By the end of 2017, I knew that being a full-time freelancer wasn't right for me. I was living out of my savings account, which grew smaller and smaller by the day. I knew that I didn't want to go back into higher education or food service (I've paid my dues), but I needed to do something. You can only eat boiled vegetables and canned black beans for all of your meals for so long before you start wanting to earn I-can-eat-at-restaurants money.
As luck would have it, I scrolled through a job board in early October and saw a familiar name. There was a company called HubSpot that had a remote customer service opening. It was an entry-level role that didn't have particularly strict requirements, and it was open to anyone, anywhere in the United States. I knew of HubSpot, too. While freelancing, I found the HubSpot Academy and had taken a few of their free certification courses as a means of professional development. The courses were good and it seemed like an interesting brand, so I applied. Several interviews later, and I was hired on as one of the two first fully remote customer service new hires.
Fast forward to today. I'm still at HubSpot, but I'm no longer in customer service. I'm a Product Expert (PE-2 for Search Optimization and CMS Publishing Frontend and Backend, if you want to be technical). I spend my days bouncing between Slack, email, Jira, CodePen, GitHub, and Google's Web Dev docs doing a combination of problem solving, frontend web development, and SEO strategy. Acronyms that were once absolutely foreign to me– CLI, CMS, CRM, TPD, SEO, CSS, JS– are parts of my daily vocabulary. While I feel like I'm betraying my hard-earned BA in English to say it, I'm nearly as comfortable now discussing iterative loops and integrated systems as I once was discussing the works of Cather, Woolfe, and Joyce.
Becoming a tech nerd has certainly had its benefits. For one, my mother always wanted me to go into a STEM field and was dismayed that I declined opportunities to be a pre-med student in favor of studying English; while computer sciences aren't as much her style as medicine, I at least get to check the good son box off my list. On top of that, this website exists because of my experiences in tech. I launched it (as BlakeWrites) back in 2017 so that I could have a platform for learning how to do frontend web development work. Knowing how to do some basic coding and troubleshoot websites has opened so many doors for me to explore my creativity in new ways. Plus, I now make I-can-eat-at-restaurants money. I still have plenty of steamed vegetables, but now I can buy name brand frozen vegetables if I want to. I'm not confined to Kroger's 10-for-$10 specials.
But, working in tech hasn't been a fast path to easy street. It has had its challenges. It can be frustrating, perhaps even infuriating, at times. It's fast paced, constantly changing, and a struggle to stay abreast of key updates and new trends. Most interestingly, however, it has also changed my relationship with technology altogether. Often, these changes are for the worse. And yet, I think there's a lot of value that we can mine out of the hurdles that technology creates, and we can make some assumptions about how to move past these challenges to live more fulfilling lives.
Focussed Work is Harder When You're Online
In a previous article, I gave a high-level overview of the physiological and psychological changes we face from always being online, and one of the things I discussed was how I've subconsciously formed habits around avoiding difficulty and focussed concentration. For example, when I'm faced with writer's block, my reflex is to open a new tab and go to Twitter. Rather than muscle my way through to the otherside, my instinct is to avoid discomfort and get the dopamine rush of seeing something new.
Do I particularly want to go to Twitter? No. Twitter is mainly where I go to feel frustrated and resentful toward folks who deny science, perpetuate racism, or generally parade their entitlement. Sure, it is also one of the ways that I stay up to date with folks in SEO and publishing, but it's not exactly a fun, intellectual playground. Since it doesn't require complex thinking or effort from me, however, it's a great place to let my mind cool off.
While I absolutely advocate from taking breaks during your work day to avoid burnout, or stepping away from harmful situations, there's a big difference between refreshing yourself between tasks and distracting yourself mid-task.
When we divert our attention, we can't just snap it back to what we were working on previously. There's a process we have to go through to get in the zone and to be able to think critically about what we're doing. The more we divert our attention away or condition ourselves to use the Internet as a means of avoiding hard work, the harder it becomes to sustain our attention. If we habituate distractedness as our standard means of operating, then we normalize responding to every ding, pop-up, alert, or novel experience that presents itself to us.
If you have complex, lofty goals– whether that's excelling in your career, writing a novel, or learning a new skill– you can undermine your own success by inadvertently training yourself to be distraction-prone, limiting your ability to focus and think critically.
Convenience is a Commodity You May Not Need
One of the best things about the Internet is how convenient it makes most tasks.
One of the worst things about the Internet is how convenient it makes most tasks.
