Why We’re Busier than Ever, But Getting Less Done

“Busyness” or shallow work is being used as a proxy for productivity today. Here’s how to change that and regain control over our work and lives.

Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash
Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

“I’ll get back to you”; “Thanks for connecting on Linkedin, why don’t you write to me on Gmail?”; “Call me tomorrow to fix up a time to organise the meeting.”

You get the drift? Raise your hands if these are increasingly the kind of conversations you appear to be having every day—where everything seems to exist only in a fluid state and no action solidifies into a completed agenda.

Our lives today have become a puzzling jumble of multiple as well as concurrent conversations in limbo! We connect only to fix alternate moments or platforms for re-connecting. We use our multiple devices in order to have multiple conversations with multiple people, but nothing gets concluded. Exhausted by the task of ‘getting back”, shattered by having left fragments of ourselves in different pockets of communication, we reach home having spent a busy day, but without actually doing anything useful or fulfilling.

So what has gone so horribly wrong? The Internet and constant connectivity were supposed to have enhanced our productivity, not diminished it. We were told life would get simplified, with all its messy, convoluted parts fed to us seamlessly in a pipe of several gigabytes, pre-chewed, pre-analysed and in pellet form. In reality, we have got inundated with so much information, so many interruptions and so much stimulus that we can only react to the thousands of supersonic data missiles being fired without focusing or having meaningful engagements with any of it.

The more multi-tasking we try and do to manage this many-headed Information Hydra by responding, replying and rebounding, the more heads it keeps sprouting. We have barely cleared our inboxes when our WhatsApp messenger gets filled with scores of ticks waiting impatiently to turn blue. While our fingers click away in response, our gaze gets drawn to the pop-ups on the desktop and the ears begin flapping at the unmusical sound of yet another meeting reminder. No wonder our attention spans are less than two minutes now and we can’t bear to read an entire paragraph of news (preferring instead to draw our conclusions from the headline), or a 30-second video which promises to decipher the conundrum of the entire economy in its first 15 seconds!

Unfortunately, this type of superficial work leaves us not only uninformed but also unfulfilled. By not spending enough time with a problem, with people or the task, our responses are bound to be ill-equipped, misjudged and misguided. Equally, by jumping from task to task, we are unable to devote our full attention to them in a mindful manner leaving us feeling curiously unsatisfied with our lot.

Carl Newport in his book Deep Work suggests the following steps to regain control over our work and our lives.

  • Digital media detoxification: We have all become victims to social media and the validation that comes with it. We have become so addicted, that even a minute of not having our devices around us, makes us suffer from FOMO. Thanks to the digital media apps, we are virtually connected to friends and family, but do not have enough time to spend with them in reality. Let’s all take this as a challenge to distance ourselves from social media for an hour every day, and see how it changes our thinking, stimulates our creative buds, helps strengthen bonds and most importantly gives us leeway to introspect.
  • Fixed schedule productivity: Newport suggests that it is possible to accomplish all our assigned jobs by working 9:00am-6:00pm and without stretching it to weekends, if we follow his mantra of ‘fixed-schedule productivity’. This is mainly about back planning/scheduling your day, and by setting time limits for all the work assigned. The more you set time limits for yourself or work towards a defined goal for the day, the more efficiently you work towards it and will finish it within the slotted time.
  • Create a shutdown ritual: Newport provides persuasive reasons on why working long hours without downtime can be damaging to a Deep Work practice. Downtime should become key as resting one’s brain improves the value of Deep Work. We’ve all been in situations where we’re working on an assignment but often get stuck at a particular point. We spend the entire day scouting for a solution in vain, and the very next day, have a ‘Eureka!’ moment. That is the magic of pausing. Allowing our mind to rest allows us to disassociate from the problem for a while and helps produce significant results that are hard to replicate.
  • The art of memorisation: Strengthening and working on your memory also gives a boost to focus on the assigned work. Whether it is a song, a mobile number, a deck of cards or a stack of books, memorising things enhances your concentration and thereby improves your capacity to accomplish Deep Work.
  • Become a master of your own fate: While working towards the end goal is important, reviewing the process by monitoring it at every stage is equally important. Conducting weekly/monthly/quarterly reviews of our work helps us plan better and devise concrete plans of action for the future.

Sadly, busyness (doing lots of stuff in a ‘visible’ manner) or shallow work is being used as a proxy for productivity in the business world today. The more emails you receive, the more meetings you have, the more productive you appear. But Deep Work is what stretches your mind and gives more meaning to life. And as Deep Work becomes scarcer, it also becomes more valuable. That’s why Deep Work is quickly becoming the superpower of the 21st Century, according to Newport.

So are you ready to deep-dive into the cool waves of mental and technological detoxification and take on life without worrying about the blue ticks? To start with, were you able to put your phone away while reading this? With the promise of the higher productivity (and more fulfilment) this will result in, why not at least try?

Unless your talent and skills absolutely dwarf those of your competition, the Deep Workers among them will outproduce you. Can you drain out your shallows and intentionally protect time next week for 1-2 hours of Deep Work every day? Let’s make that the New Year resolution?

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