Here is the full text and summary of Daniel Sih’s talk titled “How To Make Space In A World With Too Much Technology” at TEDxHobart conference.
Listen to the audio version here:
Life is busy and cluttered. There’s more information, more emails, more tasks to get through each day and not enough space. If this glass represents our finite capacity, our limited time, energy and attention, well then this overflowing glass is life in the digital age. There are endless text messages, meetings and notifications, physical drop-offs and pick-ups and dance rehearsals and, of course, the Netflix episodes and goofy YouTube clips you’d like to see. I mean, it goes on and on.
When I think about my life and the leaders I coach, most of us don’t need more information. We don’t need more opportunity. What we really need, what we long for is more space, space to think, rest, plan and breathe, space to be curious, space to be creative, space to think about our inner world and reflect on who we are and where we’re heading.
In the digital age, we are beyond the point where we can get everything done by being organised and efficient. I mean, like this glass, there will always be more than you and I can do. Now, this may feel overwhelming but it’s actually good news because when we finally accept the reality that there will always be more than we can do, that we’ll never finish on a Friday with everything ticked off our list, well, then we can let go and accept the reality and begin to make hard choices about what we choose to put in our glass as a priority and then what we allow to flow out.
So this is an invitation for you to be curious about the value of space in a world of clutter, to think about why you’re always busy and to make space for what really matters. Look, don’t get me wrong, I love technology. I’m a productivity consultant and I speak with audiences around the world about how to be more productive by using technology.
Because of the wonder and miracle of the internet, I get to live in this beautiful remote place called Hobart and yet train leaders in London, Paris, New York. I mean, not only do I get to work from home but sometimes I do it wearing my Ugg boots and track pants. I mean, how good is technology?
But at the same time, like many of you, I feel uncomfortable by how much time I’m online and the impact this is having on my health, my happiness and my relationships.
I remember a time when my daughter said to me, Dad, you’re writing a book about making space from too much technology and you’re always on your computer. And she was right. And I found that confronting. I find it really hard to have a healthy relationship with the online world and do the work that I do. Like it’s actually a tension for me, it’s a battle.
And yet I’ve come to realise that the rest was important because when I spend too much time staring at a glowing rectangle, I feel wired and tired and distracted. It’s more than Zoom fatigue. It’s that I somehow feel diminished as if something is changing inside of me and I’m losing a part of myself.
The problem isn’t technology per se but how much it’s replacing or displacing everything else. I mean, we only get one glass. Every hour we spend on TikTok is one hour we don’t get for other things. And we’re filling our glass with so much digital activity that there simply isn’t space for the rest of life. And that’s a problem.
When I was young, I played the piano. Or more accurately, my parents paid for piano lessons. They wanted me to practice just 15 minutes a day and yet some days it felt like a lifetime. And yet over time with practice and perseverance, I began to enjoy playing the piano. I mean, I started to feel the music and my fingers started to play notes without effort.
So this is an example of neuroplasticity where the brain changes based on what we habitually do. Neurons grow, pathways develop. With piano practice, the music centres of my brain expanded and I started to experience the world differently.
The same is true when we practice a sport or learn a language or take up a creative art. The same is also true when we practice the internet. I haven’t practiced the piano for 20 years, but I practice the internet a lot. The average Australian adult now spends 9.4 hours a day practicing the internet and office workers more.
Imagine if I was to spend 9.4 hours a day practicing the piano or 65 hours a week. I mean, what would that do to my brain? And the challenge is, unlike eating too much food or spending too much money, the signs and symptoms of too much internet practice are organic. They’re hard to realise because they’re occurring inside of us, shifting our perception of the world and the way we see others and perceive things. Does that make sense?
And so could it be that our inability to focus or concentrate or pay attention or even have energy for people in our lives, could it be that these are symptoms that we are practicing the internet just a bit too much?
Let’s look at this from a productivity perspective. So productivity, it is not about doing more. It’s not about ticking off more from your to-do list. It’s about knowing who you are, your greater values, your purpose and what you want to achieve and then aligning your habits accordingly. And for this, we need space.
Many of the leaders I coach who use technology the most are actually the least productive. They use a lot of technology and they get a lot of stuff done, but they don’t necessarily get the right things done and it’s made me curious to know why.
