Lately, I’ve noticed that there is a great distinction between the illusion of work and actually doing work. The illusion of work is when you’re sitting in front of your computer, tablet or smartphone. You might check social media, respond to emails, check the news, do relevant “research” online related to your work… But you’re often not actually doing meaningful work.
This is especially the case for me, as a writer. My main goal is to write a story I really want to share. And it’s very clear at the end of the day when I’ve advanced towards my goal of completing my writing project or not. There is no gray area.
Over the summer, I realized that for some reason, these days work is now equivalent to diligently staring at a screen. And that feels really wrong to me. To be sure, we need our devices as tools: I need my lap top to type. I love connecting and sharing on social media. And we have to communicate via email. But they are simply tools. Why has being in front of a lap top now become the symbol for someone hard at work?
After my 3-week trip to Europe, I returned determine to change this pattern. Now, I spend 1-2 hours per day in front of my lap top to do the tasks that need to be done on it. This allows me to check social media and respond to emails in “batches” rather than looking at my inbox all day. Indeed, I’m always surprised when I get an instant response from someone I email. I assume people are busy working and there will be a several hour delay (if not a day or 2) before I get response.
This is especially true because “scientists have established a clear link between spending time on email and stress: The more frequently we check our email, the more frazzled we feel,” according to Jocelyn Glei, author of Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distractions, and Get Real Work Done, who shares her productivity tips in The Guardian.
Since the beginning of October, I’ve been trying to create the habit of consistently putting my lap top away for most of the day (and not checking my phone as a substitute). I’ve been doing my writing with a pen, on a notepad. That removes the “illusion of work,” and helps me to actually do my work. It removes the distraction, multitasking, and unimportant things with which we often fill our work days. And it has increased my efficiency and productivity.
I think most professions would seriously benefit from a similar strategy, and for those that absolutely do require a computer, I would recommend switching off the Internet and creating whole chunks of the workday that are focused on actual work.
And this isn’t just my opinion.
Research out of Stanford described in the widely read The New York Times article from earlier this year clearly shows that:
“By doing more you’re getting less done.”
Multitaskers–especially the kind of multitasking involved with doing many things on your devices at the same time and toggling back and forth between them–make double the errors.
That’s because they are paying less attention to what they are actually doing. I’ve found that by simply putting away my devices and working with a pen and paper, meeting with people to brainstorm, or even going for a walk in nature if I need a break (rather than surf the Internet, which feels productive somehow but actually ends up being a waste of time usually), I get a lot more done.
The New York Times article goes further, showing that doing one thing at a time, or monotasking, “can also make work itself more enjoyable. Almost any experience is improved by paying full attention to it.”
Being focused and doing one thing at a time also has long-term effects on our productivity:
The more we allow ourselves to be distracted from a particular activity, the more we feel the need to be distracted. Paying attention pays dividends.
A new book delves deeper into why our brains can’t multitask, and how multitasking makes us inefficient. The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World, by neuroscientist Dr. Adam Gazzaley and research psychologist Larry Rosen shows “how the digital age zaps productivity.
“We think the mind can juggle two or three activities successfully at once, but in truth, we simply can not.”
Dr. Gazzaley told NPR Health that:
“When a focused stream of thought is interrupted, it needs to be reset. You can’t just press a button and switch back to it. You have to re-engage those thought processes, and re-create all the elements of what you were engaged in. That takes time, and frequently one interruption leads to another.”
Based on his research, Gazzaley clears his desk, turns off his phone and focuses on one screen when he is working on a project.
I’ve taken it a stem further: no screens at all for a large chunk of the day. I’m in the midst of writing first drafts by hand. I can type it up and edit it on my lap top (with the Internet turned off) at a later stage. There’s nothing like a clear, focused mind for writing well.
Click here to read more of Dr. Gazzaley’s tips for turning off distractions and focusing on a high-level writing project, business plan, or any other work you need to focus on. (It’s in the sidebar by the article).
As Jocelyn Glei writes in The Guardian:
“Productivity is no longer about keeping up, or keeping busy, or having it all. It’s about being deliberate and being focused… It’s about getting really clear on what matters to you and letting the rest go.”