Back in the mists of time when I was at university, I had a friend who was constantly snowed under by her studies. She complained that she had no time to sleep, go out, eat or relax. She was indignant that her degree course gave her no time for anything except studying, and as you can imagine she tended to be very stressed.
Plenty of people quite agreed with her, but lots of others did have time for a social life, sports and so on. Were these other people studying easier subjects? Did they get lower marks? Were they freaks who didn’t need any sleep? No. What my friend didn’t realise was that actually she spent three or four hours every weekday doing something completely unrelated to her studies: just talking to other people who happened to be nearby, often about how much work she had to do. Because she still had her work hanging over her she wasn’t relaxing, but she wasn’t getting anything useful done, either.
Fast-forward 15 years and this kind of unconscious displacement activity has been taken to a whole new level. Never mind other people nearby, these days you can get side-tracked for hours even if there’s no one around at all: you have email, Facebook, Twitter, news feeds, the whole kit and caboodle. Because this electronic stuff involves looking at a screen, time passes without you even feeling you’ve had a break mentally, and it’s certainly not the kind of rest your body needs: for most of us, looking at a computer or smartphone means terrible posture. Sometimes you can even kid yourself you’re doing something useful: when I first turned self-employed I wasted a good hour a day reading the newspaper online because it was my browser homepage. It felt like a sensible thing to be doing, and perhaps it was, but it certainly wasn’t getting any of my work done.
These days it’s a truism that we’re chronically short of time, but several times this year I’ve come across the idea that we would actually have enough time if we just stopped squandering it on getting our electronic fixes. Now, I’m not going to say that nobody is genuinely short of time – obviously everyone’s situation is different – but, whether our lives are ridiculously hectic or just interestingly full, the vast majority of us waste time checking emails and all the rest of it. We do it far more often than is necessary or useful, and often without even thinking about what we’re doing. In all honesty, does it matter if you see a particular message as soon as it comes in or two hours later? Will you miss something life-changingly important if you look at Facebook once a day or every other day instead of every hour? Do world events have such an immediate impact on your life that you’ll be ill-informed if you catch the morning and evening news but not the stuff in between?
As far as I can see, there are four things that make us check in unthinkingly: boredom (nothing going on right here, right now), loneliness (maybe a friend somewhere else has got in touch), addiction (apparently these things stimulate the reward centre of your brain) and habit (not the same as addiction: your routine includes checking in). Identifying which one applies to you personally might be the key to cutting down. Interestingly, all four of these factors are also often cited as reasons for overeating, another major problem in our society.
Does it actually matter if we’re constantly chasing the next electronic fix? In a word, yes! Problems with omnipresent electronics are often framed in terms of work–life balance, because people often deal with work emails and calls outside office hours. The effect on productivity is another recurrent theme, because of how long it takes us to get our concentration back properly after an interruption: five minutes on Facebook at work means you lose not only those five minutes but also a good chunk of time afterwards. The problems go further, though: if you constantly get distracted by your phone, your relationships with people in real life suffer, if only because they end up wanting to throttle you. There are claims that people young enough to have grown up with these things are sometimes less employable because they’re not good at face-to-face interaction. (I’m always sceptical of apocalyptic predictions of the breakdown of civilisation caused by new technology, but I also accept that not every single consequence of every new invention is positive.) You even get cases like this guy – I was going to say “at the extreme end”, but actually I don’t think it’s that unusual – who very honestly describes what happened when he went cold turkey on his electronic fixes, and how his sister said, “Well, the wall is back up,” when he went back to them.
I often hear people say, “I just can’t stop checking my inbox!” or, “I can’t find the motivation to get down to work.” But don’t kid yourself that you can’t control your actions. It’s other people’s actions, and the world around us, that we can’t control. Our own actions are the only things we can control, and once we tell ourselves we can’t control those either we’re done for.
So this is what I’m going to do, and what I encourage you to do, too: from now on I’ll never check emails, social media or a news site just because I’m slightly bored. I expect to feel less lethargic while gazing idly at my screen, and to have a tiny bit more precious free time. And self-discipline is always a useful muscle to develop.
Decide what approach you’re going to take to your own electronic fixes, and stick to your plan, of course. Your time is too valuable to fritter away. For extra motivation, make a list of what you’ll do with the time you save, even if the only thing on the list is, “1. Put my feet up and finally relax properly.”