The convenience of digitization is a double-edged sword. It can be great, but it can also utterly suck. For example, there are multi-million dollar platforms built around courses and knowledge sharing. Someone who once would have been unable to study coding because they couldn't afford to go to school can now log onto a website like CreativeLive or Udemy and learn valuable new skills at affordable prices. Audiobooks provide an affordable, convenient way to learn new ideas and enjoy books that you otherwise wouldn't have consumed. You can even restock on groceries, order a gourmet meal, have your prescriptions picked up, and more without even having to leave your house, put pants on, or brush your teeth.
These conveniences are fantastic, and often they're necessary. Many public spaces aren't very accessible, so folks with disabilities can use these digital tools to maintain their independence and quality of life. Plus, during the Coronavirus pandemic, these tools allowed many of us to limit public interactions and reduce our risk of spreading the virus.
Despite this, a common phenomenon I've observed among my peers (and myself) is that when we rely exclusively on digital tools and learning platforms, there's a tendency for learning to be less sticky. I can't begin to count the number of times I've put on an audiobook while sitting down to work and having the best intentions of learning something new while answering emails, only to realize fifteen minutes later that I've heard the audiobook without listening to the audiobook and have no idea what's going on. I do the same thing with YouTube videos– I'll look up something interesting and useful only to pop over to a new tab and fiddle with something else while listening to the video, hearing words but retaining nothing.
As much as my website has helped my creativity, it's also had a limiting effect when it comes to brainstorming and generating new ideas. The tools at my disposal often dictate what I can or cannot do when it comes to planning new content or designing new products. My thinking ends up reflecting the bulleted list or clunky spreadsheet I'm using as the basis of my brainstorming.
This is a sharp contrast to what happens when I learn via a book or brainstorm with a pen and paper. Reading a printed document is an immersive experience. If my computer is closed and my phone is on the other side of the room, I have an opportunity to get lost in what I'm reading. I can make notes in the margins and flag passages to come back to– the new information within the pages of the book can be a singular, resonate focus. I can reread passages and mull them over in silence, better committing the information to memory.
Similarly, when I brainstorm in a notebook or on a dry erase board, my thoughts flow more freely. I can incorporate shapes and draw lines to visually connect ideas. I can circle words and then write explanatory diatribes next to them. If I struggle to verbalize what I want to do, I can draw a picture. If I tried to do the same on a computer, I'd end up spending 10 hours in Adobe InDesign tinkering with tools rather than generating new ideas.
By going offline, especially when we're wanting to learn or be creative, we reduce our opportunities to be distracted. It's easier to be focused and productive in a single task, and you can engage with your ideas in a way that is natural and intuitive, rather than one that is confined by the tools at your disposal.
Tech Burnout is Real
Several words entered into the common lexic in 2020. One of them was "Zoom fatigue," which describes the phenomenon of being in video conferences all day, silently hoping that your background doesn't look too cluttered and never knowing whether you should wave before hitting the "leave meeting" button or not.
Zoom (and the other video conferencing apps for which Zoom's name has become eponymous) isn't the only app or platform that fatigues us from overuse. In general, being on a computer all day makes us more likely to feel stiff and tired, as most of us end up having rather poor posture while we're working. The backlit screens can make our eyes feel dry and tired, too. Plus, most of us have had stressful days where it feels like every new email or Slack notification is more stressful than the last, and each little ding makes our heart race.
Our bodies were made to move, and to get plenty of sunshine and fresh air. When we spend an entire day with our shoulders slumped forward, necks bent, and spine compressed, we're just not going to feel very good in our own bodies.
Plus, because of the distraction-prone environment of the Internet, we often end up feeling like we've lost so much time throughout our days that we end up making it to nighttime feeling like we're under-accomplished and overstimulated. If we do end up putting our phones down to try and be present in the moment (heaven forbid alone in silence), there's a decent probability we'll have a sense of FOMO (fear of missing out) and will reach for our devices the instant they buzz or tell us we have a new alert.
Working in tech, my day is oriented around transitioning from app to app, tool to tool. I can't do frontend dev work without being in a browser, often for several hours on end. Then, in the evenings when I want to write, I sit down at my computer and open Google Docs. It often feels like I'm plugged in and looking at screens from sun up to well past sundown, and it is as if my body has responded to this by adopting a permanently furrowed brow and permanently tight hips.
Tech can open a lot of doors for us. It provides a platform for enhancing accessibility, expanding our impact, and acquiring new skills and experiences that we otherwise wouldn't be able to access. However, if we aren't intentional about how we're using tech and aren't creating healthy boundaries with our tech, it does run the risk of detracting for our day-to-day experiences. When we're always online, we're particularly susceptible to forming distraction-based habits, which can negatively affect our mental health and productivity, making it harder to build the life we want to live.