Standing in line to order lunch at a local cafe, six out of the ten people in front of us are fiddling with their cell phones. A quick glance around the place and I notice individuals with heads buried in laptops and couples preferring to tinker with their electronic devices rather than talk with each other.
The one guy sitting there simply enjoying his food looks strangely out of place. Should I feel bad for him that he doesn’t have electronic people clamoring for his attention and social media to catch up on?
I mention to my wife, Hope, that people seem to be drowning in a deluge of electronic media and losing touch with each other in real terms. Fifteen minutes later, there we sit with our food. In between bites, Hope is checking her email and I’m Google-ing something I had been meaning to research!
Hope and I used to spend real time together - hours on end doing, well, not much. Downtime together was the favorite part of our relationship. No phones. No Internet. No television. We just hung out together talking. Since we both got interested in online ventures, all that time has disappeared from our relationship.
This is one reason why I enjoyed reading Leo Babauta's Focus: a simplicity manifesto in the age of distraction. Leo is one of the better-known personal development bloggers today. His website, ZenHabits.net, currently serves 230,000 subscribers. Leo's writing about simplicity, productivity, creativity, and focus is a reminder for many to get back in touch with something more meaningful.
This is my kind of talk! At the iNLP Center, we training NLP practitioners and life coaches. I personally interview every student who enrolls. Can you imagine what they want for themselves and their prospective clients? The same things Leo promotes. It's what we all want, regardless of our station in life.
So, I reached out to Leo for a conversation.
Leo said, "I think we've developed a kind of online life and I don't think we have consciously chosen it. Focus suggests that we take a real step back and figure out what we really want. It's not about turning off everything and not doing anything online. But, it asks us to connect with other people in a way that is genuine and beneficial to everyone and not be distracted by things all day long."
Leo continued, "The truth is I do the same thing. I am not this person sitting on a mountain telling everyone the perfect way to live. I am still trying to figure it out myself."
Connectivity has crept up on us as if it were a project whose scope is out of control. One addition leads to another, which requires yet another and so on. It's as if you were wanting to improve your home environment and decided to upgrade the paint. Then you notice that nicer paint deserves better carpet, which requires a different set of furniture and accessories. Soon the scope of the project has crept out of control, your budget is blown, and you need a vacation.
We all know the dangers of scope creep. To me, Leo is suggesting that online connectivity creep may be just as detrimental to our quality of life.
What's the solution to the digital deluge? Leo is quick to confess that he doesn't have all the answers. His primary goal is to raise questions. However, in Focus he suggests impressive remedies and he spoke about them during our phone call.
"Sometimes I do what I call a digital sabbatical," he said. It is kind of catching on. You can do it for a day, a week or even a month. During the sabbatical, you don't connect with people online. You may use the computer to read or write, but doing social media, email, forums, chat rooms and so forth are given up during the sabbatical. You only connect with people in person.
Or, you can do a partial sabbatical and only drop out of online social networks that just take up your time, but don't really serve you. I really think we have to figure that out for ourselves. Personally, I have certain times of the day where I am totally disconnected and at least one day a week where I don't even use the computer or my cell phone, and just spend the day doing the things that I love, like reading, writing, going outside, and doing things with my family. Those are the things that I love and the things that I mostly do."
I can't tell you to work the way that I work. You have to figure out what works for you. For example, turn off the cell phone after eight in the evening. Or don't start with e-mail first thing when you wake up. Maybe give yourself half an hour when you first wake up to just read or write or meditate. I think we aren't considering the control we have over this online world. We are so immersed in it that we don't realize that we can disconnect."
What are the benefits of going connectivity-free for periods of time?
"I don't know how it will be for every person," said Leo. "It depends on where you are when you start. I know for me and for other people that I have talked to, it allows you to feel a lot more space and calm in your life. I think with the distractions and the constant switching of our attention from one thing to another online kind of builds this low-level of anxiety within us. The switching back and forth sort of pervades our lives, even when we are not online because we are thinking of what we want or need to do online.
When you break away from that and start to focus on one thing at a time; maybe focus on creating something new or simply reading a book or paying attention to the conversation that you are having with someone else. What happens is that you, I think, start to feel a little healthier mentally, saner, and experience a little less anxiety. It allows me to have an incredible amount of focus. Rather than constantly switching to other stuff, I am able to create much more than I could before and in much less time."
Last but not least, Leo reminded me that the simple pleasures of life become available again when we are focused in the present moment.
"Food just seems to taste so much better when you are distraction-free," Leo remarked. "Just this morning I was sitting with my bowl of oats and nuts and berries and I just tasted every bite. It was amazing! I think it was the best breakfast ever."