Computer addictions, “No Computer Day” and idle brain

Years ago my computer addiction included playing cards (I think it was called Solitaire), browsing websites (news during the day, porn at night), later also Facebook and some other social apps. Now I found myself addicted to R. However stupid it may sound, it seems to be true. By addiction I mean: it is not easy to stop when you need to do something really important. All those things before (cards, news, porn, Facebook) are understandable, and I bet I am not the only one who fights with that. But R? Come on. I thought that I had a perfect therapy last year after the semester of teaching R three hours per week (and countless hours preparing the class and checking assignments). Right, I was sick of seeing R for a while, but not for long. It was around that time I also found Shiny, an interactive option how to play R, and coded my first Shiny app. It’s nice – you click, something changes, click again, changes again, keep clicking, improving, adding new ideas, making new apps… and addiction is cooked, no escape.

Some time ago I came with an idea to introduce “No Computer Day.” A day, when you should not touch the computer, at all. Obviously, it cannot be during the working day (unless I go to the field), so the weekend is a hot candidate. It would be cheating to set the No Computer Day on the day you go out of the house – so as so you would not touch it. No, just set up the ordinary Sunday, when you have a plan to relax, but ordinarily, you would still end up sitting in front of the computer (I may do something useful today) and keep clicking (doing nothing useful at all). It’s similar to “a week without alcohol” (all bottles in the house need to be locked somewhere since the late evening feeling of “just one beer” is surprisingly strong). Just leave your computer switched off (not just sleeping – you may touch the mouse, and it will wake up, with blinking screen luring your attention). You will see how difficult is it to resist (ok, I will just check emails, what if something important is there!), but how rewarding it could get (clean the house, read the book, fix what should have been fixed long time ago, go for a walk, sleep – add your own “no-computer” items).

Sometimes I wonder: how did the life of scientist (let’s say a teacher at university doing also research, or simply a full-time scientist in academia) looked like before the computers were standing on her/his desk? Come to office, make a coffee, check the mails, do paperwork (ok, this sounds almost the same as now). And then? Take a pencil, read a paper and write a notes, take a typewriter, write a short piece of manuscript, put it away, take a pencil again, make a phone call, take a typewriter, go for lunch, meet a colleague for coffee, pencil, paper, typewriter, … Anyway, the most important currency of scientists are the ideas, and those are not born in the computer, but in the head, often while doing things entirely not related to work or when the brain is simply idle. What if sitting the whole day in front of blinking computer makes the time for these idle moments rare, and thus the productivity goes down? Ok, by productivity I don’t mean the number of published papers (although I should, since that’s precisely how my productivity is measured by school/grant agency/colleague). By productivity I mean coming up with some interesting idea. What if switching off the computer (or even temporarily moving the computer somewhere out of the sight) in fact increases this kind of productivity?

Ok, but I still need to boil these ideas down to a paper…

2 thoughts on “Computer addictions, “No Computer Day” and idle brain

  1. Viktoria Wagner

    How is your computer-free day working out, David?

    I have a bad R addiction too sometimes, but it comes and goes. For instance, now, with fieldwork just finished and the teaching semester starting, there are other things on my plate. You told me once that you “want to be more like an ecologist than a programmer” 🙂 and your words make total sense to me now. It’s summer and I feel more like an ecologist. Coding is for long winter days. That said …. I love Shiny 🙂 I used it once to inspect my EVA data based on groups (click to create random draws of individual plots to see their full species list) and I was tired to do that in the small R console and did not want to bother to open the large file in Excel and scroll through. Oh and then this: I have wanted to write some Shiny code to enter veg records into a spreadsheet, similar to Turboveg (which unfortunately does not run well on Mac), with a custom species list popping up. I am afraid this could be another ‘lost in R space’ cases.

    I found that social media is also a terrible black hole for time. I cut this a lot in the last year, in favour of personal time. And I have to say I don’t miss it that much.

    1. David Zelený Post author

      Hi Viktoria, thanks for the comment! More like ecologist in summer and programmer in winter, I have it similar, although here in Taiwan the winters are considerably shorter than back in Europe, with being able to do meaningful field work even as late as in December and as early as in March. “Lost in R space”, an interesting phrase – sure, it’s being more and more common these days, as more and more R stuff is being made and published every day. Spreading the word by teaching materials and social media may work, if the words reach the right audience… And Shiny, yes, I still like it and have many plans with that, just no time to do that 🙂

      Anyway, great to meet you in Bozeman, hope everything goes well for you in Alberta!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *