Finding time for what matters

Here’s an edited version of a piece I wrote last week for the Guardian, about one of my pet themes: what it means to manage your time actively and well in a constantly wired world. The piece was part of a supplement by the School of Life, and is linked to my forthcoming book How to Thrive in the Digital Age.

When it comes to filling time with noise, words and images, this is an unprecedented age. Among American eight- to 18-year-olds, media usage now fills more than seven and a half hours daily – and you can add another three if multitasking is taken into account.

Today, for the first time in history, many people’s daily default is to be wired into at least one personalised form of media. Consider the “quiet carriage” signs found in most trains. These are signs of our times in the literal sense, indications that the absence of digital devices must be specially requested.

If we are to get the most out of both the world around us and each other, we need to recognise that we have two fundamentally different ways of being. Our wired and disconnected states each represent a different set of possibilities for thought and action.

The greatest advantages of wired living are easily enumerated. Plugged into the world’s hive-mind, we have speed, we have range. We can research and reference much of humanity’s gathered knowledge – and gossip and opinion – in minutes. We have godlike capabilities and are increasingly adept at using them.

Unplugged from media’s live wires, however, our originality and rigour can come into play in a different, older sense that’s found in our capacity to make decisions, to act on our own initiative, to think freely, without fear of pre-emption. Much as we hunger for connection, we need to keep some sense of ourselves separate from the constant capacity to broadcast. We need tenses other than the present.

When it comes to taking action, what’s required is not so much moving to a remote mountainside (although it’s telling that such “off-grid” vacationing is becoming a new index of luxury) as building different qualities of time and attention into our daily lives. This can mean setting aside mornings or evenings when phones are strictly turned off; checking emails just two or three times a day in fixed slots; or insisting that meetings and personal events are sacred, and not to be interrupted. In each case, it’s about creating boundaries, and learning how to push back against the always-on logic of communication systems – and the accompanying temptation to constantly broadcast your own status and perception of the world.

There are no one-size-fits-all solutions. What works best is likely to be individual and idiosyncratic. I sometimes choose to write longhand, in a suitably hefty notebook, to escape the inexorable multitasking that writing on screen brings. It’s a welcome paradox of a digital age that the ease of virtual communication has increased the emotional impact of physical objects such as letters and journals, placing them apart from the maelstrom of other media.

There are also mental habits we can change, perhaps the most pernicious of which is embodied in the overused metaphor of a media “landscape”. It’s a description that implicitly turns our tools into an immutable aspect of the world, to be lived within, rather than critically examined. We must never forget that, however pervasive technology becomes, software and hardware are made by humans and are limited by the intentions of their makers. If we cannot think critically about their histories and limitations, then we’re unlikely to be able to make discerning use of them within our lives.

For all of its challenges, we live in an era of near-miraculous, unprecedented opportunities. Yet for some people, the suffusion of the present is increasingly attended by strain and anxiety, and a sense of lost control. These facts are not inexorably bound together; but it can be a terrible struggle to disentangle them.

Above all, every effort on our part should begin with the knowledge that without the ability to say no as well as yes to technology – and to understand what exactly it is that we are agreeing to when we do say yes – we risk turning modernity’s miracles into snares.