With the frenzy of fall fast approaching, let’s consider the idea of down time. Of vacation, of time off and time out, of leisure, retreat and well-deserved break.
Is this concept too foreign to survive in a 24-7 world of connectivity and information?
I fear so. The necessity of rest has turned into a luxury. Too many people think they can’t escape their rushed lives — and not just for a couple of weeks, either. A day away from Facebook, TV, YouTube and cellphone seems like a radical, rebellious idea for those of us who secretly check our work email on weekends and during vacation, when we should instead be recharging our mental batteries.
I’m pessimistic about our ability to disconnect not just from our jobs but from the din of incessant data. Like many, I’m bombarded and blitzed by a barrage of demands to process, to act, to filter. To do, do, do. Now, now, now. This is exhausting, a true soul-suck.
Sometimes, as I toggle between screens, I feel as if I’m suffering from brain whiplash. And when I seek respite, a niggling, corroding guilt follows: What have I missed? What should I be doing?
As a writer, I long ago discovered that it’s in the unstructured moments — shopping for groceries, weeding the flowerbed, sitting at a long stoplight — that my best ideas rise to the surface like cream ready for butter-making. But 21st century journalism demands that I spew more, and more, and infinitely more information to the world. This, in turn, requires I stay tuned to the constant noise of happenings. I do so mostly through social media, and though I love the promise of instant connectivity, I also recognize that this possibility has become a demanding tyrant.
In a wildly popular essay in the New York Times, one that various friends have emailed me, neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin cites a 2011 study that found most of us take in about 174 newspapers’ worth of information on a typical day; five times as much as we did in 1986.
No wonder I’m short-circuiting. Unfortunately, so is most everybody.
In explaining how our brains work, Levitin admonishes us to tame multitasking and increase creativity by walking in nature or listening to music, by losing ourselves in those undemanding tasks that encourage the mind-wandering mode. Daydreaming, he writes, leads to the kind of creativity that changes the world.
Is anyone listening to this? Maybe intermittently.
I suspect we’ve grown inured to the message, even as it’s drowned out by every status update that pops into our newsfeed. We’re of a society and a time that discourages daydreaming, what my mother liked to call mariposeando, an aptly descriptive Spanish word that translates into “butterflying.” We live in a country notorious for shunning vacations and sabbaticals, any long form of daydreaming actually. In some industries, working nonstop is a badge of honor. Ask a lawyer, an accountant, a doctor, an analyst, a school principal — anyone tethered to a frantic life by the invisible chain of Wi-Fi and a To-Do list.
It’s time to reevaluate. On this Labor Day week, when we celebrate the joy of working, I hope we also praise the opportunity of leisure. I hope we commit to musing and dreaming. To the occasional moment of pointless doodling and woolgathering.
Lost in thought — that’s where we will find our next masterpiece.