Commentary / Japan

December: A month to decide what to stop doing

by Yoko Ishikura

With 2018 about to wrap up, our lives — which have become busier due to technology and the unprecedented pace of change sweeping the world — appear to be even more crowded. Why? In fact, the month of December was called Shiwasu in the old Japanese calendar — literally meaning it is a period when even priests run around to attend memorial services and ceremonial occasions.

Though we are not priests, many of us have a list of things to do at the end of the year (and the beginning of the new year). Unlike in North America and some European countries, where the holiday season almost starts with Thanksgiving in late November and ends on New Year’s Day, the new year holidays stretch on a bit longer in Japan — as many of us spend time with family from the last few days of the year through Jan. 3.

Activities usually scheduled for the year-end include gift-giving, year-end/Christmas parties with colleagues and friends, and writing New Year’s greeting cards. Some engage in a big cleanup of their house so they can greet the new year in a clean and neat environment. I trust I am not the only one who feels under pressure to get as many of these things done as possible. So I want to suggest that we take stock of these activities and consciously decide which ones we should stop doing.

There are reasons I start with the list of things to stop, rather than the list of things we usually do, and try to re-examine each one. If we start with a list of things we usually do, it takes time (and we definitely do not have time) and the finished list may be a bit shorter than the original, but not much shorter. That’s because we have reasons to do the activities and go back to the excuse that “there is no compelling reason I should stop this.” It is inertia.

It is also tempting to merely follow the routine. My suggestion is to break the routine, since following the routine leads us to not think. This temptation to not think is a major threat to our lives — since thinking is one of the things that distinguishes us from robots and artificial intelligence.

Another reason we should review our routine activities is because 2018 clearly indicated that the world has changed and we now live in a different era.

Recalling the people we lost during the year, including Kofi Annan, Stephen Hawking and George H.W. Bush among others, makes us realize that the world has changed so drastically that thoughts and ideas we took for granted for some time, such as democratic values, globalization as a positive force raising the standard of living for many, and technology as a panacea to resolve many global problems including climate change, resource scarcity and giving voices to people and sharing them, may no longer be true.

In a way, 2018 has made us revisit some basic concepts and rethink our goals and purposes. It’s time for us to reflect on our routine activities and why we do what we have been habitually doing. Critical and creative thinking is another capability that separates us from robots and AI.

So the next question is what activities to stop. The first one I want to propose is to stop keeping your smartphone at your bedside. Many of us seem to get nervous when we don’t check social media every few minutes, such as Facebook, Twitter, Line and so forth. For many, the first thing we do when we get up and the last thing we do before falling asleep is to check social media. I believe that for many of us it has become such an ingrained habit — even an addiction — that we do not even think before we check social media. Do we really need to sleep with a smartphone? Is it not a habit we get ourselves into? Does it not take away time and energy for us to think events over and plan our day?

It is so tempting to check social media when you get up in the middle of the night. You may feel that you’ll miss something important if you don’t check your smartphone first thing in the morning. Why not stop and think about how your habit of constantly checking social media has been formed and what it does to your life? I am not proposing that you stop using the smartphone entirely, since it has so many useful functions and has become a necessity.

Smartphones are convenient for reading tweets and articles on the train. Few people nowadays read traditional newspapers on the train. But the print edition gives you the opportunity to capture a much wider world through listings of articles and layout — unlike the online version on a smartphone. It gives you a chance to see what kind of events are taking place and in which articles/issues to dig deeper — something that is hard to do with a list on a small screen.

We often discuss what is left for human beings to do when technology is moving so fast and its capability has progressed so much. We often feel threatened by robotics and AI, which are advancing so rapidly, as we wonder how we can maintain our unique human capabilities. If we keep on depending on social media and information searchable on smartphones, do we not give up the opportunity to reflect and think? To stop depending on social media from the moment you wake up to when you fall asleep is the first step to identifying and exploring what you can do as a human.

Other than to stop sleeping with smartphones, I will not suggest any particular activity to halt as everyone has their own list of objectives. My suggestion is to reflect on how you spend your own time — for each item and activity you do as a routine — and think again why you are almost addicted.

The advantage of deciding to stop something is that you get the opportunity to try something new. Japan is known for being slow to change or transform, because people tend to focus on what they lose rather than what they gain. If we take a positive view of ending something we don’t need any more and of revisiting the original purpose of such activities — so that we can develop a creative and new way of fulfilling that purpose — we can make 2018 a meaningful year and start anew in 2019.

Yoko Ishikura is a professor emeritus of Hitotsubashi University and serves as an independent consultant in the area of global strategy, competitiveness and global talent. She is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Expert Network.

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