Too Busy Being Busy?
Ask someone how they are these days, and the chances are you’ll get the answer, ‘SO busy!’. Caught up in an explosion of digital technology our lives have speeded up, swiping and surfing tablets and phones which are becoming faster, lighter, easier to use all the time. Voicemail’s becoming redundant (no time to listen!) and Facebook seems quaint in the instant response culture of What’s App and Snap Chat. The sheer bombardment of information coming at us daily adds to the frenetic feeling of packed schedules and looming deadlines. Now we expect everything to happen fast, with a click – in fact one of BlackBerry’s original ad tag lines in the early 00s was ‘Anything worth doing is worth doing quickly’. And it seems we get physically pulled along in the wake of all this. The Pace of Life Study which looked at how fast people walk in 31 cities round the world showed that our pace of walking had speeded up 10% between the early 90s and 00s.
This isn’t necessarily bad. The need for speed is a natural human instinct, and a fast moving society generally means higher standards of living and happiness levels. And, being busy fits with the fact that as humans we are hard wired to achieve – actually, we fear not being so as it kind of equates to failure. Therefore we keep moving forwards and adapt accordingly. This has always been the case – the introduction of new technologies throughout history (the car, the telephone, the TV) no doubt left successive generations feeling their lives were speeding up, albeit in different ways. Yet, can we really say our time is so limited compared to our parents, grandparents, great grandparents when it is a fact that we are living longer which it’s thought have afforded us an extra six hours every day since WW2.
On closer analysis, we might find we are unwittingly frittering time away because those screens we’re stuck to these days are becoming a major distraction. We text as we speak on the phone, answer emails and Tweet as we scan the net. Never have our attention spans been so hijacked. In his book ‘The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload’ (published by Viking) Daniel J Levitin explains how this kind of multi-tasking alters our brain chemistry and becomes addictive:
Multitasking has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can overstimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking. Multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation. To make matters worse, the prefrontal cortex has a novelty bias, meaning that its attention can be easily hijacked by something new – the proverbial shiny objects we use to entice infants, puppies, and kittens….it is the ultimate empty-caloried brain candy. Instead of reaping the big rewards that come from sustained, focused effort, we instead reap empty rewards from completing a thousand little sugar-coated tasks.
In other words we are so busy being busy, we are often left feeling empty (like a post-sugar rush), and this lack of focus may lead to us not achieving our longer term goals. When we stop to take a breath most of us know this. And of course, the answer isn’t to throw away our phones and laptops or run away and become a Tibetan monk. In order to regain focus, we need to become mindful of what we are doing which will allow us to make more of our time, to give us space to breathe. Rather than a knee jerk screeching on of the brakes to go from fast to slow, we need to learn the art of changing gears in order to choose the right speed for the task at hand.
We can start by choosing to organise our days a little differently. Rather than waking up and checking the phone, allow ourselves a little tech free time. Use it to sit and be still, breathe and meditate, take a shower and then eat breakfast with no distractions. In truth, this need not take longer than 30-40 minutes and means a more focused start. Make a plan for the day and rather than letting your ‘To Do’ list get out of hand, make a list of the five most important, achievable goals in the time you have, and stick to them.
When you switch on your phone, set the alarm to remind you every hour to take a short break. Studies have shown that those who take an hourly break are actually more productive than those who push through. Take a moment to assess what you’ve done, what you need to do next to keep on track to complete your tasks for the day. Try to get out at lunchtime for a short walk outside – exposure to light and exercise are natural ways to help keep our dopamine levels up without needing an i-Phone fix. Finally, at the end of the day have a strict curfew on devices. Switch off should be at least 2-3 hours before bed time in order to allow you to wind down for a proper night’s sleep, which is vital in helping our brain chemistry re-balance.
Make these habits frame your day and you may not have less to do, but you will feel more able to cope. And next time someone asks you how you are, the answer won’t be ‘SO busy!’……