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The Death of Downtime

25 Aug 2009
By Andy

I am now completely incapable of standing still and doing nothing. In the queue for a coffee in the morning I will be checking Tweetie or Facebook on my iPhone. I do this in spite of two realisations I get every time I open these apps – 1) it’s 7am and no one else is online and 2) I checked them when I first woke up at 6am (this makes realisation 1 even more acute).

Time in the loo, time in the lift (going just 2 floors), time actually within meetings, time waiting for my sandwich to toast at lunch (Twitter search: #lunchrage), I stop short of time at traffic lights (but only because it’s illegal).

All would have been downtime 10 years ago. Most would have been downtime 18 months ago.  But now, because the internet, and its capacity to bring me almost everything I think I could need to stimulate my brain, is never really more than a pocket lining away from me – they are not.

While running…

This online-ability is not just infiltrating my sporting relaxation time, it’s driving it now. I’m pretty certain that without the dulcet tones of the robo-voice on RunKeeper on my iPhone, telling me to go faster and mapping my route and velocity as I go, I wouldn’t bother running 3 or 4 times a week. I mean, why would anyone actually want to run anywhere, unless it was auto-tracked and published online, without even wasting time clicking a button?

While walking…

I even get twitchy (‘twitteritchy’?) walking. Not just walking from one desk to another. Out for a walk, enjoying some relaxing time with my family, I’ll actually really be enjoying the beautiful scenery. Next, one of two things will happen, either I will take a photo or video and publish it somewhere or email it to a friend or I will find something else on my iPhone to fill the time. Time that I was enjoying anyway. I’m clearly insane.

But I’m not alone…

I’ve noticed recently that a lot of my colleagues and friends are taking laptops and smartphones on their holidays. Whereas a couple of years ago, I might have taken a computer to deal with a specific issue or in case of chronic emergency, now it seems natural to say things like ‘I’m on holiday next week, actually, but I’ll be keeping an eye on my emails, so just call me when you’ve sent me that report to review’.

I’ve actually had conversations with clients that go something like this:

‘Hi, are you working today? Your ‘out of office’ says you’re out.’
‘That’s because I’m on holiday. I’m standing in the Djemaa el Fna in Marrakesh.’
‘Oh, well do you mind if I ask you a quick question about Fair Usage Policies?’ (the irony seemingly  totally lost on the caller)
‘sure, fire away’.

I was annoyed. But mostly because I was waiting for my wife to come back from a shopping excursion and, rather than relaxing and enjoying the ambiance of the bustling market, I was mid-way through a record attempt on the game reMovem.

Recently, I have even started pre-empting my lost downtime. Bookmarking interesting stories, videos or tunes on both Tweetie and Evernote, the latter being an application that helps me remember what to do instead of relaxing, while I should be relaxing.

Still, I am not upset by my addiction.

While psychologist Maryann Troiani may be right that ‘even when you’re alone, there are too many ways that the world can intrude on you and vice versa – cell phones, e-mail, voice mail. All those distractions dilute your creativity and energy’ – I do feel more knowledgeable, more up to date with current affairs and more ready to embrace my next holiday when it comes.

I’m a technology junkie and, through my iPhone, I’m hooked on having everything I think I need in my pocket. But I need to realise that it’s killed my downtime and, sooner or later, someone close and caring will take a stand and tell me it’s killing me (though they might have to email me for me to notice).

One man who did take a stand was the recently-late John Hughes. He upped and left Hollywood at the height of his career when he felt that its greed and excess had worked his good friend John Candy to an early grave. But then, if I hadn’t bookmarked this story (which I found on Twitter), because I didn’t have time to read it in the sandwich queue, I would have missed one of the most touching tales I have read in many years.

Hughes had it right when his character Ferris Bueller said: ‘Life moves pretty fast, if you don’t stop to look around once in a while, you could miss it.

In our lives today, it feels like this has never been more true. But to be honest, in 1986, Ferris would have made good use of this SickDay soundboard app to help him fake his school absences!

It’s easy to be transfixed by things that fill (and therefore kill) your downtime. But every once in a while, stop and look around. Take some time to do nothing, and value it. Our kids will probably only get their sleep in simulated chunks. And then only if the Matrix lets them.

Oh, and I wrote this on a Sunday, but I promise I didn’t use my iPhone. Except to play music in the background.

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