A four day week won’t save us from the modern day addiction to multitasking
We’re getting enough sleep, we have enough time, but multi-tasking is making us exhausted and a four day week won’t solve it, writes Sascha O’Sullivan.
Ah the travails of modern life. Rushing to and fro, from work to pick up the kids, to see an old school friend and then answering a stack of emails before you hit the pillow.
If only there was more time. We fantasise about it on a Sunday night, as we scroll through Instagram: we would go to Sicily, we would bake homemade lemon drizzle cake for our kids’ bake sale, not the store bought one. Most importantly, we would sleep. We would have a good night’s sleep for the first time in forever.
The idea we don’t have enough time has driven dozens of initiatives to change the way we work, from the four day working week, trialled by a handful of firms in the UK, to hybrid work, which cuts out the daily commute and gives us back 90 minutes in the day, to job shares or nebulously named “wellbeing days”.
It turns out, we do actually have enough time, and we are getting enough sleep.
In fact, many of us are sleeping more, according to research from think tank Onward. Today’s adults are getting an extra 30 minutes kip compared to those in 1974. Women, often seen as the most sleep deprived, are sleeping 8 hours, 38 minutes, on average, 27 minutes more than in the 70s. Men are sleeping 8 hours 32 minutes, 25 minutes more than their predecessors.
Our leisure time and time with our kids isn’t squeezed either.
Some of us are working more, with women working an extra 13 per cent, but the changes in technology, which have removed some of the burden of “keeping a home” with washing machines and hoovers, means there is still extra time in the day. Men meanwhile, are working 2 per cent less.
We’re all so tired because we’re trying to do so many things at once, not because we’re doing more of each individual thing. Multitasking is making us exhausted.
In 1974, we spent five hours on an average weekend day with four distinct “episodes” of leisure time, now we squeeze seven things into four hours. We also change activities more; men do 31 different activities in a day now, compared to 18 forty years ago. We’re trying to answer emails while picking up the kids, we’re flicking through a recipe book while watching TV. Very few of our activities demand our undivided attention.
Taking an extra day out of the work week is unlikely to make us feel instantly rejuvenated, nor is working from home. In fact both might put more pressure on the need to multitask. Much was made about the ability to put the laundry on or keep an eye on a stew while working on a report; and these are benefits to working from home, but they are also drawbacks. By splitting our attention across a million things, our time feels more pressured. Even when we are absorbed in a book, if we’re told we have to do something else in an hour’s time, we feel like we only have 40 minutes to read. If we have nothing on afterwards, we feel as if we have 49 minutes. It sounds like a small increase, but a substantial one in terms of the psychological benefits of not feeling stretched.
Perhaps the only policy which addresses this is the rule in France which makes it illegal to send emails after hours, the so-called “right to disconnect”. It tries to cut down on the things demanding our attention when we’re supposed to be relaxing.
One of the surest things in modern life is if there’s a problem, there’s an app to solve it. My own social media feeds have been inundated with promoted posts for a program called “Motion”, billed as a kind of AI-personal assistant. It looks at where you’re wasting your time, and supposedly makes it more efficient. In fact, one of the ads for it shows a woman trying to answer an email, while remembering to do the washing, and then calling a friend, before coming back to eventually send the email. It tries to condense our time into more coherent segments.
Full disclosure: I haven’t tried it. My own diary remains antiquated, made from paper and bound by cardboard and glue. I dutifully write down (most of) the Google calendar invites I get.
There is a market for it: last September Motion announced they had raised $13m to try and coordinate people’s lives better. But, if Onward’s hypothesis is to be believed, this bid for efficiency will still leave us just, if not more exhausted.
This is an important lesson for businesses as well. As investment into workplace wellbeing continues to grow, so too does the varied nature of our jobs. Giving people variety and room to grow is, of course, important. But not by simply piling on more, disparate responsibilities onto their desk. If anything, it will be counteracting against all those lunch time yoga sessions trying to boost productivity.
The modern workforce prizes the ability to multitask almost above all else. At the risk of sounding trite, it turns out we’re all exceptional multitaskers, and it’s not doing us any good. Focus is the thing we’re really missing.
Maybe it’s a French-style, viva la revolution or maybe your dad was right, when he said: “Can you just put down the goddamn phone at the dinner table?”