What Timothy Leary Can Teach Us About Enjoying The Holidays

In 1967, Timothy Leary advised youth to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” But rather than endorse drugs or withdrawal from society, Leary’s words are strong medicine for today’s digitally exhausted holiday partiers.


Over the last year, we’ve become more distracted than
ever, overloaded by information at work and at home. How bad? Consider the following numbers:

  1. The majority of people under the age of 40 stay digitally connected in bed. ( survey)
  2. 71% of workers respond to instant messages within 2 seconds. 41% of workers respond to emails within 15 seconds. And it takes 10-15 minutes to return to what you were doing before you were interrupted.
  3. A typical worker sends and receives about 110 emails per day.  (Radicati
  4. Information workers change windows or check email nearly 37 times an hour. (New York Times)
  5. 45% of workers have at least 6 computer windows open at any given time. ( survey)

Do you think “this is the way it is” and that we have to get used to it? Consider the following:

A study at the University of California, Irvine found that people interrupted by email reported significantly increased stress compared with those left to focus. Stress hormones have also been shown to reduce short-term memory. (New York Times). In short, overload is taking a toll on your health.

If you think that overload only adversely affects the older generation–you know, those that find it hard to multitask–it’s not so. A study
carried out at Stanford University showed that people who are good at
multitasking are even more affected by interruptions than non-multitaskers.

So do yourself a favor for what is left of this holiday season. Take some advice from an “expert” who predated the Facebook era, but who understood a thing or two about focus: Timothy Leary.

In 1967, Leary advised youth to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” A lot has been written about this popular phrase, which is often interpreted as Leary endorsing drug usage and a withdrawal from society. In his 1983 autobiography, Flashbacks, Leary tried to clarify what he meant 16 years earlier, by explaining that he was advocating increased awareness, heightened sensitivity, and detachment from mindless activities.


So with that in mind, here are some practical ways to apply Leary’s advice to enjoy the holiday season.

Turn On

By turning on, Leary meant that people should become sensitive to the many and various levels of consciousness and the specific triggers that engage them. Shutting off digital distractions for the holidays would be a good start. How about a day without checking email? How about a day of playing in the yard with the kids, without rushing to post photos on Facebook? Enjoying the here and now is sure to raise the levels of consciousness–and enjoyment.

Tune In

By tuning in, Leary advised young people to interact harmoniously with the world and to express new perspectives. Cutting off digital distractions is a great way to focus and concentrate on the things that really matter in life, like family and friends. Sitting around the dinner table without cell phones ringing and the TV blaring in the background is a great way to enjoy other people’s company. Spending an evening with friends is a great way to renew depleted personal energy.

Drop Out


Leary didn’t tell youth to drop out of school. By “dropping out” Leary was telling youth to detach themselves from unconscious commitments. And what is a bigger unconscious commitment than the habit of checking email 40 times an hour? Dropping out means building a commitment to conscious choice, the perfect reflective activity for the holidays. Pondering last year’s accomplishments, achievements, and disappointments, while thinking about how to improve in the coming year is a spiritually replenishing exercise, and one that cannot be accomplished when fending off email and IM alerts.

To paraphrase Leary, take advantage of the time off, turn
off the computer, the smartphones, and the TV. Take an Internet
 and enjoy real quality time with family and friends. Return from the holidays refreshed because the interruptions and distractions will be right where you left them–everywhere and all the time.

Happy holidays.

[Image: Flickr user f1uffster]


About the author

A technology strategist for an enterprise software company in the collaboration and social business space. I am particularly interested in studying how people, organizations, and technology interact, with a focus on why particular technologies are successfully adopted while others fail in their mission. In my 'spare' time, I am pursuing an advanced degree in STS (Science, Technology, and Society), focusing on how social collaboration tools impact our perceptions of being overloaded by information. I am an international scholar for the Society for the History of Technology.