Why I took off my headphones

The young generation likes to have their headphones on. Some do this simply for fun, while others do it for a better reason and more efficient use of their time. This can be achieved by listening to audiobooks or being on a conference call when we have extra bandwidth in addition to what we are already doing.

I used to be one of those who have their headphones on all the time, in the gym or on the way to somewhere. I enjoyed listening to great minds sharing their life-long learning, and I thought I was getting ahead of others because I could make better use of my time. But I cannot be any more wrong.

Indeed, whenever we waste time, i.e. not doing something productive, we feel guilty. Our human nature is telling us that we need to work hard to both give life meaning and to least survive physically, a.k.a having enough money to eat and drink. But sometimes, we just try to optimize our productivity too much that we lose sight of what is around us. Filling our fragmented time with audiobooks is one of the things that we could easily overdo that we forget to see what we could have seen.

We can almost consider “wearing headphones” some sort of mechanism that we use to compensate for the less productive activities we do, commuting, doing dishes, waiting in line, etc. But is it really healthy? I argue that there is a limit to how much we should be wearing the headphones, as I was certainly doing it so much that I felt something was missing.

There were probably three things that I really liked but went away when I had my “headphones” on: opportunity to observe, short mental break, and the appreciation of the journey.

Opportunity to observe

Some people see things others don’t. We can also see things that our old selves couldn’t. To be better at seeing things. We need to practice. Practice makes perfect. The best opportunities for this are just lying around the corner. During any time of the day, if you really look closely, you will find things that you probably haven’t never seen before: the number of lights in your living room, the shape of a plant, or maybe a tree in your neighbor’s backyard. Observing is a very active process that allows you to see new things even at a place where you have been many times. It will also make it easier for you to pick up patterns that others don’t, not to mention that the whole process is super fun.

When I had my headphones on. I simply couldn’t have enough bandwidth to both listen to whatever that is playing, practice observing and actually observe.

Short mental break

We all know the importance of going on vacation regularly: it brings us internal peace and better prepares us for the challenges to come. Holidays usually happen after a long period of intense work. What I have failed to grasp was that it is equally important to take short mental breaks throughout the day.

In fact, there are perhaps activities in our lives that could count towards short mental breaks. Some find cooking therapeutic, some might go for a run to zoom out, and some others might simply take a shower. These activities all share a common feature, and that’s letting the brain stop thinking. Nonetheless, I made the mistake of keeping my brain engaged if I found it in an idle mode.

I thought I could have learnt more but in fact, without letting my mind go off track. My cognitive functions certainly didn’t perform as well as I’d like to. It was easier for me to feel like I couldn’t work anymore. I also had a sense of mental fullness as I could only act reactively to incoming information but was less capable of thinking proactively.

Appreciation of the journey

One final issue that I discovered when putting my headphones on is that I was losing the appreciation of the journey and became too goal-oriented. In a business environment, sometimes to deliver a product to the client in time, we have to prioritize getting the end-product ready. Something is better than nothing, right. People are much more motivated to get something out in the end than postpone the delivery time.

But life is not just the finish line. It is also about how we get there, and there are sceneries that we might have missed in the journey. I certainly don’t want my life to be just about achieving one goal after another. I would prefer to enjoy the journey to see what’s there than just trying to reach what’s planned, i.e., getting a bigger paycheck or publishing more papers.

The process of getting somehow is equally if not more important than the end goal. This is particularly true in scientific discovery, where it is relatively easy to come up with a conclusion, but the conclusion is only believable if people also have trust in the way that it is derived follows certain rigour and logical reasoning.

I am not sure if a similar analogy will also hold in a startup space. In a sense, many companies (Reddit, Sony, and Slack) eventually got big not only because they tried to reach one target after another. They all had to pivot at some point during their growth because something else they discovered was more promising.

Don’t get me wrong. I still very much enjoy audiobooks and podcasts. I am just no longer the guy who is trying to become uber-productive. Sometimes, less is more. I definitely think that not wearing my headphones gives me more room to breathe and more time to think. I am curious if “having your headphones all the time” is a way to say that little time is left for exploration, but all one does is exploitation. Individuals can suffer from too much exploitation, and so do organizations.


Hang Yuan

Using wearables to improve human health.

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