Do You Remember Downtime?

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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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