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My morning schedule is generally the same every day: wake up, scroll through social media, check my email accounts (one for work, one personal, and one just for spam), listen to voicemail, answer text messages, turn on the morning news for background noise, peruse the newspaper, rush to get ready for work, plug in my headphones, and head out the door. Before I’ve even finished my first coffee, I feel accomplished and extremely tired.
My mornings weren’t always like this. I used to wake up to an alarm clock and head straight to the kitchen for my morning expresso. The methodic process of brewing my French roast always brought me joy: boil water, hand-grind the beans, stir everything together and read a book while waiting patiently for my first cup. Then, sit by the window and watch the city wake up until I, myself, was ready to pick up the phone, turn on the TV and let the chaos begin.
Somewhere along the way, though, my morning routine started gaining negative attention from my peers and superiors. I started having to answer questions like,
Why didn’t you answer your phone? You wake up early, don’t you?
And I couldn't say no to work tasks, such as,
I’ll send you a briefing to read in the morning so that we can start the meeting when you arrive.
It didn’t take long for my mornings to cease being totally mine. Before I knew it, I was throwing in additional stimuli: television, music, scheduled video calls. These days, I never seem to finish my beloved cup of coffee, distracted as I am with everything else I feel I need to do.
But, with the help of some strong research in the area of focus and productivity, I am making an effort to take back my mornings (and maybe even a few afternoons and weekends while I’m at it!)
Our world has undergone an astounding change in the last fifty years. Our communities have grown, our networks have extended, and our technology has advanced. We’re heading towards progress like a rollercoaster without brakes.
We think we’re doing fine.
But, studies show we’re not adapting to the transition as well as we think we are. For instance, consider our only defense against the onslaught of information, responsibilities, and outside stimuli that constantly keep us busy: multi-tasking. If we could simply learn how to multi-task, we would be able to squeeze three hours of work into one, right?
Daniel Levitin (1), a leading expert in the organizational challenges of the modern world, goes so far as to call multi-tasking an myth. According to his research, the closest the brain can get to completing more than one thing at a time is to quickly and sloppily switch between the two tasks. The final product of the multi-tasker is woefully deficient in quality and efficiency.
Far more concerning than simply a dip in productivity, multi-tasking can also negatively affect our mental health. This can be hard to grasp, because completing projects, even as small as returning a text message, can feel good (2). Good like scratching a bug bite or fueling an addiction, that is.
Levitin urges us to see our multi-tasking behavior as just that: addiction. While we may be euphorically buzzing through our workday with two phones in hand and an eye on email, our mental and physical capacities are withering under the pressure. Increased cortisol levels and the rapid depletion of oxygenated glucose lead to anxiety, exhaustion, and truly poor decision-making.
I, for one, had the realisation of how serious my addiction was when I found myself skipping meals, overloading on caffeine, and staying longer at the office when I had promised myself that I would hit the gym after work. I couldn’t understand why my work was suffering when I felt that I was working harder than ever. So, I decided to make a change.
The steps are simple, but make no mistake: cultivating focus while living in technology-driven world can be difficult. The best way I found to get organized was to get creative with expert suggestions. Here are two of my best tactics:
1. According to Dr. Hammerness (3), an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, a great way to reel in the frenzy of distractions in the workplace is to manage our emotional wellbeing. An abundance of negative thoughts, he says, makes us more prone to straying off-course and making cognitive mistakes.
Psychology research (4) shows that by setting a goal of 3 positive thoughts to every negative one, we can be sure that our brains stay engaged and focused throughout the day. I have found that engaging in extra-curricular activities, like learning to play an instrument or making appreciation cards for my loved ones, keeps my mood light and happy, even when I’m in a particularly stressful setting.
2. After I found some emotional zen in my life, the next step was to wrestle the constant itch to check my technology throughout the day. Dr. Hammernness proposes a seemingly easy solution: try focusing on a task for a short period of time. No phone, no internet, not even a bowl of carrots for mindless snacking. Just the task at hand.
I have to admit, this step is difficult for me. Even the smallest of distractions, like an interesting cloud outside my window, can veer me off course. So instead of taking Dr. Hammerness’s suggestion to my workplace, where my first attempts have been unsuccessful, I’ve started with something more accessible: yoga. The key is to attend an actual class (instead of an online video) in which an instructor keeps me engaged and minimizes all distractions. Since attending classes, I’ve noticed that my focus in other areas has improved. Other focus-driven hobbies, like painting, rowing, or origami have similar effects on our ability to manage the frenzy of our daily lives.
So far, my path towards a technology-reduced lifestyle has had tremendous effects on my mental and physical well-being. By maintaining my positivity, refusing to multi-task, and fostering my ability to focus, I’ve also noticed gains in productivity and quality of work.
There’s really nothing to lose, other than the hours I’ve spent watching kitten videos online.