little space in my head, I’d like to do some inspirational non-fiction reading. I do love starting the day with Sarah Ban Breathnach’s Simple Abundance. I recently bought a used copy of her book Romancing the Ordinary, but I haven’t made the time to explore it. I’m also excited to get into the book I recently purchased upon your recommendation, The Life We’re Looking For: Reclaiming Relationship in a Technological World by Andy Crouch. It seems like a timely read. I’m also going to try to spend a little time stitching or knitting in the morning–just five or ten minutes. Handwork has a way of slowing my brain down, and that sounds like a good way to start the day.

I also love your idea of staying off the internet on Sundays. I float in and out of trying to observe the Sabbath. I’ve gone through periods of not doing any type of cleaning or shopping on Sundays to being decidedly less observant. I remember years ago, a blogger I admired implemented “Unplugged Sundays” for her family. They stayed off of the internet and got outside for some family adventures. What a great way to teach kids some boundaries around technology! Since the kids are out of the house, I’m going to do a No Social Media Sunday, since that is more my problem than the internet in general. I’m already looking forward to it!

Lastly, I’m going to try to just be unplugged more during the day. Go for a walk without any earbuds! Fold laundry with nothing but my own thoughts. I love how audiobooks and podcasts can help make unpleasant tasks more palatable, but I think I’ve overdone it. I need some silence in my life–time for my brain to process and get creative.

I’m hoping that these changes free up space to do more soul and creative work. To create instead of consume.

Here’s to walking into the Advent season with some renewed energy and focus!


P.S. I have to confess that I had to constantly fight the urge to open a new tab on my computer to check Facebook while I was writing this. Every time I struggled to put my thoughts into words, I just wanted to switch gears from “creating” to “consuming”. The temptation is great, but so worth it to fight back to regain focus and sustained attention.

  • Robin Leftwich

    I love the pruning analogy. It’s so easy for me to get engrossed in a puzzle or a game on my iPad and before I know it an hour is gone. But I’ve had some life challenges lately so the distraction is needed. Just not as much! Game time could use some pruning! I think we all need to take baby steps and not lop off whole branches at a time. I’m definitely going to spend more time with handwork such as cross stitch and quilting a few Christmas presents, which is when I think. Thanks for the idea!

  • Tracie

    I love quiet, especially since my brain is easily overwhelmed when processing auditory data. When I sew, I rarely listen to music, a podcast, or a YouTube video. I’m happiest when the hum of my machine puts my brain on “coast,” allowing my thoughts to wander. I think that’s the true therapeutic quality of sewing for me. It’s also why I usually choose simpler patterns now; I don’t want a challenge that requires concentration but rather a steady flow that’s conducive to relaxation, creative thinking, and problem-solving. On the flip side, I love to soak up visual stimulation: magazines, Instagram, and Pinterest are my jam. They fill me with inspiration! Yet, I can feel inspiration tip to overwhelm and even comparison. It’s like eating creme brulee: the first few bites are heavenly and then suddenly I feel repulsed by the rich, sweet flavor. As long as I remember that apps on my phone are meant to be a small portion of my day and not my life-giving meal, I will feel more satisfied.

  • Sherri

    I loved this post so much! Both of you shared such important and wonderful ideas. Thank you for the inspiration to do some pruning over here in my little corner of the world!

  • Marsha H

    Good food for thought, ladies! I also listen to books or podcasts whenever I can. I often wonder if I could still enjoy a walk without listening to something. I do have handwork at the ready by my chair for long winter nights in front of the TV. Now, if I can just make myself take it up and work on it.

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