After lifting a set at the gym I pace back and forth gathering my thoughts, focusing on the next set. As I look around the gym all the other people are staring at the TVs plastered along the wall or playing on their cell phone. At the traffic light I take a deep breath and relax. I look over at the car next to me and notice the driver is texting. At the office I always have books on taxes and finance at arm’s length. My free time is filled with learning. During the lunch hour the office is dead quiet as everyone checks their personal email or Facebook.
The above scenes are common. I am certain you have experienced the same thing and more. Our society has devolved into information overload. As a society we can’t sit still for a moment unless we are distracted by some form of mass media. I wonder what Blaise Pascal would think of modern society. Pascal once said, “All of humanities problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Hell, people can’t stand twenty seconds without checking their smartphone at a crowded party. There are people who actually admit to pollsters they have checked their email during, ah, you know. What is the matter with people!
The More We Get the More We Want
The problem only grows. The more we satisfy this inane hunger the more it demands. Our attention spans continue to shrink. If my math skills were really bad and I applied a straight line to our collective attention span over time, at some point in the very near future our collective attention span would be negative. In other words, we would be distracted to some other pretty light before we even satisfied the first impulse. Oops! Sorry. We already crossed that point.
The lust for another distraction is pervasive. What ever happened to quiet time? Do we take naps anymore? Probably not. The same people willing to interrupt sex for a quick check on the email also check their email overnight. It’s the first thing they do in the morning. Before the emails are finished it is off to check the news and check out some videos and Facebook. How many emails did you respond to? Yeah. Thought so. Too busy moving on to the next distraction.
What We Lose
Before I act all innocent and self-righteous, I confess I am far from perfect. I don’t check email from bed and it will be a cold day in hell before I check email or any social media while Mrs. Accountant and I are, ah, well you know, the thing. My innocence ends there. At the gym I can’t avoid the TVs. They are everywhere. So I often find my head tilted up between sets staring with a blank face at the talking heads. At the office (and at home) I tend to read way too much news. Most of it is crap or outright wrong. Still, the addiction is firmly in place.
And it bothers the hell out of me. I’m not so stupid (close, but not quite) as to believe I am not giving something up for all this entertainment overload. When I work out I generally keep to myself, focused on-task. Sometimes I talk to other sweaty people at the gym, but at least I don’t pull out ear plugs before I can hear them. I am so much better than they are. It is a dirty shame. There are a lot of good people over there and I really don’t know them well at all. Too busy catching up on important stuff uttered by the talking heads on the TVs during recovery time.
It goes a lot further. Some of us have crossed over into the twilight zone it is so bad; we don’t have a firm grasp on reality anymore. Our whole worldview comes from a screen. First we lose intimacy and close relationships to feed the entertainment/distraction addiction. We think we are masters at multi-tasking when studies have shown this is an illusion.
When we should be focused on our goals we quickly turn to social media and email. The greatest loss we all face when we allow entertainment overload to control our lives is the loss of thinking. Quiet, undisturbed thinking time. Every successful person I know spends time every day in quiet contemplation, thinking. Elon Musk does it, so does Warren Buffett, and even your favorite accountant imbibes in the quiet time ritual. How do you think I come up with all this stuff?
Loss of relationships is bad enough, but now you are robbed of even having a dream! Let me put the fear of god in you. Most people reading this blog are interested in financial independence (FI) and early retirement (RE). Well, when you are consistently distracted you are not working toward those important goals! How does checking your email 3,764 times a day help you reach FIRE? It doesn’t! Who do you expect will send you an email? The Secretary of State? You’re not that important; neither am I. Get over yourself.
And if you don’t get over yourself you will get what the vast majority of people get: a lifetime of forced servitude and nothing to show for in a retirement brought on by age, not financial security. You also lose love and intimacy. Yeah, the President of the United States might want to take a call during sex. Nukes could be on the way and an immediate response is necessary. You are not the POTUS! So knock it off. (My apologies to the President if he/she is reading this.)
When is the last time you read a book to your child? Kissed your significant other passionately? Hugged your mom or dad? Thought so. Do you know how fucked up you are? Do you really think, as you rest on your death bed, you will regret not checking your email or social media more often? Or will you regret not talking with your children more? Making love with your significant other more? Holding your spouse’s hand during a slow walk daily?
It’s not too late! There is still time. You can end the insanity and regain your life. Unlike hard drugs, you don’t have to go cold turkey. Have a set time to check email and social media. Also demand ample time daily to spend in meaning conversation with people you care about: significant other, your children, parents (if they are still alive), and friends.
You also need to demand quite time each day to think. Nothing is possible until you think it first. Once you have the thought you need to spend time working out the details. This is not worry; this is actually reviewing if the idea will really bring you happiness. Working through an idea is not worry; it is planning. The only way to choreograph the life of your dreams is to first dream. And dreams only become real in the quiet spaces.
According to National Geographic, our National Parks had record attendance in 2015. But the visitors were staying on the beaten path. They are viewing the parks from their car. The number of people backpacking has declined and has been for a while. It is thought many people don’t want to travel somewhere where they are disconnected even for a few days. Once again, they are waiting for that important email from the Secretary of State.
Brave New World
In The Tempest, Shakespeare put these words into Miranda’s mouth:
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! Oh, brave new world,
That hath such people in ‘t!
How would we know today if the world is so wondrous? We are too busy looking at a screen. I cannot encourage strong enough turning off electronics and unplugging for a portion of each day. I recommend four hours of quite time daily, but that can be a lot to start with. This is in addition to sleep time. You need ample sleep; don’t short change it. There is no reason to check emails or social media from bed. I’m a crazy accountant from Wisconsin and even I have never crossed that line. There is no way you can possibly be more nuts than me.
Quiet time means alone time, but it also means uninterrupted time with loved ones. You can do this guys. You can hold your wife’s hand as you walk for thirty minutes, then face her and just gaze into her eyes. Trust me, ladies like that. For at least a few moments each day make her your entire world, no distractions or interruptions. Don’t even think about the other crazy stuff in the world. Just her. You will not believe how awesome that woman you are holding is. Before you break away, pull her in for a gentle embrace. Hold it just a moment longer than necessary. That is the only moment that counts, but you have to travel the whole distance to get there. Oh, and BTW, you will like it too.
Entertainment overload is everywhere. Real happiness is destroyed when everything has to be entertaining. Even The Wealthy Accountant is a form of entertainment. I tell stories to illustrate a point and work hard to keep it entertaining. If I don’t you guys leave and make me sad.
You have to turn it off! A social media and email sabbatical will not kill you. Trust me. (Nothing bad ever happens when you are told “Trust me”.) Take a day off from all the blogs, too; they’ll still be there when you get back. Regain your life and relationships. The Wealthy Accountant is exempt, of course. Spend as much time here as you want. In fact, I demand you stay here, distracted and entertained. It’s my ego we are talking about.
Wednesday 2nd of November 2016
Well said. I'm guilty of checking email regularly. The lines, "Who do you expect will send you an email? The Secretary of State? You’re not that important; neither am I. Get over yourself", really struck me. Some positive feedback, thanks to your motivation I just read my first book in over, well a long a time so your message definitely hits home. Thanks
Wednesday 2nd of November 2016
Matt, I stole the idea from George Carlin. There is a skit he does on a similar topic where he says, "Who you expecting a call from? Henry Kissinger?" I changed it a bit because I think a lot of readers might not know who Henry Kissinger is. It also makes me happy to see I am making a positive difference in your life.