With all of our computers, smartphones, and tablets these days it’s easier than ever to get things done from pretty much anywhere. Add the cloud into that, and we’re connected virtually all the time. But there’s a downside to that: we’re connected virtually all the time. The effects of this sneak up on us.

While I was out to dinner recently my wife and I took in the view of the family next to us for a few minutes on and off. The daughter and the wife were both nose deep in their phones while the father sat there looking lost and bored. Here they were, out at a great seafood restaurant together, totally disengaged with each other. But beyond a wasted opportunity to actually have a memorable dinner together, what are the deeper ramifications of prioritizing digital interaction over physical? Or even knowing when to interact at all?

Importance of Alone Time

Entrepreneur Auren Hoffman posted on Quora (reposted on Time Magazine) his thoughts on having alone time. He studied the early lives of major business people like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, and saw that despite fairly different backgrounds they had one pattern in common. During their formative years, each of them spent a good chunk of their free time alone.

Hoffman points out that “spending time alone gives one the space to explore, to be weird, to learn, to imagine, and to dream.”

Building social skills is important of course, but being unplugged plays as big a role in development as anything. There’s a stigma today about being alone; the assumption is usually that it’s not voluntary and therefore is something to feel ashamed of. “Successful” people get portrayed as having tons of friends and admirers, and they’re never truly alone. Of course that’s also why some celebrities have gone crazy, but that bit doesn’t sell magazines (or maybe it does).

The kind of deep, creative thinking these young future leaders accomplished by having a healthy degree of down time shaped who they became. They had the time to dream big and became adults willing to chase it down. There’s more information at our fingertips than ever before, and the convenience of our devices maximizes consumption. But that balancing act between taking in and putting out (creating) gets tough when it’s so much easier to be passive.

Think of high school and the social pressures we all went through. Everyone was looking for a place to belong, to establish a ranking of sorts. As Hoffman says, alliances are formed and broken on a regular basis. It doesn’t really stop as we become adults; it just changes form. Inter-office competition for promotions, recognition, or even just keeping up with the Joneses all factor into our sense of self. Even Facebook with all its “Look at what I did!” or “Look at my dinner!” or “Look who I’m with!” creates a sense of having to keep up.

Social media and mobile devices that can channel it anywhere can exacerbate a feeling of needing to stay connected. If you don’t sign in for a couple days who knows how many posts you’ve missed, right? Whole conversational opportunities missed. But what about the in-person opportunities you missed by being so absorbed in the digital space? Even when you’re home and relaxing, you’re remaining tethered to that stress. It might not even feel like stress. We’re always making a choice with what we spend our time on.

In my own anecdotal evidence, I can attest that taking a point at least once per week where I’m disconnected from the web does wonders for my creativity. Like Hoffman says, it’s far easier to reflect, to assess my life, and to come up with new ideas. Occasional deliberate isolation is like putting earplugs in when the world keeps pounding at the door. You can’t think, really think, with all that noise.

Being Alone and Being Lonely Are Not The Same Thing

Psychology Today illustrates the difference between intentional solitude and loneliness. Pop culture likes to see them as the same, but loneliness is the feeling of missing something one would like more of. If you’re yearning to be around others but keep finding yourself alone, then yeah, you’re lonely. But if the break from others is welcome and you’re getting a lot done — if it’s not a downer on your happiness — it’s not loneliness at all.

Someone else can call your lifestyle lonely, but that’s really them projecting onto you based on their own values.

To me it seems a lot like the advice you’d give a serial monogamist after a bad breakup. If they’re someone who would typically jump right back into another relationship it might be a good idea for them to spend some time alone. The concept of “finding yourself” probably sounds trite, but everyone needs a true sense of personal identity that isn’t tied to someone else.

Like Psychology Today points out, phrases like “You complete me” sound romantic but should be avoided. It’s fine to be attached to those close to you, and it might be tough to imagine life without them. But you have to be okay being you, no matter what. The idea that you’re not a complete human being without someone else takes the power over your own happiness away from you. It makes your emotional center and sense of self-worth dependent on something you can’t control.

Being Constantly “Plugged In” Is Like Running A Marathon

Even for the most extroverted people, constant social interaction costs energy. Even if that’s how the extrovert recharges her batteries, that’s only true to a point. All humans require rest, and the brain needs to unplug from the social stresses of social dynamics to reboot.

Dr. Sherrie Bourg Carter says that solitude allows the brain to focus and think more clearly. We can reflect on ourselves and our relationships and get a clearer picture of what we want, what we need to do, and even where we’ve erred. Being in a go-go-go state of mind makes us purely reactive (and not proactive) since there’s no time to plan. The day becomes a juggling act where little is processed and real change is minimal. The rat race makes us neurotic.

Like the marathon analogy above, every moment you’re on the phone, checking texts and emails, checking Facebook, or fantasizing about the lives of celebrities more than your own you’re running down the track. Some can run longer than others, but no matter how athletic you are eventually you have to stop running.

So hey, next time you’re out at dinner put the phone on silent and enjoy your companion’s company. If you’re eating alone take solace in that, too. You’re doing something you want to do; the world can butt out. Take something you’ve been wanting to do for awhile and spend an hour tonight doing only that. At your pace, with no distractions. You’ll feel the difference tomorrow.

What do you think? Is technology making people scatter-brained and stressed, or is it simply changing (in a neutral sense) the way we deal with each other?