Are you productive? Efficient? Useful? More to the point, are you productive, efficient and useful enough? These are the kinds of questions that arise (naturally and terrifyingly) when technology makes it easy to stay online and connected 24/7. But all this connectivity brings two unfortunate side effects. First, the expectation that we will be available at all times — from bosses, friends, the media, you name it — has increased. Second, the concepts of productivity and efficiency have been redefined according to what our devices enable. If you could be working, a certain line of thinking goes, then you should be.
Yet being able to use technology as much as we want doesn’t guarantee that we’re using our time well. The devices we love are full of bright, colourful distractions, tempting us to scroll just a little further, to refresh again and again. (Let’s not forget: Tech companies design their products to be addictive.) And the downsides of heavy technology use, studies show, are numerous: depression, loneliness, isolation, lower empathy and even suicidal thoughts.
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In her new book, “24/6,” Tiffany Shlain, the founder of the Webby Awards, lays out a plan for surviving our “always-on” culture. Taking a cue from her Jewish heritage, she suggests a “tech Shabbat”: one day a week without screens or devices.
For thousands of years Shabbat has prescribed that people set aside time to rest and reflect. Shlain writes that her modern interpretation benefits our mental and physical health — and she has spent the past decade practising it. Unplugging gives us more chances to enjoy hobbies and socialize, she says, but one of its greatest gifts is perspective. When we step away from technology on a regular basis, it becomes easier to consider whether we’re using it wisely.
What else can you do to resist a digital world that demands your nonstop productivity? The artist Jenny Odell has an idea: nothing. In “How to Do Nothing,” her treatise on capitalism’s tendency to equate “useful” with “can make money,” she argues for the value of being useless. But the nothing she favours isn’t about idleness or apathy. It’s about reclaiming our time and putting it toward activities whose point isn’t profit.
The danger of capitalist notions of value is that they’re linked to economic output, a metric that misses, well, almost everything. To an algorithm, the worth of a conversation between two people might be insights into what they’re likely to buy. To the two people, of course, the worth is the conversation itself. Odell contends that when our identities depend solely on what we contribute to a company’s profit and loss statement, we’re likely to end up losing who we really are.
Our sense of meaning, she writes, should instead come from our connections to the places in which we live and to the people, plants and animals we share them with. The digital world can’t match the natural one as a source of purpose; a Saturday spent online won’t make you happier, but a Saturday spent learning about local wildlife or building community in your town just might. That’s why her “nothing” is anything but: Pulling back from what’s efficient and profitable lets us focus on what’s actually worthwhile.
“Stillness Is the Key” offers another take on why you should do more nothing. By the writer Ryan Holiday, it explores the virtues that helped famous figures achieve some of their greatest triumphs. John F. Kennedy (patience, solitude) resisted the urgings of advisers to pursue aggressive military action during the Cuban missile crisis, preferring to wait out the Soviets with a blockade. Napoleon (focus, prioritization) waited weeks to reply to letters, believing that most matters would resolve themselves and saving his attention for the truly important. The artist Marina Abramovic (being present) sat silently in a chair for 750 hours during her 2010 performance piece at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, making sustained eye contact and forming emotional connections with visitor after visitor. Holiday frames these stories as examples of “stillness,” his term for the traits on display. Cultivating stillness, he says, gives us a better chance to succeed in our relentlessly kinetic world.
When I started writing this article, my editor asked me to try my own experiment of unplugging for 24 hours. I agreed, but honestly, I was sceptical. I’ve spent the past few years weaning myself off social media. I keep my phone on Do Not Disturb at work. I don’t check email on weekends. I read 26 books last year. Did I really need a tech Shabbat, a day to be still and do nothing?
As it turns out, yes. My smartphone once excited me because of all the things it could do; now its absence did because of all the things I couldn’t do. It won’t surprise you to learn that my day was pretty analogue: I meditated, listened to records, repotted a plant, went for a walk. What surprised me was that taking a break from screens brought an almost magical sense of being more in control of my time. Staring at people around me (most of whom were staring at their phones), I felt as if I was undercover, resisting the efficiency economy while in plain sight. I couldn’t help thinking of the movie “Brazil,” that great satire on technology and the shadowy organizations that oversee our every move and what it takes to break free of them.
Even for a digital curmudgeon like me, being “unproductive” felt like a small revolution — and that’s after only one day of it. I can’t wait to discover what a decade of tech Shabbats feels like.
– Harvard Business Review