The Peril of Busyness

I was reading an excellent post by Jonathan Harris entitled “Our Digital Crisis” and one section in particular jumped out at me. Harris was talking about how our online tools are better for breadth than depth and generally increase noise.

We trade self-reflection for busyness, gorging ourselves on it and drowning in it, without recognizing the violence of that busyness, which we perpetrate against ourselves and at our peril.

Of course this isn’t exactly a new issue. Henry David Thoreau was lamenting our propensity to clutter our lives way back in 1854 when he wrote in Walden that “Our life is frittered away by detail.” It’s just that now it’s become easier for us to clutter our lives.

In fact, it would seem that our busyness is one of the greatest personal challenges that we face in the digital age. Our always connected lifestyle means that while we always have quick access to our email, Facebook messages and tweets, we rarely have moments of quiet, uninterrupted reflection and relaxation—we don’t allow ourselves whitespace.

I’m certainly guilty of this. I have an iPhone, which I have with me almost all the time. The urge to fire up Twitter, Facebook or my email is almost compulsory at times. I can certainly notice the difference on those days when I actually am able to resist the urge  and allow myself even just a couple of hours with no technological distractions. In those cases, I feel far more refreshed and recharged. It makes sense: in those cases where I resist the siren call of a continuous stream of information my mind actually gets to relax for a bit and reflect.

Quiet reflection is far too important for us to push aside as often as we do. Studies on rats, for example, have shown that “down time” is used to transfer information gathered from experiences from the hippocampus into the rest of the brain; essentially it’s used to record memory. When you don’t have this down time, your ability to absorb maximum information and truly learn from an experience is greatly diminished.

Let’s be clear—I am not condemning technology. In fact, technology is not the issue here; we are. We need to recognize the value of a quiet moment, the value of reflection. We need to learn to manage our consumption of information.

For me, it means leaving my iPhone behind and instead taking my daughter for a walk outside. It means shutting down the laptop a little earlier on some nights and picking up a good book. It means letting that podcast sit one more day and turning on some quiet music, or even no music at all. I don’t disconnect every night, and I’m not saying we have to. We just need to find ways to simplify and reduce our consumption of information so that we can find a healthy balance instead of “gorging” ourselves on our busyness.