Coping with a Fast-Paced World
“Steady and undissipated attention to one object, is a sure mark of a superior genius; as hurry, bustle, and agitation, are the never-failing symptoms of a weak and frivolous mind.” – Lord Chesterfield
The modern world has completely redefined the concept of time. How we allocate, think about and interact with time has all changed in the Information Age. It happened gradually, in subtle ways, so that we hardly even noticed. Our very perception of time was altered by a host of recent technological and cultural alterations.
The advent of phones, then email and text meant that life naturally sped up as more plans and options became possible in any given minute. In a do-more culture this is hard to resist packing in as many activities as possible.
The constant stream of demanding notifications and plans in our lives creates a lot of stress on the mind. Distraction and optionality combine to form the biggest threat to our perception of time. Distraction makes time feel limited because it takes longer to get things done in that state. And there’s always more to get done with so many options. Optionality pops us out of the present moment and into a constant state of planning.
“Technology isn’t bad. If you know what you want in life, technology can help you get it. But if you don’t know what you want in life, it will be all too easy for technology to shape your aims for you and take control of your life. Especially as technology gets better at understanding humans, you might increasingly find yourself serving it, instead of it serving you.” - Yuval Harrari, 21 Lessons for the 21stCentury
Everyone intends on living a joyful and productive life. I define productivity here as doing what you intend to do, free from distraction, even if it’s non-work related. The problem is that we often go about it the wrong way, overwhelmed by modernity. Here are a few tactics I’ve found helpful that allow me to stay in the moment.
Give yourself an 8-hour sleep opportunity. It sounds obvious, I know, but we aren’t sleeping the way we were evolutionarily designed to. The brain uses 20% of your metabolic rate as is – it needs significant R&R to perform its demanding tasks. Many facets of modernity, from alarm clocks to blue LEDs are throwing off our biological sleep rhythms.
Cultivate empty space. For some people this might mean solo time cooking, listening to music or going for a run. Smell the roses, literally. Getting in touch with your five senses is the best way to bring yourself into the present moment and quiet the “monkey mind” or endless thought. Fulfill your basic human need for boredom, which calms the sympathetic nervous system. Pay close attention to how you’re spending your time. Which activities are can be eliminated to create more quality time for what’s truly important? By slowing down, we can paradoxically create more time for ourselves.
Additionally, by taking the time to meditate, we can paradoxically afford ourselves more quality time in our lives, as it teaches us to focus and prioritize more effectively.
“Batching” of emails, texts and other forms of communication. Productivity chef Tim Ferriss became famous for his book 4-Hour Work Week, which encouraged people to prioritize and batch their emails. I’ve found that batching text messages is also important. Silencing these devices and leaving them for a set time, say once in the morning and once in the afternoon (followed by any last-minute communication for making plans) allows for a much better uninterrupted attention throughout the day.
Make use of the Pareto principle. Named after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, this principle states that about 80% of results come from 20% of inputs. By focusing on the most important inputs, therefore, you can get the majority of results and save yourself valuable time. Thinking about the Pareto principle as it relates to your work is a good way of prioritizing the day to make sure that the most important tasks are accomplished, rather than getting overwhelmed with less effective tasks. Put simply, make time for what matters. We don’t have time, we make time for what’s important.
Screen-free Saturday. I’ll admit this is often difficult, especially when making plans. But try making plans in advance and then going one day of the week without looking at a phone, computer or TV screen. Or at the very least limit use to communicating plans or (legitimately) urgent work. Using these strategies, it becomes a lot easier to do deep work (see the book Deep Work by Cal Newport), which is meaningful production usually done in a reasonable time.
Break your routine. Get off of autopilot by taking a different route to work or trying out a new activity. It sounds dumb, but this prevents us from falling into a mindless and robot repetition of activities that may not be our best or desired use of time.
Remain present throughout the day. This has been one of my biggest objectives lately. Try to catch yourself when you are absorbed in thinking about the future or past. If it’s unnecessary planning, bring yourself back into the present moment. Focus only on one task at a time. It’s incredible how this increases quality of work, lowers stress and seemingly frees up time.
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