The Difference between 'Living' and 'Existing'
Being alive in the age of information can have a significant impact on our ability to pursue the things we love. With all the distractions that are available to us, how do we target our focus on the things that matter and live, instead of existing in a constant loop of internet-based activities?
In the past couple of weeks, you may have noticed that I have been posting articles discussing various self-help methods. Continuing with this unannounced series, Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World, has sparked an interesting question that I wish to explore with you: What is the difference between ‘living’ and ‘existing’.
As far as the definitions of both words, they appear almost equal yet mean significantly different life states. To exist is to be sustained by basic needs like food, water, and shelter, while living is to react, move, and exist with purpose. So, what is it that I wish to discuss with you regarding these two terms? Firstly, let us discuss Newport’s book a little further, and the scholar mentioned within the subchapter ‘Don’t Use the Internet to Entertain Yourself’, Arnold Bennett.
Bennett was an English writer that lived between 1867 and 1931. During his time, he produces an astonishing thirty-four novels, seven volumes of short stories, thirteen plays, writing for more than one hundred different newspapers AND kept a daily journal that included more than a million words. We can all agree that Bennett was an extremely busy man that, at first glance, would struggle to find any spare time for leisure. Funnily enough, Bennett talks about the importance of finding the perfect work-life balance in his self-help book How to Live on 24 hours a day, published in 1910, and provides a scenario to support his argument.
During the book’s writing, the industrial revolution was in full swing and, with it, the new class of worker was introduced: the white-collar worker. Never before could someone support themselves by working a set number of hours in a week from a desk. As we know, this new class of worker has now become a prime class across the globe. Even over a hundred years ago, Bennett saw the problems that arose from this type of work: a lifestyle that prevented the worker from living a full life and instead, simply exist. Bennett’s example is as follows:
A Londoner works in an office from 10:00 to 18:00 and spends fifty minutes travelling to and from work. This leaves the Londoner with just under sixteen hours of ‘non-work’ outside of the office that they can do whatever they choose.
So how would the Londoner spend this free time? Newport presents the argument that, despite not truly enjoying their work, they see it as merely a way of getting by. As a result, the Londoners day is subconsciously divided into three segments: The ten-hour pre-work prologue, the set travel and work hours, and the six-hour epilogue upon their return home. Bennett condemns this behaviour as “utterly illogical and unhealthy” and states that the Londoner should divide their workday from their time of leisure, a day within a day.
In Bennett’s opinion, the Londoner should spend the hours outside of work as the time for self-improvement and, as an old soul that, in many cases, comes off as elitist, suggests that reading great literature and poetry is precisely what the doctor ordered. Not to say that reading literature and poetry is not a great way of spending one’s time; these are not the only ways of filling one’s time well, especially in the 21st century. The question is how we decide to spend this leisure time and how not to fall into the mind-numbing black hole we all call Online Entertainment.
The Millennial generation, the first to be born into an era engulfed by the dominance of the internet and the ever-evolving world of technology, can find themselves stuck in a never-ending cycle where their social media and internet surfing quickly fills these precious hours that could be used for more profound, more meaningful activities. In the white-collar Londoner case, the sixteen hours of leisure time would be reduced, alongside their energy to perform ‘deep work’, a lower attention span, and the ability to withstand boredom.
It’s important to remember that the most meaningful results take the most valuable currency: time. As importantly, this is relevant to your well-being and how you spend your free time outside of work hours. Bennett realised this scenario over a hundred years ago and provided us with a solution:
‘Put more thought into your leisure time.’
By practically scheduling your free time with activities that you would enjoy, such as spending time with a close friend, reading, painting, playing an instrument (anything that brings you actual joy and fulfilment), you are bound to avoid mind-numbing distractions, such as your phones, TV’s, and other electronic devices.
Some of you may worry that adding structure to your free time removes the purpose of relaxing. Well, being the smart cookie that he is, Bennett has a fantastic response. He states:
“What? You say that full energy given to those sixteen hours will lessen the value of the business eight? Not so. On the contrary, it will assuredly increase the value of the business eight. One of the chief things which my typical has to learn is that the mental faculties are capable of a continuous hard activity; they do not tire like an arm or a leg. All they want is change – not rest, except in sleep.”
Newport continues by stating, “if you give your mind something meaningful to do throughout all your waking hours, you’ll end the day more fulfilled, and begin the next one more relaxed, than if you instead allow your mind to bathe for hours in semiconscious and unstructured Web surfing.”
I agree with both of these arguments. The idea of bathing is a perfect description of the situation at hand. Over time you prune yourself to a point where your body and mind are withered. We should not be static, staring at our devices just as the white-collar worker does at the office, or as we called it before, their second day. The pursuit of dreams, meaningful relationships and personal goals takes time, hard work, and focus. Focus, just like a muscle, takes thorough training and discipline to mould into a tool that, once established, becomes a tool that will benefit all aspects of your life.
There are hundreds of articles exploring the correlation between social media and the Millennial generations reduced attention span. I argue that we can go further and soon begin to see similarities between higher use of mind-numbing entertainment and, unfortunate to say, life fulfilment (the overall satisfaction of one’s life and success in personal goals). The less time we dedicate to the things that matter to us and instead fill these hours with, regarding the bigger picture, meaningless activities, the higher the chance of facing the harsh reality that our lives were not the life we desired. The logical question that follows is, how do we tackle this subconscious addiction of insignificant online activities?
The answer is not a simple one and will cater differently to each one of us. I will say that Newport’s book provides a structure on how to tackle these distractions exceptionally well. I recommend this book to any of you searching for a more focused, meaningful approach to spending your time, rather than one filled with clicks, swipes and scrolls. A constant reminder echoed in the book is that time is valuable. We will never truly understand this sentence until time runs out, whatever situation it may relate to.
To find a healthy work-life balance is easier said than done. We all have a set limit of willpower within us, and each task deteriorates our ability to focus as time goes by. All of the information I provided you is explored in greater detail in Newport’s book, and I am sure to read Bennett’s book thoroughly in the coming days. Until then, I will leave you with Newport's statement to start you on this arduous journey.
“if you want to eliminate the addictive pull of entertainment sites on your time and attention, give your brain a quality alternative. Not only will this preserve your ability to resist distraction and concentrate, but you might even fulfil Arnold Bennett’s ambitious goal of experiencing, perhaps for the first time, what it means to live, and not just exist.”