What is the biggest factor that is making us crazy? I believe that the single cause which pushes us to despair and frustration is too-many-decisions. All day, every day, we are confronted with opportunities, invitations, and proposals – and advertisements – which require us to interrupt our current task to respond, albeit momentarily. In doing so, these interruptions divert our attention to yet another matter calling for a decision. Don’t misunderstand me; I am all in favor of all the opportunities, invitations, and proposals – even the advertisements – that allow us to enjoy the greatest quality of life and standard of living in human history – or, at least, the potential for them, if we are smart enough to choose wisely. The problem is that there are too many decisions in every day. That level of stimulation and distractions interrupt our concentration and destroy any sense of control we might feel; they are immensely stressful.
As we enter the holiday season at the end of the year, it becomes worse because there are even more interruptions and decision demands on our time and attention. For many people, what might be the happiest time of the year becomes a period of stress and exhaustion. Too much of a good thing… is still too much. Sadly, a happy holiday spirit is not what they experience. Instead, ironically, this becomes a time of seasonal madness, unrestrained gluttony, end-of-year and end-of-semester busyness, and excesses in every form.
Faithful readers know that I have been on a semi-sabbatical for the past few weeks. I have been attempting to relax and recover from a long, stressful summer and autumn. Accordingly, I have attempted to limit myself to only a couple of hours of digital activities each day. “Two hours of desk work,” I declared, “then walk away from my desk and computer for the rest of the day.” However, even with good intentions, it is often not possible to completely disengage from all the commitments, interruptions, and distractions demanding my attention. This ongoing dilemma brought to mind the following blog post which was first published in May of 2019.
“I am on a Diet”. Thus, the famous American food writer and teacher James Beard began one of his articles. Gaining weight is an occupational hazard for a cooking school teacher, restaurant consultant, and writer of cookbooks and food magazine articles. But, at 300 pounds, this chronically overweight bear of a man was finally forced to change his eating habits of a lifetime. James Beard used that dramatic opening statement to begin stressing the use of seasonings and variety to replace his usual salted, sauced, and fat-laden foods. Why should I begin this article with a reference to James Beard? Because I, too, am going on a diet. Only, in my case, I am reducing my intake – not of calories – but of communications and information. Too much information and too much communication are clogging my mental arteries.
I have an internet friend, Liz Huber, who is a High-Performance Coach in London. From her website, www.refinedlife.io, Liz helps entrepreneurs achieve their top business goals with clarity, confidence, and focus. Often, her ideas are also very relevant to those of us on a quest for a simple life with improved quality of life and reduced stress.
In a recent article, “How to Get More Done by Communicating Less”, Liz stated:
Research shows that the average office worker spends around 23 hours per week in meetings and receives 121 emails per day. That’s a lot of time spent on merely communicating what to do, when to do it and how to do it. Without actually doing it. One could argue that some of these office workers never actually get around to doing anything because they are stuck in the never-ending emails — meeting — emails — meeting loop.
I am a writer and blogger. Writers work largely alone. (Publishing is another matter.) Yet, I get 20-50 emails and text messages every day. Plus, managing information and instructions between me and my two assistants is also time-consuming and draining. I am not the office worker Liz described but I often find myself feeling overwhelmed by the deluge of information, opportunities, communications, and choices I am confronted with each day.
Several times in the past couple of years, I have seen statements by highly successful people in different fields who declare that they deliberately keep their phones turned off and doors closed throughout the morning so they can do their work without disturbance or distraction. Mornings are for creative work, they say, and afternoons are for production and communication. I have a friend who works on his computer all day but John rarely turns on his cell phone. If you want to communicate with John, you send an email and make an appointment to phone or meet. Be patient; he will get back to you. But he refuses to let himself be interrupted during his working time. (I am so jealous of his self-discipline!)
Yes, I know the argument about the possibility of missing something important by not being available. I have used that reasoning myself to keep my phone turned on and to maintain constant internet access on my computer. If your work or family responsibilities require you to be available instantly, I can understand. But – be honest, now – how many times have you had a genuine emergency that required your immediate attention? Really, how many times? Is it truly justified to subject yourself to the digital flood of stimulation – usually dross – in order to be available for dealing with such a remote possibility?
Mostly though, what I am talking about is your discretionary time, the times when you can choose to turn off your phone and internet access. If you think of how much time is wasted with trivial conversations, news fluff articles, details of the latest celebrity scandals, and other internet flotsam and jetsam, it is shameful. Even the interruptions which are relevant and useful can almost always wait a few hours while you do your chosen work.
And, additionally, think of the psychological benefits. Instead of spending your days responding to the latest-and-loudest interruptions, you have the wonderful sense of controlling your own life. You are choosing when to be available rather than constantly reacting to an endless series of incidents – spending the day “putting out fires”, we used to call it. Additionally, you greatly increase the amount of meaningful work you can process; that is a good thing as well.
I should warn you, however, that going on Liz’s Low-Commo, Low-Info Diet has a couple of side effects which you should anticipate. It is a big change and our systems have a tendency to resist changes.
1) Turning off your phone and internet connection is, for most of us, going to result in a lot of unaccustomed silence. Like being alone in the middle of a forest, you will hear the crickets chirping. In fact, it may be uncomfortably quiet. You may be tempted to reconnect merely to have a brief contact with someone. (Ironically, you will then be the one who is interrupting someone else’s work.) It will probably take some time to get used to working in silence.
2) Don’t expect the people around you to cooperate or even understand. Rather than support your efforts, some people will think it is amusing to find ways to interrupt you. Some L-C, L-I dieters find that wearing headphones and listening to white noise, quiet background music, or my personal favorite, “river music” (nature sounds), helps to minimize audible distractions. A few find their work environment is inherently distracting – like when my wife and son constantly interrupt me while I am working at my desk. My solution has been to make the lovely Chongqing Library (only a 15-minute bus ride from my home) my second office.
3) When I began reducing my phone and internet access time, I actually felt a little anxious. Even though this withdrawal and the accompanying greatly reduced level of stimulation was my choice and was irrefutably a good thing, the change aroused some anxiety. My imagination goes quite out of control as I visualize missing an important phone call or email, an emergency summons to my son’s school, or someone needing my input before they can continue with their work. Then, there is FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), the internetspeak term for wondering what new and exciting developments I am not aware of because of my temporary digital hermitage.
If you decide to try Liz’s Low-Commo, Low-Info Diet, you should expect – like a food diet – to be a little uncomfortable at first. But you will probably quickly find (as I already have) that the satisfaction of getting more work completed – work that is truly important and valuable – and of having a sense of control is a small price to pay for any temporary discomfort. James Beard not only stayed on his diet and lost weight, he found other unexpected benefits. His health and energy level were vastly improved. He lived a number of years after he adopted a more reasonable food plan. And, as a writer and teacher, he uncovered a whole new vein of topics related to his new food worldview. I hope to achieve comparable results from my “diet”.
And, dear readers, what about you? Are you ready to give up the unnaturally high level of stimulation and distraction we have become accustomed to? Are you ready to take control of your work time? What would happen if you stopped trying to micromanage other people and let them just do their work? (“A gentleman stays out of the kitchen,” wrote Lin Yutang. Is this what he meant?) How much stress would you eliminate if you didn’t spend vast amounts of time in communicating in excruciating detail? Perhaps some of you reading this article will someday write a thank-you note to Liz Huber and tell her of how her proposal changed your life.
As always, your comments and stories are welcomed. (I’ll check them in the afternoon. In the morning, I am offline.)
December 2019: As we celebrate the holiday season of 2019, I wish you, my dear readers, a happy and restful holiday season. I wish it for me, too.