What can you do in 168 hours?
One of the topics I’m frequently asked to cover in workshops or presentations is time management. I covered the topic of “not enough time” just a few weeks ago, but the problem is not only persisting, it seems to be getting worse, so I thought a deeper look might be warranted. The consensus seems to be that there is not enough time to get everything done these days. But that’s not really true. Time is relative, as our friend Albert Einstein pointed out, and so I really delved into what happens to our time and how can we better manipulate it.
I tried a variety of experiments, including spending a day doing something I love and then spending a day doing something I find tedious and boring. Not that Einstein needs my affirmation, but I can confirm that time flies when you’re enjoying your life and it drags on to infinity when you’re not. Think about that as it relates to your work. Do you love your work?
Next, I kept a detailed log of all of my activities for a week. We have 168 hours a week to play with, so I wanted to see where my banked time was being spent. I was quite surprised to note how much of my time was screen time. My desktop, laptop, smart phone and I-pad seemed to dominate much of my waking time. The biggest time suckers were writing, email, text messages and social media. Now I love writing, so that had to stay, plus it’s at the core of my work, but I dug a little deeper into the rest to analyze the value of emailing, texting and participating in social media. Emailing and texting are also heavily involved in my work, so those had to stay, although there might certainly be room for improvement. Social media? I had no idea.
Now I did not consider myself a heavy user of social media in any sense of the word, but while on a writer’s retreat in the mountains, where there was absolutely no cell service, I found myself reaching for my smart phone multiple times. That really grabbed my attention. Why was I reaching for a device that wouldn’t work, over and over during a 4-day retreat? That was pretty mindless, number one, and secondly, what was my cue? What was prompting that urge? It turned out to be downtime. I am an extremely active person with one of those brains that goes 90 mph all of the time. Four days with no television, radio, internet or cell service, while rarely seeing other people, created a lot of down time. Now I did not think I was susceptible to the “can’t stand to have one second of silence” behavior I witness every day because I like being alone. I meditate, I reflect…but something had clearly changed! I quickly realized what had changed was a habit. I had gotten into the habit of picking up the device when I had “down” time, originally to catch up on responding to people, but now I was doing it even if I didn’t need to know or do anything.
This prompted my next experiment, which included dropping out of social media. I turned off all notifications, removed Instagram and Twitter from my phone, and moved Facebook to a deeper page on my phone so I wouldn’t see it automatically. I also set scheduled times, 3 times a day, to check my email and turned it off the rest of the time. I continued to text as normal, as I use that for work, too, and it’s my primary vehicle for connecting with family and friends.
Absolutely shocking. The first day I stuck with this plan, at around 2pm I realized I had nothing else I had to do for work. Nothing! At 2pm. I normally work until about 6pm and am never actually done. This became a pattern all week. Between 2 and 3pm each day, I had completed everything that was due. Was it possible I was wasting 3 to 4 hours a day with my old pattern?!
The ultimate objective of social media companies is to get us to want to look, scroll and click our devices all day long. Streaming services want to entice us to keep watching, which is why they automatically start the next episode without us even having to click a button. Facebook does the same with videos on their platform. They just start and we end up watching, mesmerized and unthinking. Americans now spend on average 10 hours and 39 minutes a day on screen time. We are bombarded with notifications. We can binge watch multiple seasons of shows through streaming services. We have smart devices that tell us when we need to walk, breath, drink water and more.
Speaking of binge-watching, I looked at that, too, as if I didn’t already have enough information to beat myself up about. I started paying attention to the time I spend on Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, my two primary sources of streaming video. I would set an intention to watch a couple of shows and what seemed like suddenly but had obviously been much longer, I’d completed half a season. Have I lost all reason?! I am somewhat disturbed when Netflix asks “Are you still watching?” Even Netflix seems concerned at my binge behavior!
Notifications are a whole other problem. Each time a bell, beep, funny recording, musical blip or whatever other clever sounds we’ve programmed our devices to deliver actually goes off, our brains are being pulled away from whatever they were focusing on. If you’re like me, you get a lot of notifications all day long. Night, too, if you don’t put your phone on airplane mode (which you should!).
So what are we getting in return? A whopping loss in productivity, along with a desire for more numbness. It turns out, a lot of us are getting addicted. Addiction programs are popping up all over the place. I just saw a couple of days ago that someone has created a Fortnite addiction program because so many people can’t stop playing. We’re also getting other new health conditions, such as neck problems, thumb problems, vision problems, and more, from all of that screen time.
Now I’m sure some of you will respond that you’re not playing video games or streaming shows, that your screen time is for work, so you have to do it. That was my excuse at first, too, until I really analyzed it. Writing is my work, but while I was on that retreat, I didn’t need to check Facebook for my work. I didn’t need to scroll through Instagram. I was simply acting out a habit without any thought whatsoever. Which is pretty much the opposite of being mindful.
