Tune out social media angst and re-energise to focus on what is important

FF Recommends: Focus and get things done

Charles Assisi

[Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash]

May 29, 2021 | FF Daily #384

Good morning,

Most of us are now familiar with binary political slugfests of the “you are for us or against us” kind. Such narratives are amplified on the mainstream media; go viral on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn; and what is worse still, become heated talking points in groups on personal messaging apps such as WhatsApp that were originally intended to be places where we bond with friends and family. 

Why is it that intelligent people don’t exit such binary conversations? On asking people across the spectrum, we heard a common narrative. People “feel trapped”. They stay engaged with the mainstream and social media because they feel compelled to “stay in touch” with all of what is happening around. Conversations on messaging apps are places where they “hang out” and “bond”.

Ironically, these are the sources of exasperation and anger as well. We heard it as people spoke about how these narratives are eating into the time they spend on quality work and building deep relationships; some shared stories about how they broke off ties with old friends; others chose to exit groups that they thought have become toxic; and then there are those wondering how to navigate this world.

Why does this happen? How do we navigate it? That is the theme for this week’s FF Recommends.

Stay safe and have a good weekend.

In this issue     

  • FF Recommends: Tune out social media angst and re-energise to focus on what is important
  • The power of reason

FF Recommends: Tune out of social media angst and re-energise to focus on what is important

It was getting painfully obvious. I was waking up groggy too often after doom scrolling through social media feeds and rabid political commentary late into the night. The immediate had taken precedence over the important. This wasn’t how things were intended to be. In a distant past, life was crafted around David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology. Each month, week, and day (with room for flexibility) was planned and thought through. When examined periodically, GTD suggested that if the immediate and urgent was taking precedence over the important, something is the matter. Life had to get back on track. 

It was time to revisit notes from the past, and listen to wiser people. Psychologist Daniel Goleman, author of Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence opened his talk around his research on the theme at Google with a lovely observation. “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”

He goes on to talk about the kinds of attention. Voluntary attention and involuntary attention. The latter is triggered by distractions such as content and technology all around us. It is designed deliberately to distract us and the creators are incentivised to do that.

The responsibility is on us to be aware about it and work at it. This is hard work. And Goleman writes, in his book, it means three things. “The first is the ability to voluntarily disengage our focus from an object of desire that powerfully grabs our attention. The second, resisting distraction… And the third allows us to keep our focus on a goal in the future…”

When thought about, there was (and is) much happening around. A pandemic is unfolding and India is passing through one of its worst crises. It is difficult to remain unmoved and unconcerned as a citizen. 

But after reading what Goleman has to say, a question occurs: Does doom scrolling through the night, venting outrage on social media, or arguing with friends on WhatsApp groups help solve anything? 

But if I can stay focused on the longer-term outcomes Founding Fuel has hitched its narrative to, I may contribute better. 

When I asked around, I found that the principles of how to do that are universal.        

A Checklist Manifesto

My productivity multiplies exponentially when it is broken down into weekly chunks. What must be accomplished through the coming week, is examined on a Friday evening or a Saturday morning on the outside. When broken down like this, it gives a first hand sense of how much time I really have. 

Check boxes are placed against each task and deadlines are allocated to complete each of them. To place things in perspective, by now, I know what is part of daily routine and where energies must be focused so I can also accomplish what is in the long term. My templates show that the routine work consumes three to four hours. In the traditional scheme of things, that’s half a working day.

But my longer-term mandate insists I engage with people, listen to them, and think up innovative narratives that a demanding audience will consume. This means I must invest a few hours each day here as well. The challenge is to find uninterrupted chunks of quality time to get it done.

When the week is broken down into daily chunks of routine and longer term work, and check boxes are placed against it, I now know exactly what must be done each day. Some appear mundane; there are others that look exciting; and then there are activities that emerge out of nowhere. Time must be carved out for all of it. When looked at from this perspective, time appears precious. And there seems to be very little of it. Where do I begin?  

My little hack here is to take up the tough one first and click a few checkboxes as done in the TBD list early in the day. From a psychological perspective, this provides a sense of accomplishment. And it also shows what else remains to be done. Between deadlines that must be met and jobs that must be done, there is no time to wander.

How to go about it and the upside of it all is a theme Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work has written much about. There is a school of thought that argues this approach to work may appear like a new fangled productivity hack. But he puts it well. “If you’re not exceptionally clear about where you want it to go, it will wander.”

