Put your ‘cognitive surplus’ to work in the community

A year and a half since launching Tenth to the Fraser, we are often asked, “Where do you find the time?” In truth, sometimes we don’t. Regular readers may notice we sometimes go days, or even weeks without an original blog post (though we do have an almost-daily stream of New West links & updates via Facebook and Twitter) because, well, life gets in the way. But considering we are juggling work, family life with a preschooler and an infant, a dog who needs walking and a number of extra-curricular activities including Royal City Farmers Market meetings and the occasional Tweetup, Residents’ Association meeting or Historical Society presentation … we do pretty well I think.

But back to the question. My pat answer to, “Where do you find the time,” is that we don’t have cable television. As Seth Godin said in his post today about why he doesn’t watch (any!) TV: “there are so many other things on the buffet that I prefer.”

Really, it’s all about priorities. If you don’t think you have the time for something you value, then you need to take a step back and re-evaluate how you’re spending the time you have. Before cutting our cable, I often felt like television just wasn’t good enough to warrant the time I spent on it. But still I watched out of habit.

Television sedates the restlessness I feel inside that motivates me to act on my dreams. When we cut our cable, it freed me to make better use of my time. Sometimes I read. Sometimes I blog. These days, I often spend my nights trying to soothe one or both children to sleep. And now and then we do watch a movie or a TV show via DVD or streaming video on the computer. But when we do it’s a clear choice, not just a lazy default.

Godin links to a 2008 speech from Clay Shirky about an idea he calls the “cognitive surplus.”

Starting with the Second World War a whole series of things happened–rising GDP per capita, rising educational attainment, rising life expectancy and, critically, a rising number of people who were working five-day work weeks. For the first time, society forced onto an enormous number of its citizens the requirement to manage something they had never had to manage before–free time.

And what did we do with that free time? Well, mostly we spent it watching TV.

We did that for decades. We watched I Love Lucy. We watched Gilligan’s Island. We watch Malcolm in the Middle. We watch Desperate Housewives. Desperate Housewives essentially functioned as a kind of cognitive heat sink, dissipating thinking that might otherwise have built up and caused society to overheat.

And it’s only now, as we’re waking up from that collective bender, that we’re starting to see the cognitive surplus as an asset rather than as a crisis. We’re seeing things being designed to take advantage of that surplus, to deploy it in ways more engaging than just having a TV in everybody’s basement.

Shirky points out that redirecting even 1% of the time most of us squander on bad TV could power 100 Wikipedia-sized projects a year.

Here’s the question I’d like you to ponder: what could you do in your community if you took 10% of the time you now spend watching TV and put it towards accomplishing the changes you wish to see? Pretty much anything you could do would be more likely to build relationships with others in our community than losing another hour of your life to a show you don’t even like all that much.

Here are some ideas:

  • Write a guest post for a blog
  • Start your own blog
  • Volunteer with a community organization
  • Start a new community event
  • Start or improve your own business
  • Start a vegetable garden in your yard
  • Join or start a community garden
  • Offer to help a neighbour
  • Pick up garbage in your neighbourhood
  • Take a walk
  • Learn a new skill
  • Improve your home
  • Go to a community event
  • Have your neighbours over for dinner
  • Organize a games night
  • Go to the gym
  • Cook a really good meal
  • Write your financial plan
  • Read a book
  • Take up a hobby

Etc., etc. There is so much in this world to experience. Instead of escaping into sitcoms and soap operas about life in New York, Chicago, LA or other places far away, carve out a little time for the life you live here.

14 Replies to “Put your ‘cognitive surplus’ to work in the community”

  1. It's a slippery slope, though. I don't even have a television, but thanks to my friends and the surplus of television availble on the interwebs, I watch more than I used to. Sure, I watch when I'm cooking – which isn't exactly cognitive surplus – but it still leads to the habitual numbing behaviour Briana talked about. I completely agree (and well put!). I also am a big fan of Clay Shirky's interesting ideas, and recommend people listen to the CBC Spark episode where Nora interviews him and talks with Merlin Mann about Cognitive Surplus. (Just something else to suck up your surplus, natch!)


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  3. Took the words out of my mouth. We don't have cable in our new place and we don't miss it one eensy weensy bit. The place is much more peaceful and I feel a lot more relaxed without that idiot box on all the time.

