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It’s okay to opt out

I have a confession to make. Several times a week, people will recommend things to me: books, TV series, movies, podcasts, articles. These things always sound interesting, and I always say “Ooh, that sounds so good! I’ll check it out!” And I mean it, I really do. I want to check it out. But the idea gets filed somewhere in the back of my mind, and 95% of the time, it stays there to die. I never actually get around to reading/watching/listening to said thing. I may even forget the title entirely, when my brain periodically empties its recycling folder. But what does stick with me is the sense of FOMO, and guilt, that oh yeah, there are all these things I should be reading/watching/listening to, and I’m not.

The thing about living in this Year of our Lord 2021 is there’s just so MUCH. So much of everything, more than there’s ever been. Take books, for example. With every year that goes by, we have all of the books that have ever been written in history available to us, plus the newest year’s worth of books coming out on top of them (of which there are record numbers, every year). Then the next year, there’s another year’s worth of books on top of that. How am I supposed to read The Vanishing Half when I’m still trying to catch up to the Renaissance?

It’s not just about time, but technology, and the rise in society’s standard of living over the decades: we now have more access than ever to content and information, but also to destinations to visit, causes to support, restaurants and recipes to try, museums to see, people to meet and keep in touch with through social media, workouts to do (we really don’t need any more workouts to do). Even the pandemic, as much as it’s slowed life down for many, has sped it up for others. For instance, I used to look for writer and reader events to attend at local bookstores and libraries. Now that most of these events have moved to Zoom, I have an entire world’s worth of events to choose from. All of this is wonderful, but it’s also overwhelming.

We’re told to opt in, lean in, be doers. Movies like Yes Man (still haven’t seen it) and books like Year of Yes (still haven’t read it) laud the life-changing power of the affirmative. And so much of what’s out there is enticing and important. So we cram our lives with as much as we can. We watch YouTube videos or lectures at double speed, listen to podcasts while driving and audiobooks while doing the dishes, and check social media while watching TV. We’re reading and learning more than ever, but what are we retaining? Our attention spans shorten and our understanding grows more shallow. I’ve noticed that, in the last few years, I literally read differently, skimming over the page for the gist and doubling back to anything important instead of truly absorbing each sentence one by one. It’s easier than ever to fall into the trap of considering yourself an expert on a topic when you’re not, having read only one article, or half an article, or even just a tweet. It’s also too easy to read a single sentence a person has said, out of context, and jump to judgment of that person. Our relationships are shallower, too. We can keep in touch through social media with people who would otherwise fade from our lives, but how meaningful are these relationships? Personally, I always feel guilty about how little of friends’ updates on social media I get to see, and how seldom I interact with their posts: relationships become one more overwhelming obligation.

While there’s more of everything else in the world, there’s still only so much of us. With finite life spans, and attention spans, we can cram more into our lives, but we’re really getting less of each thing. Opting in to anything—truly experiencing it—requires opting out of other things. While we champion the virtues of the yes, we also have to affirm the importance of saying no. It’s okay to preserve your time and energy so that you have more of yourself to give to the things that matter most. It’s okay to say that you haven’t seen that TV show, and accept that you’ll probably never see it. It’s okay to not join TikTok (BookTok, stop calling my name!).

And now WordPress is giving me a frowny face for readability and informing me that I have done insult to your attention span with this article, so… I’ll stop.

7 Responses to “It’s okay to opt out”

  1. Rowland says:

    And it’s not just your friends recommending content for you… the biggest tech companies on the planet base their revenue model on keeping you “engaged.” Or is it really “distracted?”

    Tim Urban has written an epic piece on procrastination (search Tim Urban procrastination). The Internet provides a bottomless pit of content to feed the procrastination urge. Opt Out indeed! Do it and get your life back… and a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day, instead of “where did that day go?!”

    • sabooks says:

      The Tim Urban piece sounds interesting, thanks for the recommendation (maybe reading it will be a good way to procrastinate 🙂 ). So true, companies are increasingly savvy about learning how to compete for our attention!

  2. Liz Currin says:

    Thank you, Sarah, for raising this perpetual feeling of dis-ease to the level of consciousness and discourse! Even though presently sidelined by recovery from foot and ankle surgery for the past 6+ weeks, there’s that constant nagging sense that I have no excuse for not working on book #2, not blogging, not cleaning out obscenely full inbox, catching up on professional journals, etc. I can’t get up and cook, garden, organize study, walk dogs, etc., so what’s my excuse? I readily confess to that feeling of being overwhelmed by all those “opportunities” and socially defined obligations. So, what do I do? Continue knitting like a woman possessed, catching up on some very obscure films, power napping more than I care to (which would be never), working on an insane “lodge” house plan which I began ~ 20 years ago, yada yada. Exceptions: every few months, dear friend, Glenn Z. and I have an in-depth and detailed email exchange. He’s living on the opposite side of the world, but I feel closer to him and his life than I do to some of the folks on my street! And it always feels like time very, very well spent.

    Thanks again for “unmasking” this apparently near-universal experience. Hope you get to kick back in your arbor today with that wonderful crazy little dog and just daydream!

    • sabooks says:

      It’s amazing how no matter what life throws at us, we always seem to have more than enough to do! I can’t wait to see the lodge plan when it’s done.

  3. Sarah
    You hit the nail on the head with this blog. I have never felt less connected to people and less knowledgeable about topics than I do today. We have a lot of stuff to choose from but little actual information. More “social” sites to choose from but little actual interaction. Feels sometimes like we were sold a bill of goods.
    A couple of years ago I made it a point to reconnect with friends and keep in touch through letters. I love it. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by those who have responded and written back. Thanks for writing this.

    • sabooks says:

      We were sold a bill of goods – great way to put it. I love that idea of writing letters. That sounds like a promising way to engage in deeper communication.

  4. Carlo Dallolmo says:

    Writing letters has pulled out a more meaningful connection. I only like pen to paper…no text and no email. Something about the feel of the hand holding the pen and excitement of seeing how many pages I can stuff into an envelope without going to the next postage cost.
    So far to date I’ve received over 40 letters from my friends. I collect the letters in a shoebox too. Always fun to reread the letters.

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