So I began to explore the relationship between technology and productivity and how it relates to making space. You see, our culture says that more technology equals more productivity and there’s some truth to this. We clearly need technology to be productive in every field of life, but it’s not true that more technology makes you endlessly productive and so it’s not a linear relationship.
Here’s another option. What if technology could make you productive to a point until you reach a plateau and experience the law of diminishing returns? Again, there’s some truth to this, but it’s not quite true because it only assumes positive impacts of being online, which is not validated in the research.
So this is the true relationship between technology and productivity. It’s an upside down U-curve and it has three parts. On the left side of the curve, if you buy a phone, a laptop, download some apps and learn some tech skills, you’ll be more productive than you would have been otherwise.
And then you reach the productive middle where more technology doesn’t give you substantially more output. But if you continue reaching for your phone first thing in the morning and last thing at night, always online, always connected, never switching off, well then you slide down the right side of this curve and experience digital overuse.
Rather than being more focused, you end up less focused, more distracted. Rather than feeling more connected to people, you end up less connected. Rather than being happier, your mental health often suffers and you end up less happy. And in the wake of COVID, almost all of us have shifted to the right hand side of this curve and are experiencing a collective exhaustion associated with digital overuse.
And this is a new situation for humanity and it requires new ideas and new solutions because if we are not intentional about unplugging and disconnecting as a habit from time to time to make space, well then we may almost always be online.
So we now need two sets of skills or two sets of habits to be highly productive in the digital age. We need the habits of keeping pace and the habits of making space. Keeping pace is about keeping up. It’s about using technology to be at our best, whereas making space is about slowing down, about unplugging and unwinding in order to experience our best work and our best life to return to the productive middle.
So pace and space are the yin and yang of personal productivity. We now need both sets of skills and habits in an age of infinity scrolling in order to be happy, healthy and productive.
So how do we start? How do we make space in a habitual way? Well, on the one hand, it’s simple. I mean, get your phone, turn it off, put it away and focus on other things. But it’s not simple, is it? In reality, unplugging is painfully hard to do.
I once wrote a blog post about why I turn off my phone and technology one day each week in order to rest deeply from my work. This is the response I got. What’s that for?
People found the idea of turning off my phone a whole day a week. I mean, it was interesting, but they couldn’t possibly do it for themselves. I mean, what if they missed a text message or an important news event? What if they went outdoors and it rained and they weren’t prepared?
I mean, they focused on what they would miss out on, but in my mind, it’s about perspective because I like to focus on what I will gain. Because all week, from the moment I wake up to the moment my head hits the pillow, I am online and available to everyone, everywhere, all the time.
And yet one day each week, I get to unplug. I get to experience a more peaceful, quiet, joy-filled day of white space, and we fill it with meaningful activities. I mean, some days I’ll wake up and eat bacon and eggs. Other days we’ll play board games as a family, or maybe read books quietly.
I love getting on my mountain bike and riding and getting fresh air because it’s so different to what I do for work. Or maybe getting in the garden and getting my hands dirty. There are times when I’ll stop and I will pay attention to the small things, and other times we will be curious about the bigger things in life, which you need space for.
I definitely miss out on something on my day each week without technology, but in my mind I gain so much more. I get to experience the breadth and depth of all that life has to offer beyond the screen and experience a sense of independence from my constantly connected world.
So if a day a week is too much or not appropriate for you, can you make a bit of space by starting small? What if you were to find some quick wins? And here are some examples, three examples. Could you start and end each day with a bit of space by charging your phone outside of your bedroom?
The way we begin and end each day is so important, and yet most of us, we wake and we reach for our phone habitually, which is our alarm clock, and we start the day with bad news or emails. But what if we could begin with silence and space to, I don’t know, pray or meditate or to practice thankfulness or think about the day ahead?
And then to finish each day, what if we were to read a physical book or write in our journal about the events of the day or maybe have a conversation with the person in bed next to you? Have pillow talk with your spouse rather than a relationship with your phones.
What about another idea? What about a tech-free meal? The table is an amazing place to talk and connect and share values with people you love, and yet it’s better done unplugged. Families who eat together habitually, they raise kids with better homework skills, higher grades and greater emotional control. It’s literally a game-changing relational habit.
