The Fight Against Fractured Time
“Things are crazy right now.”
“We’re just so busy.”
“I’m looking forward to everything slowing down.”
… Are phrases I hear myself and people around me say a lot. What’s in the air that makes just about everyone I know (especially the ladies) feel so stressed and frantic? This question prompted me to pick up Brigid Schulte’s book Overwhelmed: Work, love, and play when no one has time. Schulte opens her book with an interview with sociologist John Robinson, otherwise known as “Father Time.” He has been collecting and studying diaries of how people use their time for more than half a century.
Counterintuitively, he’s found that Americans have just as much leisure time today as they did 40 years ago.
So why then are we all so stressed out compared to previous generations?
Schulte proposes several explanations for why feeling frantic and overwhelmed has become the norm in our culture today. The one that fascinated me the most was this:
“Time is murky. Porous. It has no sharp edges. What matters more than the activity we’re doing at a moment in time, they [time researchers] have found, is how we feel about it.”
She says the issue isn’t the amount of time we spend working, but rather how much of our time is fractured versus continuous. Fractured time happens when you switch your attention back and forth between different activities: for example, driving / checking your phone / talking to your kids in the backseat.
Our attention is more divided now than it has ever been. And all this switch-tasking raises our heart rates, makes us feel rushed, and ultimately leaves us feeling less satisfied with what actually do accomplish.
The problem today isn’t a lack of time; the problem is the way we perceive it.
The effect of fractured time can be seen most clearly when it’s compared with its opposite: flow. Flow is that magical state of being where you get so caught up in what you’re doing that you lose track of time altogether. It rests comfortably between boredom and anxiety, and it’s marked by total focus and self-forgetfulness. People who experience flow on a regular basis are much more likely to report higher levels of happiness and satisfaction.
After looking at the descriptions of fractured time and flow, I noticed way more of my day falls in the first category; so I’ve been brainstorming ways to shift the scales a little more in favor of flow. Here are some ideas I found:
Chunk Your Time
One well-known and -loved strategy for time management that works really well in the fight against splintered attention is time chunking. Matt Perman, author of What’s Best Next, suggests blocking off parts of your day to dedicate to one activity. For instance, rather than checking email all day long, choose a set time each day (or week if you want to get crazy) to check a big batch of it.
The nice thing about this strategy is that it lets you focus on what you are doing right now, rather than thinking about all the other things you should be doing. If you work on a computer, try closing all the windows that don’t pertain to what you are doing right now. If have a block of time dedicated to playing with your kids, spend it actually playing with your kids. If you have a block of time dedicated to relaxing, plan on making your environment as restful as possible beforehand so you can completely lean into your leisure.
Turn Off Distractions
Choosing to focus on just one thing for a long stretch of time takes self-discipline and planning. One of the best things you can do to save yourself from giving into the siren call of divided attention is to turn off all those things that beep and buzz, or better yet stick your phone in a drawer. Ridding yourself of unimportant distractions that seem urgent makes it easier to actually set your attention on the task at hand. Technology is an awesome servant but a terrible master; you are in control, and you get to choose when to engage and when not to. Not the other way around.
You could say “yes” to adding another item to your to-do list for the sake of efficiency/people pleasing; but how is that extra thing going to make the rest of your day feel? If the answer is “rushed and frantic,” then it should probably be a “no.” Using the Essentialism principle of if it isn’t a “hell yeah!” it should a “no” is a good filter to keep in mind as you plan your days and weeks.