On focus, distraction and getting stuff done in a late capitalist society
One thing no one really tells you about growing up and becoming an adult is just how much stuff there is to always do. Unlike the school assignments of our teenage years, the to-do list of adulthood has no deadline and there is essentially a never ending list of things we could be doing.
To better understand how I spend my days and be mindful of what takes up my attention, I decided to write down every task I could think of doing in a normal week. Here’s what I came up with, which can be broadly categorized into seven groups:
- Salaried work (like many people, I have a perfectly mundane office job).
- Physical admin, including: laundry, cooking and planning meals, cleaning, tidying (there’s a difference!), grocery shopping, and remembering to buy things I need or might need. For example, I recently spent two hours comparison shopping for the best reviewed, most natural tinted moisturizer. I searched high and low across different skincare websites to find it at the best price. To be perfectly honest, I don’t really like it but can’t possibly invest more time in finding another tinted moisturizer, so every time I use it I’m reminded of how much time was wasted on buying such a sub-par product.
- Financial admin, including paying bills, financial planning, learning about investing and how to be a financially literate and responsible human being.
- Planning trips and travel, managing my schedule and calendar, booking appointments, scheduling time for friends and family, finding activities and things to fill my ‘down time’ so I have some semblance of a social life.
- Keeping up with current events, reading newsletters that I’m subscribed to, listening to podcasts and keeping up with all these new-age forms of media.
- Thinking about things I should be doing but can’t yet add to my to-do list such as: Do I need life insurance? How is my pension set up? Should I get a financial advisor to help me with this stuff or will finding one take just as long as doing the research myself? Should I join a book club or ceramics course? When am I finally going to set aside time to learn French and pick up violin again?
- Sleep, mindfulness, exercise, relaxation, journaling, and generally making time to detach from all of the above thoughts and responsibilities.
I probably missed a whole bunch of important things, like showering and eating, but these are generally the things that occupy my mind and time the most.
Once I finished this list, I quickly realized there is so much we could be doing with our time — an app or task to fill every space and second of our waking time. Yet is this what’s best for us? To be always on, always producing like the machines we have become so reliant on?
If anything, the ways our days are now structured makes it that much harder to find times of silence and nothingness. Back before smartphones were so commonplace, people were forced into periods of nothingness and slowness. Waiting in line, at the doctors office, commuting — these were once menial task we have now ‘improved’ thanks to podcasts and Candy Crush. Seriously, every time I see someone playing Candy Crush on my commute home I die a little inside. But for that person, perhaps to be alone with their thoughts after a long day of emotional labor is the last thing they want or need. Doing nothing is therefore no longer mandatory, it’s a choice. A choice that’s hard to make in the presence of so much distraction.
So let us try and prioritise the downtime just as much as the doing time. Make downtime a part of your every day routine. And if that feels unachievable, then every once in a while, choose to do nothing and see how it makes you feel — anxious, bored, restless…breathe through these feelings and maybe you will come out the other side feeling a little more at peace.