Limiting My Screen Time Increased My Productivity as a Writer

Akanksha Singh is a journalist, content writer, and editor based in Mumbai, India. She writes about travel, culture, social justice, and her experience of being raised as a third-culture kid. Essays and journalism have appeared in Bon Appétit, CNN’s Parts Unknown, HuffPost, The Independent, South China Morning Post, The Sydney Morning Herald, and many more.

After quitting my job as a copywriter in a big-name ad agency, I decided it was time I took the plunge into full-time freelance work. I’d been freelancing while working my “real” job and had earned bylines in a handful of publications I admired. What’s more, the freelancing paid the bulk of my bills—and was more enjoyable work.

So I went full-time.

It was the best decision I’ve made to date.

At first, all was well: I had a routine, a workspace that flipped between the local café, my shoebox apartment, and one of those coworking spaces. Then I hit my third month of “being my own boss” and burnt out. I wish I could say I didn’t see it coming, but in the months prior, I pushed myself daily. Sleeping at 2 a.m., waking at 8 a.m., and staring at a screen for at least half the day until I’d go to bed exhausted.

Occasionally the brain fog would disappear—but the moment I sat in front of my laptop, there it was again.

I tried everything. Hydrating, eating better, working out, sleeping more. Nothing worked. Eventually, it clicked: Between the ten tabs open in Chrome, checking Twitter on my phone, and keeping BBC News on TV for “background noise,” my concentration levels were worse than a kindergartener’s.

I’d read about people who embraced “screen-free living” but dismissed them as over-privileged hippies with too much time on their hands. But after I came by a heap of research on the subject, I decided to give it a go and settled on a schedule which involved being screen-less for the first half of my day.

Apparently, all those claims about how multitasking is changing our brains, screens are making us lazy and moody, and social media is killing creativity are true.

Within days of implementing my “no-screens-till-noon” rule, I realized how much of life—the stuff we actually have to experience before we can write about it—I’d been missing out on. While I was never one of those writers who boasts about how I don’t “have time” to read, before my no-screen ritual started, my memory was spent to the extent that I’d almost forget what a book was about as soon as I finished it. Scheduling time to read gave me the quietude I needed to distill the words in front of me. Ditto journaling or listening to music or making a morning run to the bakery just because I wasn’t allowed to touch my phone or my laptop until later in the day.

Things that I’d considered a treat, like brunching with friends on a weekday, became feasible. Rather than scold myself for doing something other than work, I came to embrace my mornings and early afternoons. My morning routine became less of a series of tasks to get through so I could start working and more of a “get out of jail free” card that gave me permission to procrastinate—and procrastinate well.

Typically, while I was out of the house with a book for my morning coffee, or out to breakfast to meet friends, or to take a pottery class, ideas would trickle into my brain. I’d scribble them down, along with related questions that I wanted to Google (but couldn’t because, uh, screens), and wait until after lunch to get to work.

By the time I actually sat down to write, or to pitch publications, I was bursting with thoughts and excitement—the latter of which I’d lost temporarily during my burn-out phase (but which is so imperative for someone new to this career). I’m not sure if my speed increased as a result, but I hit my five-pitches-per-day goal within a couple of hours throughout that first month.

Miraculously, my brain fog went away, my writing became more coherent, and my pitches less anxiety-inducing. I also doubled my pitch acceptance rate.

Maybe this sounds like common-sense advice. (And, arguably, it is.) But the fact remains that, as writers today, we’re not always aware of how much we consume in our digital worlds. I’m constantly reminded by editors and literary agents and fellow writers that a social media presence is important. That checking emails, reading text messages, and being “in the know” is essential to our livelihoods. I can’t refute any of those points.

But I also think that if writers aren’t mindful about restricting our screen times and what we’re consuming online, we’re not exercising the sort of care we need to maximize both our productivity and our creativity.

Personally, I know I work better after a day well-spent. I’ve also found that, perhaps on a subconscious level (or some weird metaphysical serendipitous plane), whatever I’m writing about later in the day comes up in the first half.

I realize, as I write this, that a lot of these beliefs are in line with those in Eastern ethics and philosophy. There’s a classic book called The Importance of Living by writer and philosopher Lin Yutang that serves as an introduction to Taoism. The concept of wu wei (which literally means “doing nothing”) speaks of action without expectation and exertion, likening it to the gentleness of a river that bends and erodes and shapes all in its path through persistence and passivity.

Perhaps in “forcing” myself to live, I’ve let go of my previous expectations of perfection and just gotten on with life—only to be pleasantly surprised by its results.

And in the age of social media, of clicks and likes and shares and views, where manufactured image is everything and where algorithms largely rule readership, choosing to limit my intake and control my digital vices feels like it could supersede “becoming a full-time freelancer” as my best decision to date.

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