Tuesday, May 11, 2010

What can make a big difference? I found an unexpected answer

Once again, a simple question posed by Leo Babauta of the Zen Habits blog inspired me. He writes, “What tiny change could make a huge difference in your life? Taking a daily walk, eating fruits, cutting back on email, etc?”

Well, I started taking a Vitamin D supplement last week at my doctor’s recommendation, but so far I haven’t seen the vitamin make any difference in my life. And for the answer that leaped to mind, I felt a little bit bemused. Because I know it’s not what anyone who writes a blog called Zen Habits has in mind. It’s nothing so pure and organic as a daily walk, eating fruit or banishing electronic communication. It’s the fact that my friends Nicole and Tony unexpectedly provided me with use of a small, lightweight laptop they did not need.

Lots of people have laptops, you might be thinking. They’re convenient, sure, but life-changing? How’s that possible? Or if it is, just how materialistic are you?

But what the laptop did was enable me to change my habits for the better. As a self-employed freelancer, I have a home office. And like most self-employed freelancers, it’s really hard for me to close up shop for the day at any particular time. It wasn’t long ago that I worked in a corporate environment in which I snapped my computer off at the end of the day and went home. But recently, I realized how drastically that habit had changed. Not only self-employed and home-based but also enjoying an increasingly robust workload, I seemed in recent months to gravitate back to my desk consistently throughout the hours that I considered my non-work day: while the kids were having an afterschool snack, while I was getting dinner ready, when I was headed in to say goodnight to my daughter, while my son was bathing. And then once the kids were both in bed, I inevitably settled back down at my desk for an hour or so, doing more work.

Now, it’s different. Knowing that I can now do quick easy little things like send an email or check my Google calendar without having my desktop computer on, I fostered a new habit. Now I shut down my desktop computer at 5:00 every day, just the way I used to when I worked in an office.

Reading this, you might suspect that I simply do all the same computer functions as before but in a different room, so how’s that really any different? But it hasn’t been like that. Not having a computer running all evening removed the temptation of peeking at my email or doing a quick re-edit of a document file. It simply broke up that pattern of gravitating repeatedly back to my desk. Now the computer goes off at five and I focus on other things, family things, until nine o’clock.

And as for the later part of the evening, the laptop has reintroduced me to the joy of reading in bed, just like I used to when I was a kid but somehow lost the ability to do in recent years, because I was always at my desk instead. Of course, usually it’s not exactly reading in the purest sense of the word. It’s still emailing, or web-surfing, or drafting essays. But sometimes it’s real reading. Sometimes in the late evening hours I go on line to read magazine or newspaper articles, and a couple of times I’ve even downloaded e-books from the library website to try “reading” in bed that way.

So although I’d love to have a more holistic answer to the question of what has made a huge change in my life, an answer centering on daily meditation or spiritual engagement, it’s the three-pound laptop that has changed my daily life lately. The change it made was to liberate me from my desk and make me feel nurtured again by the treasured act of reading in bed. Doesn’t exactly have a Zen ring to it, I realize. But it’s made a world of difference to me.

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