By Tony V. Zampella, Designer of Learning Programs

We often attribute being drained, exhausted or overwhelmed to how we leverage our time in a 24/7 world. Ultimately, we experience anxiety, sleepless nights, and restlessness.

Time, of course, remains the same, but our perception of it has shifted these last few decades as conventional boundaries disappear.

Consider that 30 years ago, kids talked on the phone, watched TV, and played video games. We bemoaned such activities but were comforted in knowing that each was limited to physical spaces. Phones tethered by cords in bedrooms, games housed in machines at arcades, TV’s in consoles in living rooms, and work bound by desks in offices. If in a classroom, we were learning; if on the playground, playing; if at the office, working; and if dining with a friend, enjoying a relationship.

These physical spaces provided boundaries to frame choices as a match for different worlds of activities. Choosing the space was at the same time engaging that world. We would be astounded to have worlds collide by playing video games at dinner with a friend who is on the phone.

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Today we lament the compression of time as causing such fracturing but largely ignore the compression of our spaces – how immediate access to information conflates our worlds and impacts us.

Spaces today no longer come with automatic physical boundaries to engage each world. Technology disrupts and dissolves the “physical-ness” of spaces, and instead offers 24/7 access.

Spaces for learning, playing or working once sacred are now fluid, crowded out by whatever a processor can deliver: movies, games, doodles, social networking, “likes,” emojis, memes, texts, and photos that capture moments (accessible) never actually experienced (engaged).

We live in a world with more links and likes and fewer connections and conversations. We conflate being accessible with being engaged.

Accessibility has become a confusing virtue: It is necessary to link; yet, insufficient to develop connections. It lacks the care and involvement to engage life. When we connect to what we care about, that “connection” engages us.

According to research in the Journal of Marriage and Family good parenting doesn’t rely on the amount of time we spend (are accessible) with children, but rather depends on how we engage children.

Engaged time, or focused time in shared activities, offers opportunities for “transmitting love, nurturance, and values from mother to child; teaching children special tasks; and helping children develop skills and learn lessons, all of which … promote better self-perceptions and higher achievement motivation …”

Indeed, the most negative impact on children is when parents are accessible but not available because they are stressed, sleep-deprived, guilty or anxious.

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By now it is clear that how we engage any space reveals our perceptions. As mystics and philosophers reveal: our eyes both view and project reality. Much of the incoherence we experience reveals our own sense of fragmentation.

In his recently published book, “World Beyond Your Head,” author Matthew Crawford warns “as our mental lives become more fragmented, what is at stake often seems to be nothing less than the question of whether one can maintain a coherent self.”

Crawford clarifies the self that “can act according to settled purposes and ongoing projects, rather than flitting about.”

A night at dinner is now an opportunity for bragging rights: to capture, upload, and then monitor the number of “likes.” Such distractions prevent meaningful conversation, so we resort to surface chatter between the latest apps, our much-coveted selfies or photos uploaded before our first bite. No surprise we are swept up in a moment we never actually experienced.

The loss is immeasurable. In his clip, “Can We Auto-Correct Humanity,” rapper and activist Prince Ea offers a perspective on this dynamic.

Public Spaces

Humans grow through our experiences. Each encounter has the power to move us, to challenge preconceived notions, to expand our awareness, to catch someone’s eye, hear an insight, feel pain, dwell in thought, walk with a question, or enjoy downtime.

These moments, when engaged and experienced directly, connect us to our own humanity.

Starbucks has responded by creating a third space between work and home to engage a moment “in-between.” This is a large, unspoken, part of their brand. The quiet cars found on Amtrak or most transit trains offer us space, and silence to reflect, for downtime, to expand or just to become present.

laptop-762548340The physical world marks space through geometric measures.

Think of the physical-ness of land, foliage and streets that preserve parks, public spaces to reflect, play, expand, picnic, and enjoy nature – environs and humans.

Wide city sidewalks bound by buildings and streets, allow us to gather, stroll, ask or give directions, smile at each other, experience humanity, laugh at a child’s antics – to experience the city.

Slip on headphones, and we shut out or remove ourselves from that experience; we are apart from – not a part of – the world.

Reclaiming Spaces

To reclaim spaces, we begin by pausing and noticing where we are: engage each space for its intended activity and then experience those activities.

Unlike pubic spaces, personal spaces are marked by the experience of being available, which requires openness and intention. The collapsing of intentional spaces, today, is a collision of too many choices – or distractions – assaulting our attention and pulling at our best intentions before we’ve developed a foundation to choose wisely.

Each click, bell, or ringtone provokes a Pavlovian response that finds us “flitting about.” To combat these collapsing worlds requires intentional boundaries with the same clarity as physical ones. It is up to each of us to claim important spaces to sustain our lives.

  1. Create Intention: Creating an intention for each space requires asking yourself, why am I: going to class, dining with a friend, or engaging a conversation? Is it to learn, to connect, to listen, to play?
  2. Design Experience: Bind your intention to a specific experience for each occasion. I will participate in class to experience my learning. Then, act on that.
  3. Generate Agreements: Create agreements with yourself. Limit technology to only what’s required, and then put it away. Really!
  4. Hold Commitment: Remind others what’s at stake (commitment): Hold each space for its intended purpose, and commit to that purpose: learning, friendship, play, etc. Let others know this is important to you.

Claim each space as a matter of your coherence – because it is!

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tony-zampella-headshotTony Zampella is the learning specialist at Zampella Group, which serves Learning & Development Professionals. As an instructor, researcher, and designer of learning programs and practices his work develops mindsets for creating leadership cultures.

His studies include the work of Martin Heidegger and ontological inquiry, Ken Wilber, and Integral theory, and Zen Buddhism.