And if you feel confident that your screen time is really for work, I ask you to consider whether that may be a problem. Workaholism isn’t simply defined by working long hours. True workaholism, according to psychotherapist Bryan Robinson, professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, is the inability to turn off thoughts of work. How can you turn off thoughts of work if your device is constantly reminding you of work? Even if you don’t use your device in your off hours, just the notifications interrupt your off time and inject an undercurrent of stress in your system. Unless you’re in emergency medicine or with Homeland Security, do you really need to be reached while you’re off or sleeping?
From my experiments, I deduced two core culprits in not having enough time:
Most people do not understand that their brains cannot multitask. When you try to do two or more things simultaneously, the brain has to switch back and forth to focus on those tasks. Each time your brain task-switches, it takes up to several seconds for it to refocus on each task. Studies show that task-switching actually slows you down, creates more errors, and exhausts your mental clarity. So “multi-tasking,” which is really task-switching, is inefficient and ineffective. Device notifications prompt task-switching.
Technology was developed to serve us, but we are now serving it. That sounds very sci-fi, but I believe it’s true. We are now conditioned to turn to our devices for much of our living. And while I am all for technology working for me so that I can work less, that’s not what’s really happening. We are wasting countless hours on useless tasks that numb us, drain us, and disconnect us. As we spend more and more time focused on a device and less time connecting in person with each other, empathy, compassion and engagement suffer. We become a more hostile culture. We lose depth of meaning and become more shallow.
Nancy Colier, author of the book entitled, “The Power of Off, The Mindful Way to Stay Sane in a Virtual World,” summed it up nicely.
“Although helpful in many ways, unfortunately technology makes it easier for us to act on, and thus has the potential to strengthen and support, our more escapist and unconscious tendencies. Technology facilitates the natural human drive to flee from the moment, avoid what’s challenging, and seek pleasure at all costs, none of which create happiness, peace, or well-being in the end.”
So what are we doing and why? Why are we willing to go through life constantly stressed and on alert? I’ve been given every excuse you can imagine by my clients. “My kids might need me.” “My staff may need something.” “My parents might need help.” “My boss expects me to.” All I can really say is that somehow, humankind survived a very long time without this ability to be connected 24/7. Kids somehow survived without being able to immediately access their parents 24 hours a day. Staff figured out what to do if the boss was away. Bosses will probably always demand more than is reasonable if they can. That’s kind of their job.
The tech podcaster, Manoush Zomorodi, in her TED Talk, How Boredom Can Lead to Your Most Brilliant Ideas, points out that it’s when we have downtime, when we are bored, that our brains light up and creativity really sparks. If we reach for our devices everytime there is even a minute of downtime, when are we creating and inventing? When are we coming up with brilliant ideas for our future?
If you’re still resisting the idea of reducing screen time in order to have more time for other things, stop and consider your quality of life. We are the most depressed, stressed out, in-debt, addicted cohort in US history. We’re all blaming society, but we ARE society. We are creating this, for ourselves and our children. We’re passively accepting what commerce is telling us we should do. Who benefits? Commerce! We’ve become mindless consumers instead of mindful citizens.
We’re escaping from our daily lives through devices and simultaneously losing human connection with each other, which actually creates more stress and depression, resulting in more device use to escape those feelings!
I can’t tell you to stop using your devices. I can’t stop using mine because much of work really does require it. But be mindful of how and why you’re using technology. Set it aside each day for a period. Put it away when you’re not working. Start paying attention to your habits. Do you really need a device to tell you how to live your life? Do you need to numb your mind through mindless entertainment? If so, perhaps you could start addressing those things in life that are causing you distress that you’re avoiding via your screen time.
One final thought on time. We constantly say “I don’t have time.” I know I did multiple times a day. But we do have time. We have 168 hours a week. So it’s not that we don’t have time. It’s that we’re not making time for that specific thing we’re talking about. “I don’t have time to work out” really means that working out is either not something you really want to do or that you have higher priorities that you are spending your time on. We can make time for anything that we either really want or need to do. Do you have time for your car to break down on the way to work? It happens and somehow you make time for it when it does. Don’t have time for a child to be sick, keeping you home from work? Yes you do, because you do it. The challenge isn’t about managing time, it’s about managing priorities, combined with not wasting time on mindless activities we participate in so that we can avoid something we’re uncomfortable with.
Starting today, try not to say I don’t have time. Start paying attention to what you are making a priority, and start changing technology habits that aren’t really serving you in working toward a life of thriving and meaning.