Back to work, back to distraction

So I thought I was going to ease slowly back into gear in 2011. But now here we are, two weeks in, and I’m close to full throttle.

Is it me or has the new year kicked in quicker and bigger this time round?

I put it down to the digital lifestyle.

I love my job, I love technology, I love digital communication. But one of the great things about the holidays was that I got to take a break from my digital life and indulge in my analog one. You know, the one without screens and buttons and statuses and ‘like buttons’.

It wasn’t a complete break. I kept my iPhone on. I checked my Facebook news feed occasionally. I uploaded some images to Instagram. I shared the iPad with the family.

But for two whole weeks the laptop was off (partly because my hard drive went down). I stayed away from my RSS feeds and I avoided Twitter, one of the main culprits in my own personal digital drain.

And it felt great. Refreshing even. Not because I don’t like that stuff (I love it), but because I need to take a break from it sometimes. The information tsunami takes its toll.

I’m not alone. This time last year Pete Cashmore of Mashable predicted digital distraction on a massive scale . Diane Broadnax took her a family on a tech cleanse for five days with great results, and Susan Maushart’s 6-month ban on technology in the home is worth reading for its lasting effects on her family’s life.

More and more people are aware they need help, which is presumably why William Powers’ Hamlet’s Blackberry was a best seller in the US.

And then think of the kids. Mine are too young to be fully fledged digital natives yet, but I saw a glimpse of the future in my nieces and nephews at Christmas. Four of them (aged 8 – 10) were mostly glued to an iPod touch or Nintendo DS. It took threats and cajoles to get them to put them down.

The technology solution

The ongoing promise that technology will solve this information overload seems not to be materialising. Those smart, personalised content filters we’ve been promised haven’t kicked in yet. So managing the challenges of the information age and dealing with the way it affects our lives is increasingly down to our own attitudes and behaviours.

Indeed technology continues to create more challenges to information overload than solutions. No sooner do I get back to my desk in January but I find myself signing up to a new social network called Quora. Here’s a great new tool that has yet more potential to enlighten, engage, interact, solve problems… and hoover up the tiny fraction of attention that’s left after everything else that’s demanded of me.

Okay, this isn’t meant to be a whinge. I’m enjoying getting back to work. I’m thrilled to find that the digital world continues to be an exciting, dynamic and innovative a place to live in. But before we get caught in the slipstream, let’s remember how good that break felt.

Do yourself a favour and make some resolutions

I for one am going to schedule in regular downtime this year. I think it will help my attention, sharpen my focus, give me greater perspective and, yes, make my life better. I challenge you to do the same. After all, you deserve a vacation.

Here’s a short list of my own resolutions:

  • Outside of work hours (excluding travel) use my iPhone for making and receiving calls only
  • Resolve not to read content on my iPhone while walking down the street
  • Resolve never to check my iPhone while in a meeting (don’t you hate it when other people do that?)
  • Read at least two books a month (because long form content is a good balance to the short form we usually consume through digital media)
  • Make sure one of those books is Hamlet’s Blackberry
  • Mark RSS items as ‘read’ if I don’t catch up with them by the end of the week (this is going to be tough!)
  • Make my holiday breaks with the family completely digital-free
  • Look down less, look up more

Wish me luck!

In the meantime, if anyone has any tips for managing information overload, please let me know in the comments.

6 thoughts on “Back to work, back to distraction

  1. Nice post. I’m desperate for some kind of smart, minutely customisable filter – ideally, something that learns to feed me information based on what I actually read, rather than what I feel I should stay in touch with. There are simply too many sub-strands of overlapping content. RSS is a blunt instrument and the likes of Flipboard are cute but indulgent. I do think we beat ourselves up too much about strictly delineating human time/digital time – the two are merging inexorably, so we need to focus on ways to manage the merging rather than denying it.

  2. Thanks Andy. That’s a good point about the human/digital divide and managing the merge. I think it could turn out to be the defining challenge of our time (how about that for a grand statement!)

  3. Indeed. We’re social animals, and so we’ve naturally made communicating with each other more immediate – both in terms of geographical connection (more advanced/quicker transport) and through technology (answering machines – fax – email – mobile phones – mobile email – instant messaging)… But the problem of splitting ourselves between our various life-strands has always been around, regardless of technological advances. Remember Diane Keaton’s husband in Woody Allen’s ‘Play It Again Sam’? The one who’s always phoning his office to confirmwhich pay-phone he’ll be near to or which restaurant he’ll be at? … I think it’s all deeply existential – a panic about obsolescence/personal relevance. (Interesting that the increase in technological connection has coincided with a decline in religious faith). But I might be rambling now. 🙂

  4. One more thing… 🙂 You should make one of your books ‘Slowness’ by Milan Kundera. It was written just as the internet was breaking into the mainstream and is wise and prophetic about the effects of technological acceleration and modernity on the human condition.

  5. I’d forgotten about that Play It Again Sam thing – that was Foursquare before its time. Nice spot!

    I love those connections. I’ve always seen the part in Miracle on 34th Street, where Santa sends shoppers to other stores, as a premonition of Google, which does the same thing. In its early days there was a similar response to Google, ie ‘how are you going to make money out of sending people away?’ Answer for both Google and Macey’s Kris Kringle – if you consistently send people to useful places, they will keep coming back to you.

    More cultural premonitions of today’s technology most heartily welcomed.

  6. Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy… Wikipedia. Or, more specifically, Wikipanion on an iPad. 🙂

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