By Neil Lewis
20 years ago, as the age of the internet began to dawn, the human race was on the verge of a new renaissance. The world had begun to embrace new methods of communication. Mobile data and telephony was taking off, and schools and colleges were including information technology and computer studies as part of curriculums all over the world. But cynics and sceptics out there still questioned the validity of these advances. The need was still unclear, the benefit not yet realised, and the true potential of technological advancement was a mystery. Accessibility was limited, cost was high and content was sparse. The brightest minds of the time were appealing to the masses to take a chance – after all, there was no business bible or manual for creating a successful information super-highway – it had never been done before.
Cut to 20 years later. The number of communication methods now is countless. In the UK alone, there are more active mobile communication devices than people. Cable and satellite television, considered by many to be a luxury item several years ago, is now commonplace, and digital media has enabled a multitude of channels and broadcasting that is available at the user’s desire. Even the traditional games console now uses the web to connect players from all over the world. What an age we live in, indeed. Technology has birthed a new world order of machines that have removed the need for books, libraries, shops and retail, even the board game.
What is perhaps most interesting about this is how it all came about. Technology was advancing, no doubt, but what about the minds that leveraged this to create the world we know today? How did they come up with these solutions? When we hear from the brightest minds of the last decade, the answer is usually the same. These innovations were spawned out of boredom. Whether it be messing about in a garage in California, or a late night in a university dorm room, some of the greatest innovations of our time have come about through boredom and people having too much time on their hands – a true argument towards giving one the time and space to design, create and innovate.
Never has a civilisation been so rich with knowledge and information. The pub quiz is dead.’ To wonder’ has been replaced as a verb with ‘to Google’. We have gone from being a society seeking answers to being a society that longs to find an unanswered question. The millennial version of this, the ‘Googlewhack’, is nigh on impossible – proof positive that the internet has indeed become the greatest advancement in human civilisation since the wheel. The challenge now, in fact, is to live a life independent of technology. But when the UN are in debate around internet access now being a basic human right, have things changed indefinitely?
Whilst technology has undoubtedly improved the world we live in, what effect has it had on the people? The average individual has at least 2 email accounts, at least 2 contact telephone numbers and at least one social network account. There are many people in the West and emerging markets that have twice this. With so many streams of communication, and so many more people keeping in touch with us, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to manage the sheer volume of conversations that are taking place every second. And what effect does this have on children? ADHD diagnosis is on the rise. Schools have to find more ingenious ways of helping pupils to learn whilst fighting boredom. The vast array of devices, activities, games and information available means that we are at constant risk of over-stimulating children and adults to the point where they are physically incapable of holding their attention to any one thing for anything more than a matter of minutes. Children today are completely at ease operating multiple electronic devices at the same time, but with so much choice available, and little incentive to focus on any one task or activity, are we turning ‘Millennials’ into ‘Attention-deficiles’? One of the single greatest challenges that over-stimulation can cause is the erosion of the human ability to focus. This ability is what enables us to reason – to take a mine of information and decipher it, and to take into consideration all the variables – the ‘greys’. But when the information keeps on coming, how can one ever truly focus?
The mind is taking in so much more than ever before. Phone calls, emails, texts, people, questions, information, diaries, arrangements – it all becomes a jumbled mess in our minds, and we have to work so much harder to order our thoughts. It’s inevitable that these thoughts interfere with each other, or we deal with them in a sub-par way just to get them out of our minds. The more we take in, the more stressed we get, and the more questionable our judgement becomes. Focussed concentration, thought-ordering and even innovation was less of a problem 30 years ago because the world in which we lived was very different. It’s about going back to basics. The key is simple – data deprivation.
What if, for just a few minutes a day, we cut off all of these devices? What if we were un-contactable? What if we allowed ourselves to just ‘be’? The ability to focus is the single greatest commodity when making decisions. With so much information, so many conversations, so many thoughts and challenges all filling the mind at once, do we have the time or attention to make informed, stress-free decisions? The solution is to take steps to limit the amount of information we take in – to give our minds the chance to focus and order what is already there before adding more to it.
It’s natural to be resistant to this – after all, accessibility has become so habitual that it’s impossible to imagine life without it. But if I were to say to you that completely clearing your mind of all thoughts, decisions and distractions for 20 minutes every day would increase your capability to focus, would you do it? If I told you that giving your mind a brief respite every day would not only help you manage your stress levels, but actually make you less stressed, would you be interested? If I explained that taking a few minutes to clear your mind completely before attempting a challenging task or attending a meeting would actually improve your performance, would that help? And if I said that improving your ability to focus when necessary will ensure that you make better decisions in all aspects of your life, is that desirable? It’s easy to focus on the perils of not checking your phone, email or Wikipedia for a period of time, but if you consider instead the benefits, you may be more inclined. And like any habit, it will be difficult to change at first, but absolutely worth it.
Today’s brightest minds are already exploring the benefits of what is now known commonly as ‘mindfulness’. They appreciate how giving themselves the time to be more mindful, especially when incredibly busy or in high demand, is essential to remaining on top of their game. When not being mindful, adrenaline takes over. This impacts not only the decisions we make, but our demeanour and behaviour. This is critical to leaders, as erratic, stressed behaviour damages credibility. Couple that with questionable decisions made under duress, and there are some fundamental flaws in the leader. The best leaders are the ones that can remain calm and objective in the face of demanding work pressures, and the best innovators are the ones that give themselves the creative advantage of thought and time. Mindfulness and data deprivation allows the mind to unclog and relax, so that when a decision or solution is needed, it can be formulated free from many other distractions and inhibiting thoughts.
There are many ways to be more mindful – data deprivation being just one of them. More and more senior leaders are taking the time to meditate, which by proxy is about clearing the mind. Mindfulness and meditation can also aid essential relaxation, such as sleep. Learning to be more mindful and clearing the mind makes those who struggle to switch off at night fall asleep quicker and more easily. But those sceptical about meditation can simply try this. For 10 minutes every day, take yourself off somewhere quiet. Don’t take the phone, or the tablet or the laptop. Don’t tell anyone where you are going. Don’t take music, don’t go where there is a television. Just spend 10 minutes sitting quietly, and try not to think about anything. Try to fully relax, removing any tension from your body, paying particular attention to the neck, shoulders and back, where tension builds up. Giving your mind and body this rest will help calm and relax you, and make it much easier to tackle what is waiting for you. Your concentration levels will increase, your stress levels will decrease and your ability to process information will get better.
Leading organisations are getting onboard with this. They provide their people with ‘free time’ to explore projects of their choice and step away from the constant demands of their roles. They understand and appreciate the value of giving people this time. We live in a world where boredom and ‘down time’ has become a thing of the past – but let’s not forget that without it, even the brightest minds won’t have the time, attention or focus to create the next great innovation.