Think like a runner

Pace yourself” is advice anyone who has ever trained for a long-distance run receives. How important that is makes itself obvious when in work from home or in hybrid mode. This reminder came from my colleague Kavi Arasu who is a long-distance runner as well. 

High-quality output emerges after getting 6:30 - 7 hours of deep sleep and a high-protein breakfast. My mind gets into the flow and stays focused. To ensure it stays that way, I turn-off all notifications until lunch time. Social media is a no-no, as are any exchanges on channels such as WhatsApp. All emails can wait. And no multi-tasking either. One task at any given time. 

By now, I know if my teammates call, it will be only because they need something right away. And if a random thought emerges out of nowhere, or if an interesting link shows up on the internet, I don’t chase it. I jot it down on the notepad app open on my laptop. It can wait.       

Create room for slack

Then there is Parkinson’s Law which has it that “Work expands so as to fill the space available for its completion.” That is why deadlines are set and must be met. There is much talk about efficiency and deploying every minute. That’s a tub of crock. If anything, room for slack must be deliberately created. 

What it means is, pausing every once in a while between tasks and allowing the mind to wander. These pockets of stillness with the self are much needed. That’s when seemingly disparate thoughts begin to connect and patterns begin to emerge.

Where do my moments of slack lie? Making a mug of tea, for instance, and staring into the open for a while is mighty useful. 

The non-negotiables

What is also clear is that I’m not on call 24/7. My phone is set to go silent between 11 pm and 9:30 am. This is non-negotiable. The mind has a funny way of creating narratives around such non-negotiables. There’s a narrative in the head that now says if I look up messages before this hour, something terrible will happen. These hours are my me-time.

Why this matters was articulated well by Thomas Davenport, author and teacher at Babson College. “We receive information faster than we can absorb and react to it. We multitask, employ multiple media, and surf rather than dive into content. We skate on the surface of a vast information ocean, and seldom have the time or interest to penetrate its depths…

“people need to make the conscious choice to disengage occasionally from the information stream. Everyone should have vacations, weekend breaks, and periods during the day in which they do not receive electronic messages.”

The power of reason

What’s helping you get through these tough times? Send us the song, poem, quote that is your balm now. And we will share it through this newsletter.

And if you missed previous editions of this newsletter, they’re all archived here.

Bookmark Founding Fuel’s special section on Thriving in Volatile Times. All our stories on how individuals and businesses are responding to the pandemic until now are posted there.

Warm regards,

Team Founding Fuel

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About the author

Charles Assisi
Charles Assisi

Co-founder and Director

Founding Fuel

Charles Assisi is an award-winning journalist with two decades of experience to back him. He is co-founder and director at Founding Fuel, and co-author of the book The Aadhaar Effect. He is a columnist for Hindustan Times, one of India's most influential English newspaper. He is vocal in his views on journalism and what shape it ought to take in India. He speaks on the theme at various forums and is often invited by various organizations to teach their teams how to write.

In his last assignment, he wore two hats: That of Managing Editor at Forbes India and Editor at ForbesLife India. As part of the leadership team, his mandate was to create a distinctive business title in a market many thought was saturated. When Forbes India was finally launched after much brainstorming and thinking through, it broke through the ranks and got to be recognized as the most influential business magazine in the country. He did much the same thing with ForbesLife India where he broke from convention and launched the title to critical acclaim.

Before that, he was National Technology Editor and National Business Editor at the Times of India, during the great newspaper wars of 2005. He was part of the team that ensured Times of India maintained top dog status in Mumbai on the face of assaults by DNA and Hindustan Times.

His first big gig came in his late twenties when German media house Vogel Burda marked its India debut with CHIP a wildly popular technology magazine. He was appointed Editor and given a free run to create what he wanted. During this stint, he worked and interacted with all of Vogel Burda's various newsrooms across Europe and Asia.

Charles holds a Masters in Economics from Mumbai Universtity and an MBA in Finance. Along the way he earned the Madhu Valluri Award for Excellence in Journalism and the Polestar Award for Excellence in Business Journalism.

In his spare time, he reads voraciously across the board, but is biased towards psychology and the social sciences. He dabbles in various things that catch his fancy at various points. But as fancies go, many evaporate as often as they fall on him.

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