Or maybe, what about exercising without earbuds? For example, going for a walk a few days a week without a device. I love audio books and podcasts and all the stuff that we can get nowadays, and yet there’s also value in having space to think your own thoughts rather than fill your mind constantly with other people’s thoughts.
To have time to process the information you’ve already heard and then apply it to your life. Or maybe just to be still and pay attention to the world around you as you exercise. You follow?
So these are a few examples, a few space-maker habits in the clutter of digital life to help you unplug, unwind and think a bit more clearly. Remember that being a space-maker requires practice. It’s a habit. It’s a skill in the digital age to disconnect habitually in order to experience the fullness of life.
So how might you make a little bit more space this week? How might you make space to think or rest? It might be one of the ideas I’ve shared or it might be something else altogether. I’m actually going to give you some quiet time to think. Just pause for a moment and have some space.
In a world with so much information, so much noise, we all need a bit more space. And yet making space is actually not about technology or productivity or even unplugging. It’s about our humanity and the type of life we want to live. I once asked my kids, tell me about the best times in your life, the best moments, and I loved their responses. They talked about jumping on a trampoline with a friend.
They talked about when we played mini-golf as a family or when I played them the guitar at night time to help them fall asleep as little kids. I mean, the examples were so simple, they were so human. When you think about your life and the type of life you want to live, what are the best moments that you’ve had?
If you’re like most people, the best moments, the ones that make you feel alive, that make your heart sing, the ones that make you feel truly human are usually real and relational or spiritual and rarely online. We need space to be present with the people in our lives, space to connect with nature, space to be taking risks, space to be curious, space to be creative. We need space to think about who we are in our inner life or to be in awe and wonder at the world around us.
So let’s enjoy technology and the benefits of the online world, but let’s make a bit of space in a world with too much technology to experience the breadth and depth of all that life has to offer beyond the screen.
Want a summary of this talk? Here it is.
In his thought-provoking talk titled “How To Make Space In A World With Too Much Technology,” Daniel Sih explores the challenges posed by our increasingly digitalized lives and offers insights on how to find the much-needed space in this bustling world of technology. Here are the key points from his talk:
1. Overflowing Glass of Information: Sih begins by likening our lives in the digital age to an overflowing glass. We are bombarded with endless text messages, notifications, meetings, and online distractions, leaving us with limited time, energy, and attention.
2. The Need for Space: Sih contends that what most people crave isn’t more information or opportunities but more space. This space allows us to think, rest, plan, and reflect on our inner world and where we’re heading in life.
3. Accepting Limitations: He encourages us to accept the reality that there will always be more tasks and information than we can handle. Once we embrace this, we can make choices about what priorities to focus on.
4. Technology’s Impact: While Sih acknowledges the benefits of technology, he also highlights the negative impact it can have on our health, happiness, and relationships, especially when we become overly dependent on it.
5. The Practice of Internet: Sih draws a parallel between practicing the internet and developing skills like playing the piano or a sport. Excessive internet use can reshape our brains and affect our focus, concentration, and overall well-being.
6. The Upside Down U-Curve: He introduces the concept of the technology-productivity relationship as an upside-down U-curve. Initially, technology enhances productivity, but excessive use can lead to diminishing returns and digital overuse.
7. Pace and Space: Sih emphasizes the importance of balance in the digital age. He suggests that we need both the habits of “keeping pace” with technology and the habits of “making space” by unplugging and unwinding.
8. Practical Ways to Make Space: Sih offers practical suggestions to create space in our lives, such as charging our phones outside the bedroom, having tech-free meals with loved ones, and occasionally exercising without earbuds.
9. The Value of Unplugging: He stresses the significance of perspective, explaining how taking a day off from technology each week can provide profound benefits, allowing us to experience life beyond the screen and gain independence from the digital world.
10. Human Connection and Presence: Sih reminds us that the most cherished moments in life are often offline and centered around real, relational, and spiritual experiences. We need space to be present with others, connect with nature, be creative, and reflect on our inner selves. In conclusion, Daniel Sih’s talk encourages us to strike a balance in our relationship with technology. While technology has its advantages, it’s crucial to make space in our lives for authentic human experiences, self-reflection, and genuine connections with others. By finding this equilibrium, we can lead happier, healthier, and more productive lives in our increasingly digital world.
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