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Using downtime to fuel your uptime
We're often urged to “rise and grind”—365 days a year, if possible. This month's readings help us shift the focus from unplugging to recharging.
Welcome to What We’re Reading. Each month, we’ll curate a list of books―from perennial classics to new releases―chat with authors, and review titles with the hope of co-creating a community of well-read makers. Discussions around work, creativity, and entrepreneurship are constantly evolving; here, we aim to create a space for different ideas and approaches to be in conversation with one another. Whether you’re already an avid reader or wish you read more, we hope you’ll feel inspired to read along with us.
This month, we’re reading three books and a longform article about disconnecting from technology, what it means to do nothing in a capitalist economy, and how silence can be essential to sanity and happiness.
For many of us, August brings a longing for the crackling sounds of a campfire, the smell of an open road, or the feeling of a late summer sun our skin. In many parts of the world, August is a month of holidays. In some countries, workers even take the entire month off. And while such indulgences are less common in the U.S., this time of year does bring with it an urge to slow down and maybe even disconnect.
But what does disconnecting really look like in today’s world? Today, a full 95% of Americans live our lives with a miniature computer permanently attached to us. For the vast majority of us, phones have become a literal extension of our bodies; they’re the first thing we look at each morning and the last thing we see each night before we drift off to sleep. Some of us even go through real, physical withdrawals from our phones, whether that’s feeling vibrations in your pocket when no one is calling or hearing your phone ring when, in fact, it’s not.
For better or worse, when it comes to taking time away from technology—the constant streams of text messages, the obsessive refreshing of social media apps, or the incessant urge to check our email at all hours of the day—many of us admit that we want to but, for some reason, we just can't.
Disconnecting or unplugging may look different for everyone, and there is no right way to do it. But one way to start is by realizing that we’d like to, and identifying a method that might make sense for our particular situation. Whether we like it or not, summer is winding down to a close, and so, there’s no better time to prioritize the practice of recharging our bodies and minds.
This month, we’re reading things that inspire us to slow down, take a look around, and reconnect with ourselves. Today’s culture often urges us to “rise and grind”—365 days a year, if possible. These selections encourage us, instead, to make an effort to unplug and recharge, whatever that may mean to us, and then use the clarity rest affords to get back to work on our personal and professional goals.
“I changed my profile photos to an all-black rectangle with a simple message in all caps: OFFLINE THROUGH JAN 7, 2013. EXPECT NO REPLIES,” writes Baratunde Thurston in a 2013 article for Fast Company. “In an era of high-definition, handheld, multiparty, and free wireless video chat, my best option was essentially a smoke signal.”
If Thurston could have foreseen the future, he might have cringed; if 2013 felt like an era defined by a suffocating digital dependency, 2019 might seem a much darker place. While Thurston’s longform essay was written six years ago, its essence still rings true. He writes of the anxieties that come with escaping social media given its integration with other digital products we’ve come to depend on. What does it look like, Thurston asks, to watch Netflix or take pictures during a vacation but also avoid pop-up alerts and social media timelines?
Thurston breaks down his near month-long internet fast by day, offering an up-close look at his experiences. By chronicling the good, the bad, and the difficult things he experienced during this time, Thurston offers a raw look at the challenges—and rewards—that come along with unplugging. His subsequent reflections inspire and urge us all to think about the way that we have developed varying degrees of dependence on our digital devices and are a must read for anyone wanting to cultivate a more conscious existence in the digital age.
Cal Newport is known for his honest (if not slightly austere) views on social media and the digital age. In his book Deep Work—which is also a must-read—Newport explores what it means to focus deeply on work without diversion. In today's "distracted world," Newport acknowledges this can be a tall order.
In Digital Minimalism, Newport dives deeper into the topic of disconnecting from our noise-filled world, but the book focuses primarily on what disconnecting and focusing on being present can do not just for our professional lives, but for our personal ones.
Applying a minimalist approach to our personal technology habits, Newport argues, is the key to living a more focused life in today's world. “Where we want to be cautious,” he writes, “is when the sound of a voice or a cup of coffee with a friend is replaced with ‘likes’ on a post.”
Acknowledging how insidious this habits can be, Newport provides practical advice on what embracing a minimalist philosophy might look like—from spending time in solitude and leaving your phone at home to avoid the negative feedback loop of social media likes and holding "conversation office hours"—leaving readers with tangible practices to employ in their everyday lives.
Sure, sometimes conversations about unplugging can feel preachy and downright unrealistic, but Newport distills the idea of less is more down to a science and encourages readers to start setting better boundaries and reimagining a more focused life for themselves, one day at a time.
A friend recently asked me, “What do you do when you do nothing?” They told me they lay in bed and stare at the ceiling; I struggled to come up with an equally satisfying answer. The truth is, I am not particularly good at doing nothing.
In How To Do Nothing, Jenny Odell, an artist and critic, composes an inspiring guide to doing nothing. Today's world is governed by capitalism and an obsession with being productive, and Odell invites us to think about how we think about our productivity, ourselves, and of the world as a whole.
Odell argues that the most precious resource that each of us has access to is our attention. Choosing where we put it, and how we use it, can be the key to unlocking a more meaningful life, Odell says.
“In a situation where every waking moment has become the time in which we make our living, and when we submit even our leisure for numerical evaluation via likes on Facebook and Instagram, constantly checking on its performance like one checks a stock, monitoring the ongoing development of our personal brand,” Odell writes, “time becomes an economic resource that we can no longer justify spending on ‘nothing.’”
How To Do Nothing is a refreshing look at how we can use our time and attention to better define our happiness and inform the actions we choose to take every day. Odell's meditation on doing nothing offers a unique perspective at how we relate to technology, professionalism, and capitalism, and is an actionable—and welcome—departure from typical narratives urging us to simply unplug or "go back to nature."
Erling Kagge's book, Silence, In The Age Of Noise, feels more like a meditation practice than a book. Translated from Norwegian, the book muses over the questions: “What is silence? Where is it? Why is it more important now than ever?”
In order to tease apart potential responses to these questions, Kagge writes thirty three separate sections that are dynamic and deeply engaging. He writes: “Deep beneath a cacophony of traffic noise and thoughts, music and machinery, iPhones and snow plows, it lay in wait for me: Silence.”
An explorer as well as a writer, Kagge's Silence is a beautiful exploration of silence, how it can renew our mind in an age of near-constant background noise. But he also explores how, for many people, silence can provoke anxieties. In fact, Kagge argues that many of us fear silence and cling to our cell phones, iPads, and televisions to keep it at bay.
This book is a wonderful meditation on all of the different things silence can mean, and helps readers develop a more thoughtful, nuanced relationship to noise (and the lack of it) in our own lives. “Silence is almost extinct,“ he writes. “You must create your own.”