Over the past year or so, I’ve increasingly become persuaded of the importance of times of silence for clear thinking.
While I’ve spent the last several years listening to podcasts in much of my walking and running time, I’ve started blocking out times in which I’m not listening to things that way—times dedicated either to just instrumental music, or simply to silence. This goes for more than those walks and runs. I’ve also been thinking about driving time, which I likewise once filled with thought, but which in recent years I have, again, filled with podcasts.
I used to take all my runs in silence. I often drove in silence or with only instrumental music. I moved away from that somewhat in my years in North Carolina, in part because I discovered a great many podcasts I enjoyed, and in part because it was a way of sustaining mental focus when I had run the same routes too many times. Soon, it bled into my pomodoro walks and into nearly all my drives as well.
But much of my best thinking happened in those silences.
I need that space for letting my mind tease out questions and issues I’m thinking on. So: while not eliminating podcasts, I have been intentionally carving out more and more time again for silence. Pomodoro walks, runs, drives. Times when I simply listen to interesting music and think.
The need for silence goes beyond merely podcasts for me. I’ve continued to think about the role of Twitter in my life, the amount of time I spend looking at RSS feeds, and even my enjoyment of times in e.g. Slack communities I participate in. Twitter I have long limited strictly—it’s an enormous and often unproductive time sink—but even RSS (which is much better for thought in nearly every way!) and healthy Slack communities can be connecting in ways that actually inhibit deep thought. We need a degree of solitude and silence to think well.
Thus, though each of those is often a good source of information, and I enjoy them, I am increasingly aware of the curious ways they interact with my ability to think clearly and deeply about things. And about the ways they shift the arena of my thinking clearly and deeply about things. Pose me a question and I’m apt to answer it, but the way I answer it in a Slack chat is different from—and often worse than—the way I’d answer it if I took the time to write it up as a blog post, and that in turn different from how I would approach it if composing a medium-length essay.
So I am sussing out where and how I want to draw those lines, where I want to pay my attention, because attention is indeed something we pay. Fewer podcasts, less time in ephemeral media (even including blogging); more time in books and long essays and in writing itself as a means of coming to understanding. More time, indeed, scribbling notes in paper notebooks, for the ways that time spent thinking and disconnected from the internet shapes us. More time, when I’m writing in a digital form, with the wifi off. And hopefully, as a result, more and better thinking.