How solitude can save your sanity.
Earlier this week, I was in Malta sitting on a rock on the beach. There were about twenty other people there and most of them were scrolling through their phone. While they were scrolling, I was watching a rock that was laying on the beach. I was waiting for the tide to touch it for the first time.
Slowly, wave by wave, the coastline crept closer, until there was this one wave that was able to hit the rock and make it wet. On that beach, during that moment, I was quite literally watching time go by.
This act of stone watching may sound silly, but these moments of solitude are essential in nowadays times of excessive information. These moments give us time to reflect and digest the information that we receive during the day.
And the amount of information we receive these days is a lot. Not so long ago, before this anecdote took place, I was one of those persons that I met at the beach. I automatically filled all the little gaps in my day with a quick look on my phone.
There was no moment I wasn’t receiving information from that device. In the morning at the toilet, I would check some news-websites. On my bicycle ride to the university, I would listen to music via my earphones. During the preparation and consumption of my diner, I would watch Youtube videos. Right before going to sleep, I would quickly check out the last texts I received.
There wasn’t a single moment in the day that I was free of information coming into my mind.
On the surface, this might seem like a nice by-product of the era we are living in. Constantly being connected, constantly receiving new information, adding to the massive pile of information that we store in our heads. It all seems so idyllic. But in fact, all this incoming information is blocking us from making a real impact on this world. It limits us from developing ourselves.
Because all the time we spend on receiving information via these devices, is time we cannot spend on actually using some of that information.
To explain why it is important to think consciously about your information diet, we should have a look at the two cornerstones of self-development: repetition and reflection.
This fundamental component is the basis of all learning. Reflecting is the art of analysing your progress, identifying the things that went well and the things that didn’t go too well and then make a new planning accordingly. But besides reflecting on your progress, it’s also important to reflect on the information that you digest. What is the value of that information? How does it fit into your framework of believes and what can you do with the information? Answering these questions will help you form well grounded opinions about chunks of information and turn them into useful assets for your personal development plan.
The second cornerstone of self-development is based on the Latin phrase: repetitio est mater studiorum (repetition is the mother of all study). In the act of digestion, the information gets repeated and repeated in your mind.
You are not only reflecting on the value of the information, but you are also memorising the information. This will help you a lot in communicating ideas, visions and missions that you develop in your head and back them up with well thought out, complete chunks of information (unlike most of the Twitter-professors you meet these days that only seem to quote headlines of articles they have never read)
In order to digest information in the above described manner, the only thing we need to do is finding solitude.
This sounds rather easy, but remember how many times we check our phones during the day? (At the toilet, in the waiting line, in the public transport, right before we good to sleep).
We barely grant ourselves any moment in which our mind can just be with it self. This is critical and one of the reasons why great minds like Peter Thiel are complaining about the slow rate of technological development.
Much of what is being produced these days is focused at incremental innovations, exploiting the means of production, rather than coming up with fresh and unique ideas.
So what we need to do is find that solitude to digest the excessive amount of information that surrounds us.
Finding solitude does not mean, in contrast to popular believe, that you have to be completely alone, in a quiet and dark room. Solitude can be found everywhere and at anytime.
The only thing you need to do is make sure there is no information coming into your mind. Your mind needs to be alone
One thing that I changed in my daily routine is for instance that I stopped listening to music via my earphones on my way to university.
Just this simple act of removing the music as information input, gave me 30 minutes of solitude a day.
An other thing I do is going for short walks through my neighbourhood (again, without earphones). I bring my notepad and I just walk and think. And if I construct a new an interesting piece of information, I write it down.
This stresses the importance of the digestion of information: it allows you to create information, instead of simply absorbing it.
Vision and priorities
Of course, there is no need to ban your smartphone or any digital technology out of your life completely. The benefits they provide are tremendous. But we do have to recalibrate the way we interact with them. They are tools to help us, so we should treat them like that.
Instead of mindlessly scrolling through digital news-outlets, facebook, or youtube, we should make sure we know what the use-value of these tools are and use them accordingly.
To do so, it is important to identify what is important in your life, what values you prioritise and what dreams you are chasing. When you know where you are going, it’s easier to select the tools that can help you to get there.
Once you have your goal clear (this is quite a big challenge on it’s own and I’ll see if I can write an article about that in the future), you should have a look at all the available options to get you there.
When you for instance have the dream to become the best woodworker in town, you can either attend some woodwork workshops, read a book about the topic or find the right mentor that will teach you the craft.
But no-one is stopping you from searching for a nice Youtube tutorial to teach you all the ins and outs about woodwork. It’s a cheap and effective alternative from the perviously mentioned options, so why not take it?
This is what I mean by: find your vision and then select the right tools to actualise that vision. This can be a digital technology (but doesn’t have to be) and if you chose to use that digital technology, I congratulate you, because then you have found the true value of that digital technology.
In this final section I want to discuss the beautiful phenomenon of Slow Media. In congruence with other Slow Movements (e.g. Slow Food, opposed to Fast Food), Slow Media is a call for being conscious about your media diet.
The Slow Media Manifesto calls for media that is “more intentional, more enjoyable, longer lasting, better researched/written/designed, more ethical, and of higher quality overall.”
If we are looking at media consumption, and this can be part of your job, passion or vision, then we find a lot of people these days that try to keep up with all the news around the world via Twitter and Facebook.
I would like to invite those people to use the strategy as proposed in this article and ask themselves why they are following the news.
Is it because they want to have a clear understanding about what is happening to the world, or is it simply boredom-therapy? If it’s the first one, then ask yourself: is Facebook, with all its clickbait headlines and articles, really the best platform to fulfil your needs
For everyone that now realises that Facebook doesn’t suit their needs of news-consumption, I suggest you to have a look at The Correspondent. A beautiful example of Slow Media movement.
And for all the other readers: I hope this article will help you to prioritise your information consumption and perhaps will make you start watching some nice rocks getting wet.
Here is a summary of the steps you should take to a Sustainable Information Diet
- Realise that you can only absorb a certain amount of information.
- Set a vision for yourself and select your favourite values
- Prioritise your values.
- Identify the best means to fulfil these values. This might be by reading a book or attending a workshop or by something else, but it might as well be a digital technology.
- Takes some time to digest all the information, go on a nice walk and just be alone with your mind for a while.
I wrote this article after reading the books ‘Digital Minimalism‘ and ‘Zero to Null‘ by Cal Newport and Peter Thiel. A lot of the information in this article comes from those books and if you are interested in this topic, I would recommend you read those books as well.