High school is 30 years in the rearview mirror, but I was thinking about the bus ride to school recently. I typically did one of three things on the bus: slept, listened to music on my Sony Walkman, or read. The ride took about 45 minutes and during that time, whatever activity it was I chose, it went uninterrupted. I can remember listening to music, watching the Los Angeles landscape roll by. If I chose to sleep, I fell asleep within a minute or two and slept until the bus hissed to a halt at my stop. If I read a book, I had 45 uninterrupted minutes of reading.
I was thinking about this, because today, aside from sleep at night, I can’t think of any activity that goes 45 minutes without an interruption. I can’t think of an activity that goes 22 minutes without an interruption. On the rare instance that I watch something on my phone–a 22-minute episode of a sitcom, for instance–I cannot get through an entire episode without some kind of interruption. This is true for reading. It’s even true when I work.
For a time, I thought this was mostly related to the interrupt-driven style of social media, not just its notifications, but the desire it creates to proactively stop what you are doing and check what’s going on. However, I am into my third week of a complete social media blackout, and the interrupts are still there: email, text messages, and the need to go down rabbit holes, triggered by something I was reading.
Not all of the interrupts are digital. Having three kids provides plenty of interrupts. If the Internet had never been born, the family-based interrupts would still exist. I generally don’t mind those (although if they happen to pile onto the other interrupts it can sometimes be maddeningly frustrating). I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve given up on an activity simply because it loses continuity thanks to all of these interrupts.
Some of the interrupts are self-inflicted. Often, if I am reading about something, I will pause my reading to go look it up on the Internet to get more information, diving in Wikipedia or other sources. I think that might have seemed like a luxury to the kid riding the bus who was always curious about things. Looking back, however, I was perfectly happy filing the questions away in my mind, and seeking out answers later at the library.
I have been looking for ways to reduce the interrupts. It isn’t easy. I’ve eliminated the social media interrupts, but texts and email still remain. Under certain circumstances, I can ignore them, but as much as I hate to admit it, they are the primary forms of communication I use these days, and can be hard to ignore. When I go for a walk in the morning, I leave my phone behind. This makes phone interruptions impossible, but it also means I can’t listen to my audiobook while I walk. That’s probably a fair trade, as it allows my mind to wander for half an hour or so.
Still, I sometimes miss the days when life wasn’t as interrupt-driven. Sure, there was no streaming video, and TV programs had commercials, but those commercials served as natural breakpoints. You knew you had two minutes to run to the restroom, or grab a can of soda from the fridge. I miss laying on the couch with a book, and reading for hours at a time, the world slipping away, and me with it, to some other time and place, without being yanked back by a Facebook notification, text message, or alert from a weather app telling me that it has started to rain.
Remarkably, perhaps even ironically, I managed to write this entire post in one sitting without ever leaving my editor or pausing for some interruption.