When I was a kid, I took a bus to school each day. If I wasn't immersed in a book, I would probably spend the 40-minute trip each way just looking at the same storefronts and billboards passing by on the side of the road. Or, sometimes, I'd wrestle silently with problems I could obviously never solve, like "What's beyond the end of the universe?"
Before electronic devices started to occupy a greater share of my life--Atari Pong, and then the Atari 2600 video game console, and then the Apple II+ computer, and then the Sony Walkman --I would spend a good deal of time, in the margins of going to school, doing homework, playing team sports, riding my bike, and doing the other things young boys do, just thinking or daydreaming.
Today, my life is packed with activities and distractions. From the moment I wake up, before I've even crawled out of bed for my first essential cup of coffee, I'm plugged into work via email, and I can find out what's happening in the world with a glance of my news feeds on Facebook and LinkedIn. After waking and feeding my kids and walking them to the bus stop, I jump in my car and head to the office, where I open my laptop to a constantly growing pile of tasks and projects and initiatives.
While a good part of my work requires that I devote chunks of time to creating or editing content, it has become increasingly hard to get into a state of "flow," to concentrate and to stay on task. I'm constantly bombarded by emails and chat messages and phone calls. Meeting reminders pop up on my laptop and phone simultaneously. People drop by my desk for a "quick catch-up."
I know I'm not alone. The nonstop bombardment of information and distractions that technology has introduced into our lives is making it harder for all of us, from the very young to people of my parents' generation, to just stop and think and process everything.
It's a topic that Alan Lightman, a professor of physics at MIT and a writer, reflects on in his excellent new book, In Praise of Wasting Time. Citing a recent survey of 483 professionals, Lightman says that 60 percent of those who carry smartphones are connected to their jobs 13.5 hours or more each day on weekdays and five hours on weekends. He writes:
Technology and economic progress, instead of increasing leisure time (including 'wasted time'), have done just the opposite.
The pace of life has always been driven by the pace of business, and the pace of business has always been driven by the speed of communication ... When the telegraph was invented in the nineteenth century, information could be transmitted at the rate of about four bits per second. By 1985, near the beginnings of the public Internet, the rate was about a thousand bits per second. Today, the rate is about one billion bits per second.
After dissecting the problem, Lightman puts forth his solution:
We need a mental attitude that values and protects stillness, privacy, solitude, slowness, personal reflection; that honors the inner self; that allows each of us to wander about without schedule within our own minds.
I would like to make a ... bold proposal: that half our waking minds be designated and saved for quiet reflection. Otherwise, we are destroying our inner selves and our creative capacities. Different moments throughout the day can be devoted to contemplation and stillness, free from the external world.
To develop new habits of mind, different groups must use different methods. In the workplace, a quiet room or similar space where employees are permitted and encouraged to spend a half hour each day meditating, reflecting, or simply being silent. Smartphones and computers would not be allowed in the quiet room. This period of quiet would not be part of the regular lunch break.
For families, an unplugged hour during the evening, perhaps during dinner, in which all phones, smartphones, computers, and other devices are turned off. Dinner should be a time for quiet conversation.
Individuals should think about how they spend their time each day and try to build in a half hour away from the wired world, such as taking a walk while unplugged, reading, or simply sitting quietly.
For society as a whole, [there should be] mandated screen-free zones in public spaces, where digital devices are forbidden, and labor laws in which workers are guaranteed a half hour each day of quiet time at the workplace.
Are these ideas really feasible? Lightman thinks they are:
Although changing habits of mind is difficult, it can be done. With a little determination, each of us can find a half hour a day to waste time. And when we do so, we give ourselves a gift. It is a gift to our spirit. It is an honoring of that quiet, whispering voice. It is a liberation from the cage of the wired world. It is freedom.