What did you do over the weekend? (Take ‘weekend’ to mean ‘day off from work’ - not that everyone has that as an option).
Among other things, my hubby had to spend about two hours talking to tech support, using my phone because his wasn’t working. While he was doing that, I ordered groceries and produce delivery, negotiating several products that weren’t available.
This is a reflection that technology makes our lives easier with one hand, and more complicated with the other.
Another example of this is that our bathtub faucet suddenly started dripping. I emailed our landlord about it, as part of a thread about the ceiling lights that suddenly quit on us and whether it might be an electrical issue. Due to COVID, we mutually agreed not to fix the faucet until “all this is over.”
It turns out that people have more to do than people of our same age did twenty or thirty years ago. That’s mostly because commerce has offloaded more and more tasks onto the end user, and it’s crept up on us, and we’ve barely noticed.
How much of our time is spent on things we didn’t have to do in the past, like updating passwords?
I’ve been noticing this sort of thing more, because I got a new job last year and we work 9-hour days. Since I work 8-6, almost everything is closed when I get off work, and a lot of it is closed during my lunch break as well.
The alternatives here are either to do these things during my off Fridays, or try to cram them into my breaks.
It’s amazing how quickly a free Friday can disappear into shadow labor.
I’ve decided that the only way to cope is to tag these shadow labor tasks, calling them out for what they are, and divvy them up so that I never have to do more than one or two per day.
One piece of shadow labor that I do every day, without fail, is to unsubscribe from whatever has infiltrated my email that day. For some reason, there are often as many as half a dozen new impertinences to fend off.
Another, similar task is to block spam phone calls. If you don’t get on them right away, they’ll just keep calling, sometimes four times in a row.
Yet another, similar task is to sort and toss junk mail from the mailbox. Same problem, different form factor.
Don’t we all have a fundamental right to privacy? And yet why are there marketers constantly coming at us from all sides demanding our attention? Why can’t we make it a single hour without getting an unwanted phone call, email, or piece of glossy unrecyclable mail thrust at us? At least they aren’t leaving as many on our doorknobs these days.
While I strongly resent having to attend to these things each day, I also recognize that my life is easier if I do. I can bundle these mindless activities and blast them off my mental bandwidth while listening to a podcast.
Technically, they barely count anymore.
The goal with mental bandwidth is to save room for two things: System II thinking and high-quality leisure time.
Ideally we want at least a four-hour uninterrupted chunk for the HQLT.
Deep thought, the kind of concentration you need to do something like your taxes, depends on the person. People with attention deficit issues might want to start with a short chunk like 15 minutes, and gradually work up to maybe two hours without a break. People like my husband, who is a sort of swami at this stuff, can go ten hours at a stretch. It’s nuts.
Yet something to aspire to.
What we’re looking for are as many things that we can do with as little concentration as possible, so that we can free up time in as large a chunk as we can.
I finish work at 6 pm every day, for instance, so there isn’t very much time between then and bedtime. A whole evening can vanish before I know it. If I tried to do an uninterrupted four-hour block, I’d pop my head up at 10 pm and realize I hadn’t eaten dinner, exercised, or anything else.
What I want to avoid doing is spending my evening on hold with customer service somewhere, paying bills, emailing my landlord, or otherwise dealing with administrivia or life maintenance.
It turns out that most of these things can be done in five minutes, and almost all in under 15.
I paused while writing this, and hit another shadow labor moment that is quite funny in retrospect.
We were renting a movie, and for whatever reason, iTunes wouldn’t load, so I decided to try to rent it through the Apple TV app. Because I hadn’t done this before, I had to enter my iTunes password with the remote. This is slow and complicated and I should probably figure out how to do it on my phone, except that’s yet more shadow labor.
Just as I was about to enter the last character, I accidentally scrolled too fast and clicked ‘Cancel.’
I started making incoherent blithering sounds and punching the air, as one does.
Then I started laboriously entering my password again - and I accidentally hit cancel *again.*
At that point I gave up and rented the same movie through Amazon Prime.
I had to remind myself that if we weren’t doing this, in this bizarro world that we all currently inhabit, then we would have been at the movie theater, trying to buy a ticket from a glitchy kiosk, or waiting in a long line, or getting our seats kicked by someone’s child. The shadow labor of not shouting at a person.
It’s always something.
Sometimes it seems like if we could just have one easy day, one day without friction, then everything would be perfect. The catch is that whenever friction is removed from one area, it becomes more noticeable in another. The game will never be over.
Focus on focusing. Focus on lengthening the amount of time you can concentrate, and also focus on the amount of leisure time that you have to lounge around doing nothing, thinking nothing at all.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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