opinion : Surekha A. Yadav

Are we busy or stupid?

Surekha A. Yadav

MAY 14 — “I can’t get no sleep,” said the immortal Faithless circa 2000.

Recently I’ve found myself sympathising with the lyrics. It is not that I’m an insomniac, just that I am finding it harder and harder to switch off before I go to bed.

Work, family obligations, friends, bills and the stream of data I’m so used to staring at on my screens every hour of the day — how do I just let it go?

Increasingly, I wake up at 6am to try and get a jump on my tasks. I keep meticulous(ish) lists of the things I am supposed to do today, this week, this month, this year.

I use all manner of apps: expense tracking, work flow management, accounting, calendar and diary.

I’m doing everything from the time management listicles and it still feels like I’m barely keeping my head above water.

Basically, I feel like I am stuck deep in the rat race and I know that for many Singaporeans, and others around the world, this is a familiar feeling.

But the question is: what choice do I have?

Living in a modern, go-go-go city like Singapore seems to feed into this need to always be connected. — Picture from commons.wikimedia.orgLiving in a modern, go-go-go city like Singapore seems to feed into this need to always be connected. — Picture from commons.wikimedia.orgSometimes a friend would say, “Why don’t you just take a bit of time off? Do a bit more yoga, meditate... that sort of thing. But how can I... there’s just so much up in the air, so much to do.

And I keep asking myself, “What if? What if I don’t respond to that email in time, what if there’s a problem at the office, what if this project goes wrong?”

The heart of the issue though is really my screens – and my data. I’m getting so much information all the time: WhatsApp, email, Skype messages, Line messages, Slack messages, WeChats, updates from the accountancy software, meeting invites on my calendar...  most of it is work-related but all of it put together is a massive distraction from really important long-term tasks.

I’ve begun to realise that I, like many people, have a real problem distinguishing urgent from important and this is exacerbated by constant connectivity.

At work, every Whatsapp, every email – every bit of feedback from staff and clients, every invoice — seems urgent, everything has to be done NOW!

But in trying to keep ahead of all these urgent tasks, I’m often neglecting things like doing my annual accounts and cash forecasts, writing more, exercising, helping my mum buy insurance or just having breakfast with her.

These are actually important tasks but they get swallowed by the rat-a-tat-tat machine gun exchange of daily or minute-ly communication.

It is distracting and possibly dangerous. Recently, France has taken measures to allow employees to switch off. A new provision in labour law requires companies with more than 50 employees to set a protocol ensuring work does not bleed into days off or after-work hours.

This sort of policy is increasingly supported by hard data that shows constant connectivity is bad for productivity.

Of course you might be tempted to say Singapore and South-east Asia is not France. Is constant connectivity, late night WhatsApps from your boss just a basic part of our work culture... something we all have to get used to in order to keep the jobs we need to survive?

Work life balance is a bit of an alien concept in this part of the world; traditionally if you look at farmers or traders, work and life have always been deeply intertwined.

But actually,even for traditional farmers, there was always time for family, friends and religion; everything had a time and place.

But all of this breaks downs when a sudden WhatsApp from your boss can throw a dinner with family or some time at the gym or spa into turmoil.

Our work is on our devices and we take our devices everywhere, they have become part of us. This really has to stop.

Businesses, governments, individuals — we need to work harder to understand how we can switch off while remaining efficient, productive and competitive.

It is time to stop judging everything by response time and begin to look at structures that encourage quality output in a systemic fashion.

Managers everywhere need to stop believing everything is urgent and everything needs to be done now.

It is Sunday, just take a nap.

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