Head Up, Head Down
This article is also available in Esperanto.
There are few things more enjoyable to me than the mental solitude that hand-delivers interesting shower thoughts, or that let’s me sit in a bustling coffee shop contemplating life. I enjoy hanging out in my own company and thinking.
I feel more creative and enthusiastic in those moments, but in recent years I’ve found such moments harder to find, and even harder to hold onto.
Technology today has made the world much smaller. In 2020 a huge amount of our planet is connected together. People share their thoughts, fears, hopes, news, their entire lives in realtime. There’s an endless stream of things to agree with, to disagree with, to delight us, to enrage us. Influence and distraction are as prevalent as gravity, and algorithms are getting good at making us want them, one way or another.
It’s also very new. This level of constant, global interconnectedness isn’t much older than ~20 years, with the last 10 years feeling significantly more connected than even the previous 10 were.
I often wonder whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, and while I could argue either way, the more interesting question is “What’s the cost?” I don’t know about you, but my metaphorical wallet is stuffed full of noise and completely light of focus.
Waking up every day with the influence of social media, news, instant messages, email, etc. gives my brain a lot of stuff to think about. On the scale of busy to anxious, it’s impossible to guess where any given day will fall.
My attention and energy are increasingly divided between lots of unimportant things, and my thoughts necessarily become more shallow. More importantly: as I bounce around social media, instant messages, video calls, and email all day long, the energy to focus on deep work rapidly fades away.
On the other hand, I’m not always aiming to do deep work. In those moments, ample engagement can come with a low price tag, introducing me to new people, inspiring ideas, work opportunities, etc.
I like to think about whether I want to be in “head up” or “head down” mode.
To focus on deeper work, it’s important to keep my “head down”. I avoid everything that doesn’t directly help with the work I’m doing. The goal is to conserve my mental energy for the single focus I have, being strict with anything that could become a distraction.
Conversely I may want to meet new people, see what my friends have been doing, share something I’ve been working on. In those moments my head is up. I’m open to anything, hoping to find something new, unexpected, or inspiring.
Conceptually the separation between “head up” and “head down” is clear, but in practice I’ve found it can be difficult to stay honest and avoid irresponsibly bouncing between the two.
It’s not unusual for me to wake up and think “I’ll get to the important work after I’ve had coffee”, while I peruse social media. Suddenly my brain is engaged with a bunch of irrelevant details. My creative energy is being consumed, but not by what I truly want. Sometimes I’ll even notice (or contribute) something that’ll hook me in and distract me longer.
It’s even worse when the distractions come to you; colleagues on Slack, notifications from your growing circle of influence, emails about work, involvement in other projects, unpredictable things, etc.
A few weeks ago I reached the stage where bouncing between the two was really becoming a problem, and so I asked myself honestly “Head up or head down, and for how long?”
After considering it for years, I finally decided to experiment with a more deliberate version of “head down”. I decided to take a hiatus from every non-essential online presence to make the line between the two modes as clear as it could be.
I disabled all social media accounts. I cancelled all meetings. I took all secondary email accounts offline. I disabled all instant messengers… well, except one, which turned out to be rather helpful in preventing the spread of the news of my death.
I was a little concerned that doubling down on solitude in the middle of a global lockdown may result in an overwhelming sense of lonliness. While I hadn’t experienced true disconnectedness in years, I knew a simpler life with very few distractions was exactly what I needed for a while.
And so that’s what I did. One week ran into two, and two into three. As experiments go, I think it’s safe to say that this one has been delightfully successful.
One of the most interesting changes is how I feel right after waking up. The sense of needing to catch up on what’s been going on died almost as quickly as people thought I did.
I now wake up with a feeling that’s very similar to boredom. The feeling reminded me of being a kid, which is what led to the realisation that it’s not in fact boredom, but rather what mental freedom feels like.
Instead of quickly distracting myself, I wake up thinking about only the few important goals I have. The code from the previous evening’s session is still fresh in my head, because nothing has washed it away. I’m excited to jump back into my flow and absolutely nothing is pulling my grey cells any other direction.
The last few weeks have been unusually productive. That would be reason enough to consider the experiment successful, but productivity hasn’t been the only benefit.
Having very little external influence has made my life feel simple where before it felt complex, and that’s helped me to think more clearly. Being able to think clearly is a skill; one I’ve enjoyed practising much more without anyone else doing it for me.
Disconnecting from the Matrix has been a powerful reminder of how fragmented I’ve allowed my attention to become over time. Having put the pieces back together, I can focus more easily, I’m less stressed, and I’m more present with myself.
I’m looking forward to flipping back into “head up” mode and enjoying a bit more interaction with people, especially now that I know where they’ve hid the emergency exit. Having repainted the line between “head up” and “head down”, I’m now much less concerned about repeating the same mistakes.
If you've thought about doing something similar, consider this my recommendation. Give your mind a rest from the distraction of the day-to-day, and who knows, maybe the new mental space will unlock things you never expected.
The world will still be here when you return, and it’ll be even more noisy, distracting, and too damn enjoyable for you to get anything done.
Go off-grid, disconnect, refocus.