Jo Bennett is a minimalist – a minimalist who surrounds herself with a lot of high tech. The Toronto-based actor and life coach, who works primarily with solo entrepreneurs, has an iCollection, with phone, tablet, and music machine. "I love tech. I get tons of benefit from it," she said in an interview. "But at times it's fun to turn off, to be in the moment."
That's why she recommends that her clients – and you – try a "No Gadget Night." She and her husband first sampled it a few years ago, after watching a documentary about a family trying to live a year in New York City without any environmental impact. She watched as they enjoyed candlelit evenings with friends, played board games, sang, and reverted to the lifestyle Steve Jobs might have known as a kid. She decided to try going one night without gadgets, and found it quite revealing. "In the quiet, all sorts of stuff comes out, which I found quite cathartic," she said.
For some, it can be scary. One of her blog readers, Marcus, figured out pretty quickly that he had been avoiding thinking about life in general and hiding in constant activity. "Man, the night was long! I played cards and played a bit of piano but I was bored. No actually I was busy thinking but after a while, I sorted through lots of stuff and actually kinda relaxed," he wrote. In fact, he was so relaxed he realized he was dead tired, went to bed unusually early, and woke up feeling well rested.
A group of university roommates, used to being tethered through technology to friends, decided to give it a go at exam time, but only after one was told she could text other friends beforehand to say she would be unreachable. Sarah, the convenor, wrote that she hesitated to present the idea because "it's not normal or comfortable for people." After all, asking a group of friends to come over and just talk for a few hours suggests there will be no benefit from it – it won't be interesting enough. "At parties, people require devices to have fun. Music, TV, phones, cameras. When people have a break in a conversation or they are left alone momentarily, they pull out their phone to look like they are talking with someone so that they seem interesting and fun," she observed on the blog.
It was a relaxing evening, a chance to get to know each other better. But occasionally thoughts would turn to the text messages going unread. They discussed how people invited to a No Gadget Night would consider it a boring evening. "Gadgets provide a quick, cheap fix to eliminate boredom and act as junk food to fill our mind," Sarah wrote. "Having our computers on makes us feel like we will accomplish something soon." Of course, often we don't accomplish much, just roaming through websites instead of working. With silence and no external stimulation, people are left with their own thoughts – which can be scary.
Ms. Bennett frames the situation around choice. We have an array of programming available to us on our television sets, for example. "With choice comes responsibility. You have a chance to watch any program. You need to decide what you watch – and how much," she said in the interview.
With that decision should come some consideration of mindfulness – being in the present, not in the fantasies of your television set – and also how the stimulation of electronic gadgetry, through the messages they supply and even the light they emit, can hurt your night's sleep. Indeed, she finds a common response to No Gadget Night is the surprise (and elation) at the good night's sleep that follows.
It all fits with her minimalist approach, trying to reduce the amount of stuff she has. "We need to think about what we bring into our lives. By emptying the vessel, we allow more mindful interaction with others," she said. But it's minimalism, she notes, that like in art tries to accentuate what's left. For example, she has three teapots, all quite beautiful, of different sizes to accommodate the number of people she is sharing the brew with. "Each serves a specific purpose. I use them a lot. They were carefully chosen or given to me with love," she said.
She and her husband follow a simple rule: If something comes into their house, something else must go out. When she was in St. John's, for example, she spotted some beautiful mugs. She called her husband, sent him photos through her phone so he could see the gems, and they agreed to buy – and eliminate some objects in lieu. Same thing when he chanced upon a special teapot in Montreal while on a business trip.
"Liberate yourself from the non-essential. You don't have to do without things when you don't want to. But ask if it serves you to get rid of certain things and certain processes. If it does, get rid of them and replace them with something that is helpful," she concluded.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter