An Experiment in Being Unplugged

Data Overload

My wife and I made reservations to go to our favorite hotel for nine days. But I knew that getting away from my office wouldn’t be enough if I remained tethered to my online life and my work. I decided not to bring my laptop, my iPad, or my cellphone. I left an away message that made it clear I wouldn’t be checking email. I was determined to eliminate temptation to the maximum extent possible.

The author of this article went “untethered” for nine or ten days and wrote about his experience. He began feeling much the way a lot of us feel. He felt like he “had hit a wall” and had the sense of being completely overwhelmed to the point he couldn’t get his day started, “…I struggled to get myself out of the house.”

His solution was to step away from his connected life for a ten days. He stopped reading the newspaper, surfing the internet and checking email. He found that his ability to focus on one task increased over his time away from the Information Age. He read a 1000-word book “over a couple days”. His tennis game improved immensely because he was able to spend his undivided attention on his play.

While he made a conscious effort to leave connection to the wider world behind for his vacation, he maintains that he could still be reached in a dire emergency. The thing that he found humbling was that nothing transpired while he was away that couldn’t wait until he returned. His ten-day absence did not cause his work and career to spin out of control. Things did not need his minute-by-minute management. He was, to a certain extent, dispensable.

The author now spends a several hours twice a week away from his “digital life” with his email and internet access turned off. He uses this time to single-mindedly focus on a given project that needs it. Also, he now reads for pleasure at the end of every work day. He purposely disconnects himself to be more productive.

What is described in the article and in this post is nothing new. It is an established fact that humans do not multi-task well. We actually suck at it:

Because the brain cannot fully focus when multitasking, people take longer to complete tasks and are predisposed to error. When people attempt to complete many tasks at one time, “or [alternate] rapidly between them, errors go way up and it takes far longer—often double the time or more—to get the jobs done than if they were done sequentially,” states Meyer.[9] This is largely because “the brain is compelled to restart and refocus”.[10] A study by Meyer and David Kieras found that in the interim between each exchange, the brain makes no progress whatsoever. Therefore, multitasking people not only perform each task less suitably, but lose time in the process.

This constant urge to be connected to the wide world of information forces us to multi-task. We become very easily distracted and it takes longer to get things done.

Ideally, what we should do goes beyond what the author of the article is doing. Most of our work day should be mostly given over to specific focused tasks. Dealing with email and accessing the internet for work should only be done in specific blocks in a day. As much as possible, access to distractions on the internet, like Facebook, should also be assigned specific time blocks, like lunch time, rather than happening willy-nilly through the work day. By doing this, productivity can be kept to a maximum.

Having just said that, implementing such a practice is hard. Somedays, you’re just not “in the mood” to focus. Getting this right requires a certain level of flexibility. Allowances have to be made for days where less productive work is going to happen. There has to be a balance between the structure of a planned schedule and flexibility of an open calendar.

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