Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Value of Down-Time

Over the last couple of decades, the world (at least the richer part) has been moving rapidly towards the so-called network society, where people are always-connected and have access to virtually limitless amount of information through ubiquitous information networks.

However, a funny thing seems to have happened on our way towards this promised land of information cornucopia: people now actually are spending less time thinking.  Sure, we spend vastly more time consuming and generating information than ever before, but the amount of time we actually spend in synthesizing and reflecting on the information we already have appears to be dwindling.   One culprit is the the disappearance of "down-time".   

We used to have episodic down-times throughout our day -- time gaps between tasks/appointments, and idle times in transit.  But the ubiquitous information connectivity has banished such down-times.  I was taking an MRT train ride the other day, and as I looked around, practically everyone was occupied with their mobile devices, whether talking, texting, watching video, listening to MP3 or playing games. As they alighted at the train stop, many continued to be occupied with their information appliance while walking.  I could imagine them reaching home and immediately going online to catch up with their emails, internet surfing, or social network updating.   You go to meetings, the scene is repeated:  everyone busy clicking away on their blackberries or iphones under the table whenever there is a null before (and often during) the meeting proceedings.

Because we are constantly bombarded with information, we are constantly distracted.  The messages keep coming to your blackberry, so it is hard to ignore.  And everyday brings tons of new apps for your iphone, just a click away for you to try.  Your email inbox is forever growing faster than you can delete, let alone read.  Most of us have been so conditioned to respond to the constant flood of information coming at us that we have forgotten what it is like to have down-time.    Indeed,  the "digital native" youth generation has come to equate down-time with boredom: most teenagers can't imagine being idle for an hour with no information to consume.  

For me, down-time is not boring, but represents valuable time to think.  Thinking requires shutting out distractions, so that you can concentrate on making sense of the information you already have, and to frame and prioritize what new information to look out for.  Otherwise, you will just be forever drowning in a sea of new information. 

To protect your donw-time for thinking, you need to resist the temptation to be interrupted by your information appliances all the time.   Some of my younger colleagues are surprised when I told them I deliberately chose not to have email connectivity on my mobile phone, so as to reduce the tempations to be distracted.  My mobile phone is usually on silent mode as well. 

My younger colleagues are also surprised to learn that, once in a while, I chose to take a one hour bus/MRT ride between home and office (on days when my schedule is not packed), and that I often do not turn on my MP3 player during the ride.   "Won't that be boring? Aren't you wasting your time by not driving or taking a taxi?" They asked.  I told them that it is a good disciplining mechanism to ensure a solid one hour of uninterrupted reflective thinking time.  

Of course, down-time is valuable not just for thinking -- I believe we all need to reclaim more down-time to do other things, including to be with our friends and loved ones, to exercise, to pursue our hobby, to relax, daydream, meditate, even to do nothing.  It is also true that our information appliances are not just tools for work, but also a valuable means to develop our social life with people who are physically distant from us, as well as for personal entertainment, so it is not an either-or thing.   My basic point is that, just as we need work-life balance, we need a balance of down- and up- time, and a balance between time for reflective thinking and information consumption. 

John Lennon once said, "Life is what happens to you when you are busy making plans".  I guess a more apt version today would be: "Life is what happens to you when you are busy going online".  Are you safeguarding sufficient down-time in your hectic life?




Zack Yap said...

I am one of those who's constantly on my iPhone to "maximize" any down-time I may have. I'm on the iPhone reading tweets, FB updates and Google Reader from the moment I step out of my house till I reach whichever destination.

And I have to agree with you that I observe similar patterns in many others around me.

With the amount of information being churned out at lightning's pace on the internet, I find it hard not to consume it equally fast but I find myself falling into an endless pit. It is just not practically possible.

Thinking time is indeed being compromised. And I am one who appreciates time to think and ponder as well because I have realised that continuous consumption of information takes away time for you to produce something with the new knowledge that you have gained.

Nowadays, I always carry with me a pencil and a notebook while I travel. I also try to find a balance between information consumption and down time to think. And when I start thinking, I note down thoughts that are worth noting. I think it really helps me solidify my thoughts.

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singleinsg said...

True true! I think less n less pple value these downtimes and more pple want their cakes now and instantly! =)

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Electronic signatures, E-sign act said...

Great post! Time is one of the most precious things that we have and should not be wasted. Time should be spent wisely not just for business, but also to make us more confident in our future. So challenge yourself and start valuing your time.

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