    But as Clara said, internet is the real energy and time suck for me. I need to regulate my internet usage at home… already am on the 'puter all day at work, needn't get onto it at home as well. That's not healthy.

    Any tips? No, I'm not cancelling my Net service. That's not an option. 🙂

  4. What a wonderful post. When I moved from New West to Lethbridge I made a conscious decision not to get cable TV, even though I’m supposed, as a PR person, to stay ‘on top’ of the news. In actual fact, with all the choices cable provided, I rarely watched the news. After all, Law & Order in one of its myriad rerun variants was on at 6PM. I thought about this when moving and decided that if I really was that fond of the series, the $ I could save on monthly cable could go towards buying the series on DVD.

    So now I get three channels – I’m still watching far too much TV, I think – but I’m actually watching far more news, and I’m catching up on two decades’ worth of movies on DVD that had managed to elude me – challenging movies by filmmakers whose work I’d never seen. And I’m loving it. I may never have cable again.

  5. Our TV died in November of 2008 and we've opted not to replace it. Of course, we have computers, and so we're not exactly without screen time. But it IS much more intentional. I would say I average about an hour a day in front of the TV now, whereas it used to be more like 3-4 a lot of the time.

    Being busy is all about choices. Which is fine – you can spend your time however you want to. But it's important to recognize what it is you're actually choosing, and why. As the mom of two little kids I have enough limits on my days without adding extras mindlessly.

  6. I find that I can regulate TV better than I can my internet use, which is the real time suck for me. Because we use a PVR, we never watch “live” TV – if there’s nothing recorded (like the past two months, aieee) we do something else. Just like for the kids -when the show is over, it’s over. There’s no, “oh let’s just see what comes on next.”

    But you make a good point about how much time we really have and what it does to our dreams. I will think about it more when I no longer have house guests.

  7. Food for thought, my brother.

    We got a DVR a few months ago thinking it would decrease our tv time. I think all it has done is increase it. And it increased our bill so much that I have to question not just the time we spend watching tv, but the money we spend to watch it. Imagine all the dvds we could own for the same money?! Or the babysitter we could hire so we can go out and have a date night?

    I am not sure Paul could give up hockey tho!

    You may start a revolution!

  8. I know! We had a TIVO with a lifetime free subscription and when it died so did all desire for future cable input. Even in the last months when we did have the TIVO, we were ‘meh’ on the TV.

    I miss it during elections and during the Olympics.

  9. I loved it and passed it on to some of my friends too. What a grrrrreat article. I haven’t owned a TV for over 5 years now and I don’t miss it. We use our laptops to watch DVD’s get some TV coverage for news and to work on our projects and business. We are happy not to bother with TV.

    For the most part I find TV is just there to distract us and designed to make us want to buy things we don’t need, wasting our time too. I feel that the news and programming that is pumped out is just well designed propaganda to get the masses to consume, consume, consume! No thanks!

  10. When we moved a few years back, we just didn't bother with cable (I figure we are about $1500 further head – and that's after tax income).

    But we do "borrow" a few shows off the internet. We find that we need a few hours of quiet downtime during the week, with the companionship of a bottle of wine or three.

    We both work (and I commute by transit deep into Gastown), we homeschool our two young kids, we don't do daycare, three of us are taking piano lessons, we have the dog, the VW van that needs fixing, the floor in our youngest daughter's room to finish, wine to bottle, beer to brew, veggies to grow, books to read, friends to entertain, honey bees to look after (and soon chickens to collect eggs from).

    I like suspending my disbelief for 45 minutes, a few nights a week.

  11. Briana, I enjoyed reading your article in the News Leader. I know how much work being involved in a blog can be.

    When we do watch a hockey game with our 5 year old daughter, a budding Canucks fan, we usually mute the ads and have a little chat. She now makes comments like, " They just want us to buy things, don't they?" Yes!!! She's getting it.

    I have a few other suggestions though, if I might?

    – Join your local residents' association.

    – Join a local civic elector's group – one that comes to mind is Voice New Westminster

  12. Neil: Great suggestions. I don't know if you've seen it, but some of our readers are now livetweeting residents' association meetings. The latest was @punkvspunk on Twitter, who livetweeted the Downtown RA meeting last night. It's an awesome way to 'Hyack the Web' so that your attendance benefits not only yourself but also others in the community who couldn't make it out. I hope more people give it a try!

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