The Ability to Turn Off

Six years ago, I was working in the Pentagon and feeling particularly excited about the fact that I had recently received a promotion that required me to carry a government-issued blackberry.  Back then, it was sort of a right of passage.  It meant that you were plugged in, and that at any moment, night or day, someone may require your immediate input.  It took about a month for me to hate that blackberry, maybe less.  In my line of work, people who had government-issued blackberries tended to use them in a ruthlessly competitive way.  It was literally a competition to see who was “on” at all times, who responded first, who was on top of every situation at every moment, and who was still actively working between the hours of 10pm to 6am.  There was no “off.”  If, for some reason, it came to other’s attention that you were not monitoring your “crackberry,” as it was lovingly referred to, you would be reminded by your boss, colleagues, and anyone else who felt like letting you know that your “digital pause” had not gone unnoticed.  I ran at the front of the pack for a couple of months, and then, I decided that I was no longer racing and changed the rules.

I found that I did not make the best decisions when attempting to respond in less than 30 seconds.  I also found that regular email, phone calls, and various types of meetings were sufficient to keep me informed.  I did not need to cover the 30-second gap between meetings, or the 5-minute walk to my car, or any of the intervening periods from one activity to another, by constantly monitoring a digital device.  I found constant monitoring to be distracting, distressing, and quite frankly detrimental to a well thought out response.  I created a new policy – the blackberry only came out for travel, or when an urgent issue came up and required additional attention and monitoring.  Other than that, there would be no more “crackberry.”  I felt calmer, the quality of my work was probably better, and as long as people knew how and when to contact me, most of them realized that they really didn’t need (or want) me to respond to them in less than 30 seconds.  The experience taught me a few important lessons about myself.  1) I prefer to think things over before committing to a response or decision in writing (email is writing); 2) I do not gain focus or energy from constant access to information; and 3) I tend to question anyone who responds to complex issues immediately, and who can’t put down a digital device long enough to have a 1-hour conversation.

While I believe that digital tools are great, and I want them to work fast when I need them, I do not believe that I always need them, and I do not always want them.  That’s why I get excited and very interested when I see others moving toward greater focus and contemplation without the use of digital devices.  Case in point, a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, discusses a course taught by David Levy at the University of Washington titled, “Information and Contemplation.”  In the course, “students scrutinize their use of technology: how much time they spend with it, how it affects their emotions, how it fragments their attention. They watch videos of themselves multitasking and write guidelines for improving their habits. They also practice meditation—during class—to sharpen their attention.” I would love to take this course, and I wish there were more like it. I do not think that focus and reflection are enhanced by constant use of multiple devices and constant bombardment by information and fragmented soundbites.  There is something to be gained by uninterrupted thought and unity of mental effort.  There is value in picking up a book and reading it from cover to cover.  While I value the ability to multi-task, I also wonder about the evolution of human attention span and long-term effects associated with the frequency of today’s mental channel surfing and the inability to disconnect.  I understand how these issues impact me because I have points of comparison.  But, what if you have nothing to compare your “on” status to – no way to benchmark the state of “on” from the state of “off?”  Then, I guess you need guys like Levy to teach the lost art of mental quiet and focus.  If you’re at all interested or intrigued, you should check out the reading list for Levy’s course.  I’m adding several items from it to my own personal reading list…

5 thoughts on “The Ability to Turn Off

  1. Hi Leslie! You stole my blog post! 🙂 I was just about to write a blog about the article you mentioned with Dr. Levy. Initially, I was kind-of “weirded out” by the whole meditation/zen thing; however, as you read…as I read the article, I started seeing where I sometimes don’t “disconnect.” I would recommend that everyone as least skim it because of how much we rely on “technology.” Here is a link to the article:

    • Shaun, You should write the blog anyway! It’s good to have company 😉 Sometimes, I feel like a bit of a heretic on the whole zen-disconnect thing.

  2. Leslie and Shaun,
    Thanks for bringing this up!
    Leslie- It is so beautifully written. I love your concept of “There is something to be gained by uninterrupted thought and unity of mental effort.” There is indeed. And, probably it would soon become one of the skills that we would need to teach our students.
    I am totally going to check the article and the reading list of Dr. Levy’s class. Thanks!!
    (On a side note, because I plan to teach in India for long, I am thinking on lines of incorporating Yoga practices in Engineering education. No idea, how that will work out though!)

  3. Hi Leslie. Thank you for posting this blog! I read the whole article and I was amazed! Recently, I started to think that I should improve my multitasking skills. I have been trying a lot, but it has been a pain. I thought I was going to improve my efficiency, but it has been the opposite. Now that I read this article, I feel much better. I totally agree with the fact that the type of multitasking we usually apply is a waste of time and efforts. I like a lot the topic of meditation. I have been hearing about this topic a lot during the last months, and I think I am going to start reading more about it. It is an ancient wisdom that has worked for many, and -according to the article- it is worth to apply.

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