Productivity and Happiness Lessons from Plato and Ben Franklin

 Editors note:  This is a guest post by Chris Tuttle. Chris is an avid cyclist who focuses his intellectual property legal practice on cycling and the outdoor recreation businesses.

I just got done with a great read – Hamlet’s BlackBerry by William Powers.  Every page is filled with QuietSpacing® wisdom.  Before sharing specifics, a couple words on terminology.  This book is about the often dysfunctional relationship we have with the “screens” in our lives.  Desktop PCs, handheld smartphones, laptops, iPads, etc.  Any electronic device can be a “screen.”  The unexamined axiom of our times is that we and our screens should be connected as much as possible, all the time.  Connection = good, disconnected = bad.  But when we are connected, there is no quiet, there is no space.  If our lives and screens are connected 24-7, the promise of QuietSpacing (a more productive and happier life) will forever be out of reach. 

The central premise of Hamlet’s BlackBerry is that we need to cultivate distance, disconnection and solitude in order to be truly happy and productive, and to make the best use of the times when we are connected.  The subtitle of the book is “A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age.”  In explaining this philosophy, Powers turns to some of the giants of Western history – Plato, Gutenberg, Shakespeare, Benjamin Franklin, Thoreau and Marshall McLuhan.

Plato: The principle discussed in connection with Plato is the idea of distance.  In other words, put some distance between yourself and your screens.  Put your iPhone in your desk drawer and take a walk.  Go away for a weekend and leave all of your devices at home.  For those addicted to screens, this will certainly be unsettling at first.  But if you stay with it, a little bit of magic might happen.

Gutenberg: The principle here is using technology to move your focus inward.  Prior to the development of the printing press, reading was an “outward” activity. Almost all reading was done out loud for an audience – at church for example.  Reading quietly to oneself is a relatively new activity, and when we do it with a disconnected mechanism (e.g., a real book made out of paper), it can be an opportunity for quiet contemplation and reflection. And no,  your Kindle does not count!

Chris Tuttle, Esq.

Shakespeare’s principle is to use old tools to ease your information/connection overload.  The author’s example is to carry around a paper notebook in which you jot ideas and other thoughts.  Because the notebook is not connected, you interact with it in a more focused and less distracted way.  The mind is calm and you can breathe and think.  You’re at the coffee shop with your moleskin journal and without your BlackBerry — thus you are temporarily liberated from the Tyranny of Email (book by John Freeman).

Benjamin Franklin:  The principle here is to employ positive rituals in order to improve your life and phase out bad habits.  The example cited in this portion of Hamlet’s Blackberry is to set aside certain times of day when you will be disconnected.  Turn off Outlook for two hours every morning and you will be amazed at what you can accomplish.

Thoreau: Walden was a grand experiment in actualizing a disconnected utopia.  But it is important to remember that Thoreau was not a hermit.  Instead, he consciously chose to create a physical environment that was screen-free (screen-free being used more generally here to refer to a setting free from connection to the crowd).  Powers takes this lesson and has applied it in his own home – some rooms are entirely screen free, and serve as places where his family can gather and interact in a more intimate and satisfying way.  This type of enriching retreat allows us to return to our connected lives with renewed energy and purpose.

And Marshall McLuhan: The famous coiner of the phrase “The Medium is the Message.”   The lesson of McLuhan is that we have the ultimate control of our inner mental life.  We control the points of entry and the quantity and quality of what is allowed to enter into our consciousness.  Perhaps you should turn off your television.  Is the information that you’re receiving enriching your life?  Is it making you happier and more productive?

Thanks for reading – pull the plug and see what happens! You can always go back.

Editor’s Second Note:  Chris also provided this link to a related NYT story on children’s attention spans and A.D.H.D.

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