Thursday 21 September 2017

Addicted to fast: when busyness takes control

Multi-tasking badly? Never enough time in the day? Katie Law examines Catherine Blyth's new book that warns of 'hurry slavery' and how to cure it

It’s in the bag: Anne Hathaway plays Andy Sachs who is forced to juggle many tasks at once in The Devil Wears Prada
It’s in the bag: Anne Hathaway plays Andy Sachs who is forced to juggle many tasks at once in The Devil Wears Prada
Banishing multi-tasking: Author of On Time, Catherine Blyth

Do you feel like there's never enough time in the day? That however hard you try to get through your daily to-do list, you never get to the end? Do you multi-task badly, procrastinate superbly, find concentrating on one thing at a time challenging, and often feel anxious? Do you flip between umpteen screens on your computer instead of getting on with the job? Do you feel jittery with excitement whenever your smartphone pings through another text while you relentlessly refresh your social-media feeds? Does the idea of switching off your smartphone at night make you feel sick?

If you've answered yes to any of the above - and judging from a quick survey conducted in this office, the chances are that you have - then you're a faddict. That is, you're addicted to fast and have allowed busyness to take control of your life.

Catherine Blyth (42) is a recovering 'faddict' whose new book, On Time, is the latest in a growing trend warning us of the perils of what she calls "hurry slavery". The former books editor who went freelance and now works from a shed in her west London garden with the Wi-Fi switched off for three hours every morning, has written it for anyone who feels as if they're busy all the time but never gets anything done. Her aim is to help wean her fellow faddicts away from busyness and towards greater productivity by imposing restrictions on their working lives.

Ditch the dopamine loop

There is a scientific reason why we become obsessed with constantly checking our updates and feeds. Every time we hear the ping of a new message we get a rush of dopamine, and the constant novelty feels thrilling. The problem is that our brains easily adapt, so we need more to get the same hit. Then we get trapped in an addictive dopamine loop, which is terrible for focusing attention.

Blyth argues that this an inherited evolutionary behaviour. Humans have survived because our consciousness is constantly patrolling our environment for danger. Our ancestors who noticed the crunch of the predator in the bushes were the ones who survived and have bequeathed us this neurochemical survival system. Lucky? Hardly. These days we'd be better off putting our phones away or on silent.

Pick up the phone

Research shows that most office workers spend up to 30pc of their working day on email, often in an endless ping-pong of needless dialogue and confusion that interrupts concentration. How irritating is that message that pops up in the corner of our screens? Even hitting delete interrupts our mental flow, let alone clicking on it, reading it and answering it.

Blyth thinks we have been bamboozled into believing email is "more respectful" than the telephone because it allows us to reply when we choose.

The fact is most of us feel compelled to reply immediately. Save both time and energy and make the call. Or work offline at prescribed times of the day. Decide when you want to reply to emails rather than being ruled by knee-jerk reactions.

Give your brain a break

The bigger the city, the faster everything in it moves. A Dutch study of 1,500 workers showed that when people feel rushed, they respond by going faster.

Blyth thinks it's the wrong response. You can't outpace life but you can find your own pace within it, she says. Doing things quickly isn't inherently bad but trying to rush things results in making mistakes.

Make time every day when you're not doing anything in particular. Sit in a coffee shop for 10 minutes, walk to the bus stop or train station without feeling the need to fill the time usefully, by being glued to your screen. Let your brain take a break and the ideas will bubble up.

Breathe easy

Being at a computer all day encourages you to hold your breath, breathe shallowly and hunch. Of course your body chemistry is affected. You feel stressed, unhealthy - and are much more likely to binge eat and drink. Take a break but not necessarily with a KitKat.

Boycott busy-signalling

Working long hours used to be the preserve of high status and well-paid professionals such as bankers and doctors. We still consider it high status and have acclimatised to the expectation that we should be working all the time, even if we are earning a pittance. Interns and low-paid millennials suffer the most. But we must differentiate between this busy-signalling and productivity.

Showing that we're constantly available by being at our desk all hours doesn't actually get the job done. At the start of 2017 the French introduced a new law requiring that companies guarantee their employees "the right to disconnect" in order to reduce burn-out. Bring it on.

Stake your space

The open-plan office is the enemy of productivity; when will managers realise this? While synergy has obvious benefits, trying to concentrate on a job that needs your attention when interruptions are all around is stressful. A colleague asking a quick question, two colleagues gossiping near your desk, an entire team sharing a joke loudly… let's face it, it's a bore.

If managers won't introduce acoustic screens and pods, or designated quiet areas, employees in noisy offices should be allowed to work from home at certain times or use meeting rooms.

Take the pressure off

How many emails a day do you get that start "Hurry! Sale ends midnight"? A brilliant marketing tool to get people to buy because it tips us into "scarcity mentality", it also makes us more impulsive. On the other hand, time pressure can be useful for meeting deadlines because it forces us to focus and finish.

Blyth wants us to be in charge of our own time-pressure challenges and enter our "cognitive tunnels" to suit us. Not the other way around.

Puncture popcorn brain

We wake up with a finite amount of concentration, which is highest in the morning, so that's when we should aim to get our most focused work done. It wanes throughout the day, so do multi-tasking later. Emailing, online shopping and making a meal are best saved for later in the day.

The more we multi-task, the harder it gets to focus and the more likely we are to get popcorn brain - you know, when those pesky random thoughts keep popping into our minds, giving us that sinking feeling that we aren't getting anything finished. Do one job at a time and see it through. Multi-tasking is not what it's cracked up to be.

Independent News Service

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