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Summary:

Once upon a time, we didn’t have gadgets surrounding us all the time. Do you remember that? You might, but perhaps only vaguely if research reported by the New York Times is true. Researchers have determined that we need downtime to turn experiences into memories.

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Once upon a time, we didn’t have gadgets surrounding us all the time. Do you remember that? You might, but perhaps only vaguely if research reported by the New York Times is true. Researchers at the University of California have determined that we need downtime — periods of low activity — to digest things we’ve experienced while active. These periods allow the brain to turn things learned into long-term memories, which is the process of learning by doing.

Technology has given us the ability to be totally connected to, and often immersed in, the world-wide web. We are bombarded with information from the sound of the alarm in the morning until our head hits the pillow at night. We have computers flooding us with information all day. Heck, we even use our laptops or iPads to access expanded content for TV shows we are watching. Worst of all, we have smartphones connected to the web — and thus the world — 24/7. We have them with us all the time, even when we shouldn’t, and they steal our attention during much-needed periods of downtime.

Once we pull the gadget, whatever form it takes, out of our pocket or bag, downtime is over. It’s bad enough that we’re not giving our brains sufficient time to process the constant information bombardment, but we interrupt those times we should be focusing on things that really matter. Our own Mathew Ingram recently touched a nerve with me:

Some schedule downtime and personal time the same way they might schedule a meeting, turning off their cellphone and avoiding their email for specific periods — in my family, for example, there are no laptops or cellphones allowed at the dinner table (unless someone is looking up the answer to a question in order to settle an argument).

I make every effort to step away from the gadgets and allow myself some healthy downtime, but having information available all the time makes that harder to do, as it’s now a habit. It’s not unusual to find my wife and I at a nice restaurant — BlackBerry and Android smartphone in hands — checking something on the web, or checking our kids’ Facebook updates to stay current with what they’re doing. What we’re not doing is taking the downtime we both need, instead opting for further information stimulation. Sure, we talk about what we just read, as we like to share things. That’s not the point.

My wife and I aren’t the only ones doing this: Our friends and colleagues do this regularly, too. It’s almost like a craving: the need to know what’s going on everywhere, every minute. It used to be we only worried about missing a favorite TV show. Now we worry we’re not keeping up with everything in the world. It doesn’t make sense when you see it in black and white.

What we must do is put down the gadgets and step away from the computer at regular intervals throughout the day. I often read e-books on my phone when lunching alone, but I turn off the phone’s volume completely. Enjoying a good book is great downtime for me, and I don’t want that distinctive tone informing me that something needs my attention right at that moment. It really can wait. My brain needs the downtime to turn the things I learned earlier into long-term memories. Otherwise they’re lost, and that is such a waste.

Mathew’s rule of no laptops or phones at the dinner table is great, and one we should all follow. It not only ensures we connect with those important to us; it lets our brains have the downtime that is desperately needed. You do remember what downtime is, right?

Related GigaOM Pro Research (sub req’d): The Week e-books Won the War

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  1. No devices of any kind at the dinner table, including smartphones. Unless you have young kids, but only answer a call if it’s the babysitter.

    I also think there’s no excuse to use phones when driving. It’s dangerous and stupid. If you need to make a call or check your email, pull over. Or wait until you’ve reached your destination.

    1. I’ve also given up TV. My biggest problem is limiting my time online and I’m thinking of only allowing myself two hours in the evening, going so far as to set an oven timer. Yeah, that seems like an extreme thing to do but I’m concerned about all the time I spend online and this constant need to stay on top of what’s happening. It’s just not possible, so I shouldn’t be twisting myself into a pretzel making the attempt.

      1. Ms. Claudia I feels for you. Perhaps you could invest in an iPad, I can assure you won’t be disappointed. Your pad could be your BFF ! Seriously, he would rid you of your downtime fixation and free your mind. Think of the endless possibilities that you and your loyal iPad can experience TOGETHER. Now lets try and work on that Pretzel Logic of yours shall we.

  2. Hector Bus Inspector Wednesday, August 25, 2010

    Not sure I could survive without my trusty iPad even for just a few minutes. I now actually look forward to retreating to the bathroom stall just me and ol’trusty for some serious alone time, I exit the stall fully refreshed with a renewed burst of energy that only an iPad can deliver.

    I cannot fathom time spent NOT fully connected to the Information Superhighway. Actually my battery went dead on my iPhone (you know the one Jesus would own) once and I still remember heart palpitations, sweaty palms and an impending feeling of doom. I never ever want to have that feeling again. I now carry a backup juice pack at all time for emergency situations if you knows what i means.

    As you can see the iMac, iPod, iPad and iPhone are part of my extended family and there is no need for any “downtime” from my children (aka iFamily). I am one super happy camper with a permanent iGrin from ear to ear it really don’t get much better than this. By all means if you are unstable and need some downtime to reset yourself than go for it but in my case this is not necessary since I am in iPad downtime heaven 24×7 :-)

  3. James,

    AMEN!

    I think that part of the problems I have been having emotionally are related to two connected issues: not enough exercise and not enough downtime. (I don’t count my commute as downtime, as Houston traffic is anything but relaxing!)

    I am making some changes in my life, and I look forward to more downtime – just me and possibly good book (or The Good Book). And I agree – no smartphones at the dinner time. My wife will scold me if I even take mine out of my pocket/holster during a meal. Good for her!

    1. You know you have a problem when you have a holster for your phone. Guilty as charged. :)

  4. I understand that reading a book is considered relaxing, but nothing in the NYT article implied that reading a book is sufficient or satisfactory downtime. Reading a book keeps your brain active; why do we assume that you can store memories into long-term memory when your brain is churning through a book?

  5. Sure, we talk about what we just read, as we like to share things. That’s > not the point.

    Are you sure that’s not the point?

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