Imagine meeting a friend for coffee, maybe some fifteen years ago. Imagine you have both taken time out of your schedule, taken the trouble to commute to a meeting place of mutual convenience, ordered your favourite drinks and found a nice cosy spot. Both of you then proceed to ignore each other and start calling random people to ask how their day was.
Of course, no one would do such a thing. The notion is just plain absurd. But then how different is it when you and your friend sit down with coffee and then proceed to check your social network of choice? Not very, if you come down to the bare bones.
Now, this is not yet another anti-social network rant. As many people will immediately point out in the face of criticism, social networks are a tool, and it is all about how you use it. While that notion feels correct, it might be instructive to draw an analogy with the other tools in our lives. How often do we feel the compulsive need to use a tool, whether or not the situation merits it? How often do we wake up first thing in the morning and feel the urge to iron our clothes, or balance our chequebook?
If social media is just a tool, it is a highly addictive one that eats up huge chunks of our day unless we take care to not let it. If you find this claim hard to believe, go ahead and log the amount of time you spend on social media in a day. Alternatively, stay away from Facebook for a day. When you see just the number of notifications the next day, you will now have a much better idea of how much time and mental focus goes into responding to these notifications in real time.
Something evil this way comes
The solution to this is not the oft-heard urge to quit Facebook or demonising it. The real answer is to treat our time like the precious asset it is. As someone once said, we can always make more money, but we can never gain back the time we lost.
Probably the area most effected by the omnipresent nature of smart-phones, tablets and push notifications, is our quality of work. Imagine reading an important paper, or writing an in-depth article, or creating the design for a new building, while being constantly bombarded by messages from friends, family, and extended family.
What is even more concerning is again the compulsive need to stay “updated”. None of us would think of reading the newspaper, watching TV, or gossiping with a friend while also trying to do some mentally intense work. Yet nearly all of us are entirely happy to have Facebook/Twitter/Instagram open on a tab while rushing to meet an imminent deadline. While it may seem like one quick look won’t hurt, these websites are designed to turn seconds into minutes and hours. They aim to make you stay, and more often than not they are succeeding.
Do not disturb?
With all that in mind, here is the first and biggest tip towards surviving and thriving in this age – go offline. At least when you need to get some work done, disable notifications, close all your social media tabs, and get down to work. It will not be easy, of course. You might want to start with small time chunks, maybe as little as thirty minutes, and gradually increase duration. Do not beat yourself up if you fail, just reduce the time commitment and try again.
Half an hour may feel like nothing, but it might still be enough of a challenge depending on where you are on the “being able to deeply focus” vs “need to check Facebook constantly” spectrum. When that starts feeling easy, increase by another ten to fifteen minutes. Be patient with yourself. You are not “just built this way”. You can train yourself to enjoy deep focus and productivity. You can train yourself to overcome the compulsion of checking your phone. It will not be easy, but it is worth it.
It does not seem too much of a stretch to claim that sports and the training regime of athletes represents one of the finest examples of how humans can push their limits and do amazing things. So let us draw a sports analogy here.
When he was around 11 years of old, Sachin Tendulkar was admitted to the cricket school run by Ramakant Achrekar. For the next several years, Tendulkar was playing nearly 6 to 8 hours of cricket every day. As he mentions in his autobiography, his day used to end with one extra batting session where he could lose his wicket even if he was caught beyond the boundary lines. This forced him to control all his shots across the ground. Sounds easy until we recall that this was after he had played nearly six practice matches and was mentally and physically exhausted. In fact the entire point behind Achrekar sir doing this was to train Sachin to bat on in the face of physical pain and distractions, as he so often had to in his career. A hundred centuries and worldwide recognition as a sporting legend is probably enough evidence that his methods worked.
How is Sachin Tendulkar’s cricket training relevant in this context? Consider this: If this were in 2016, would Sachin Tendulkar check his phone between overs? Would he feel the urge to check the latest tweet from his favourite athlete right before facing the toughest bowler from the opposition?
It is easy to dismiss the questions above as speculative, but we probably know the answers anyway. High quality work, work that stretches one to the limit and genuinely makes a difference, cannot be done with divided attention. Unless we are mindful of every hour, the hours go by and soon we have lost days, weeks, maybe even months.
Less is more
In this era where everyone is all about being more and doing more, many feel the real answer is counter-intuitive. Do less. Do fewer things at a time. Go offline. Stop checking your phone. Give your work your undivided attention, for as much time as you can manage at a stretch. Take a break, walk around a little, drink some water and try again. No masterpiece was written by an author who kept checking his mail. No scientific breakthrough was made by someone who just has to read the news every hour. Go offline and get things done!
The writer in an academic and freelance columnist.