As i sit here, trying to be reflective, great, sweaty armies of minutiae are straining to pull me in all directions. One pulls in the direction of the dirty laundry downstairs. Another pulls toward a run. Still others say I should be vacuuming the filthy floor, entering Quicken receipts, and so on. What is at work here is more than just procrasti-distraction. I feel the urgent need to get up and get doing.
I write for the high-tech industry and crow (for pay) about three-second productivity improvements caused by faster e-mail and Web browsing, how great it is to be able to access "vital business data" from anywhere using wireless devices, and how much more employees can get done if armed with "mobile freedom."
While the business world presents today's constant flood of electronic marvels as wonderful ways to make people more productive, allowing them to work at any hour of the day or night, and make final touches to that spreadsheet from the sidelines of their daughter's soccer game(!), the omnipresent ability to Do Something Useful is sapping our ability to Do Nothing Richly. Our timesaving inventions have become our taskmasters, creating a noxious (and addictive) atmosphere that says the more we do, the better we are.
By "doing nothing," I don't mean the ability to enjoy leisure activities, although this would certainly be an improvement over building spreadsheets on the beach. What we're losing is the ability to just be quiet, listen, and observe – the world around us and the world inside us. For in such stretches of alone time we mull, noodle, reason, know ourselves, know God.
While floating around in a reservoir of introspection, we step back from the daily fray, look at our lives from 50,000 feet, and decide whether all that busyness is leading us in the direction we want to go. During such reflective reverie we may rechart our path. Entertain epiphanies. Ask big questions – and hear big answers.
Sometimes we avoid this time with ourselves, because we don't like what we find inside – who we've become or where we're going. Maybe we'll realize that we're on a very wrong path with no apparent way off – and coming to terms with this is just too depressing. But isn't it better to discover this sooner than later? And might we not use the quiet time to feel our way onto a better, truer path?
If you decide to claim time for yourself, be aware that the resistance to doing nothing is shockingly strong. Every time I carve out a couple of hours for myself, I watch the armies of resistance aggressively chew 10-minute chunks here and there until nothing is left. I'm mentally assaulted by every kind of distraction imaginable. Send an e-mail to Client A. Remember to bill Client B. Buy laundry detergent. The attacks on quiet time are varied, abundant, and … fiercely determined to keep you from yourself.
Although "disciplined reverie" might sound like an oxymoron, I like to build a nice, little fence around my quiet time. I find that without focusing my introspection on a question or topic, it is liable to unravel into a distracted mess. I also keep a small pad of paper at hand to drain off those nagging "to do" tasks that inevitably come screaming to mind. What you build in your clearing is up to you – but clearing the land is the necessary first step.
I worry about my kids growing up in a culture that encourages nonstop connectedness and activity. When the gift of free time appears, they tend to wail, "I'm bored!" I want them to learn to enjoy a quiet, aimless walk in the woods. To stare into space and see what creeps into thought. To be comfortable with themselves without being constantly immersed in friends and "fun." To be balanced in their focus between inward and outward.
But, as with everything else we want to teach our kids, the example starts with us. We need to assertively and selfishly reclaim time now gobbled up by the not-important-but-urgent people, tasks, and devices, and give it back to ourselves. Not niggling little snippets of time but great generous swaths – an hour or three a day, even, would be my extravagant wish for us all.
Then when the chimes, rings, pings, bleeps, and jingles of our digital taskmasters summon, we can employ their most useful feature – the off button – and say, "I'm busy – just being."
• Jane Glasser is a freelance technology writer based in Sherwood, Ore.