Compulsive Acts

A psychiatrist's tales of ritual and obsession.

Downtime Allergy

The Miracle of Multitasking

“Where did you meet?” goes the common question, to which the answer increasingly is, “Online.” In our thinking, cyberspace is, well, a space; a place to visit, run away to, maybe even inhabit. Terms such as chat “room,” web “site,” and “home” page speak to this notion. They present virtual life as a response to a “Where” question. But virtual life has also changed how we experience and manage time, and “Online” is just as valid a response to a “When” question.

Excessive Internet users, for example, have a hard time noticing the passage of time and often wonder how time just flew by as they sat in front of the browser window. Also, in e-mails, texts and tweets, we often shy away from reflection or writing that “takes time” in favor of speedy knee-jerk responses and posts. But the most pronounced effect may be how desperately we seem to want to fill up our time.

Our new concept of space may have expanded geography into novel territory—cyberspace—but our new concept of time is shrunken and preoccupied with making full use of this present moment. And what a busy moment it is, for it is given to fulfilling all the items on our to-do list simultaneously, through the miracle of multitasking. This involves putting digital technology to use in order to squeeze as many activities as possible out of the same timeslot (texting while driving, emailing a friend while taking a business call, or Facebooking while doing homework). As a result, our new time is not of the sequential sort that sees us progressing in tasks from A to B to C, but, rather, a point in time; one that blends work, play, and everything in between.

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We live by a new and blurred calendar. One consequence of the digital revolution is the explosive growth in productivity. Another is that we are now constantly on call for work. The lines that separated weekends from weekdays, “eight to five” from the rest of the twenty-four-hour cycle, and workdays from holidays or vacations now feel antiquated. In our hyperconnected culture, true time off does not exist in any practical sense anymore, and we seem to have grown allergic to downtime. Yet idle time, when all electronic gadgetry is off, is necessary to our ability to assess the world and our place in it. Lose that productive idleness and we lose the opportunity to reflect, which includes reflecting on the downsides of the new technologies that are keeping us so busy. And without that ability to deliberate what is at stake, we will automatically upgrade to the next model, which, seemingly inevitably, will only be faster and only add more pressure on our time. And so the cycle goes.

Dr. Aboujaoude is a psychiatrist and author based at Stanford University. His most recent book is Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality.

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