Reset: ‘That’s not work, that’s Facebook’

Pressing my reset button meant regaining my capacity to do one thing at a time. When I chose to be present, there was so much to notice that I didn’t want to clutter it up with multitasking

Representational image
Representational image

Lalita Iyer

I put my phone away while writing this piece. Every single app (and there are only three) on my device has notifications turned off. I am notified when I want to be, even if it involves my mother or my child.

If either of them has a burning need to speak to me, they can always call. “Young people don’t call, mamma, they just text,” my son reminds me. So then young people can wait, I tell him.

I’m learning to be a ‘one thing at a time’ person, noticing the dichotomy between always multitasking and the desire to be here now. I grew up free of digital onslaught, but even as a child, I studied to sounds from the radio, and did my homework while watching the boy in the house across, sketching on his terrace.

There were always three books by my bedside, all bookmarked to different pages. And what do you know, when I grew up, multitasking was suddenly fashionable, a must-have on your resume. Most of us have been conditioned to multitask.

To simultaneously tackle many tasks is to be more productive, we’ve been told. But multitasking is a self-multiplying demon. The more you multitask, the worse you get at finishing your work, which means you have more to do, so you keep multitasking to get on top of it all. At least, that’s what you tell yourself. That utopia never arrives.

Even as early as 1887, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was bemoaning the way “one thinks with a watch in one’s hand, even as one eats one’s midday meal while reading the latest news of the stock market”.

Perhaps focusing on one thing at a time is a superpower. I should know. I am struggling with this every day, even as I type this article and resist checking my email on another window. Toggling is fun—it gives you the dopamine high that focusing cannot.

My yoga teacher began and ended every class by emphasising the need to be ‘present’, even as students sometimes lay on their mats with their phones right next to them, often not even switched off. But we can’t put the entire blame on technology. Our urge to avoid giving ourselves fully to any single activity goes deeper.

Harvard psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert found, in a 2010 study, that people spend almost 47 per cent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re currently doing. This is the work equivalent of texting while driving.

This also probably explains why my friend who was too busy to meet because she was “working like a dog” at her new corporate job had an average of 10 Instagram posts a day. When we toggle between tasks, the process often feels seamless but in reality, it requires a series of small shifts, and each shift comes at a cost.

MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller notes that our brains are ‘not wired to multitask well... when people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost’.

Neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley of the University of California, San Francisco simplifies this idea: ‘Multitasking feels fun, even if it’s draining our cognitive reserves.’ He offers some simple solutions like putting your phone away (preferably in a drawer in another room), setting a timer for distractionfree focus on the task at hand and taking breaks, preferably outside the setting of your work.

We can be at choreographed family vacations and Sunday brunches and yet not show up. We can document our holidays via stories and reels on Instagram, building a picture-perfect image of our families and yet not be present. The opposite of multitasking is monotasking. Instead of jumping between different tasks in rapid succession, monotasking allows you to align your attention to one task at a time.

This is harder than it looks because doing several things at once is usually a way of assuaging anxiety. When you’re drowning in to-dos, it’s calming to feel that you’re addressing lots of them simultaneously. Pressing my reset button meant regaining my capacity to do one thing at a time. When I chose to be present, there was so much to notice that I didn’t want to clutter it up with multitasking.

Now, as I enjoy my morning cuppa, I try not to make to-do lists for the day, even in my head. When I go for a long walk, I don’t take my phone. I have 24 hours in the day, and it’s enough time for many activities—sequentially. Deep focused work is the new IQ and is becoming increasingly valuable.

It is essential to thrive in this fast-changing world but is hard to achieve in the midst of all the distractions around us. If I’m constantly doing shallow work— checking mails, WhatsApp messages, social media posts, I lose the ability to do deep focused work.

I used to pretend social media was ‘work’, but thankfully someone called out the bullshit. I’d check my feed in the middle of story time with my then single-digit boy, and when he got annoyed, I said, “But it’s work!” and he said, “That’s not work, that’s Facebook.”

One way, I found, to keep at the task at hand and resist the urge to switch was to have a place for things. So, when an idea pops into my head, I have a place to write it down before getting back to my task.

Having a place for thoughts that pop into my head stops them from derailing me. The same goes for an email I have to send or another task I have to complete. Another thing: it’s important to celebrate the small wins. If you got to the end of this column without reaching out for your phone, that’s a win.

When we are okay with not being ‘busy’ all the time, life offers more of itself. I now choose to be less busy. I choose to have time. When someone asks me what’s a good time to call, I say, “Now.” This has taken effort. This is my reset button at work. When someone asks “When are you here next time?” because they were too busy to meet this time, I say, “Just tell me when you have time.”

I now have fewer layers between me and the present, and that helps me inhabit each moment more fully, without allowing distractions to get in the way. I realise there will always be a lot to do, no matter what I do and where I live.

Instead of finding ways to get on top of it all or beating myself up for failing to, what if I poured all my time, energy and attention into a few things that are joyful to me? I am here now, why even pretend to be anywhere else.

(Lalita Iyer an author and freelance journalist)

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