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Are You Really Super Busy, Or Are You Just Super Disorganized?

If that headline feels like a personal attack, you should probably read this.

MEL Magazine

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Most everyone I know is very busy “grinding.” They wake up, they grind. They sleep, they stop grinding for a few hours (unless it’s their teeth), then they wake up the next day and grind again. This is the formula for an American life: Rise and grind until you die. It’s become a sort of mantra we tell ourselves and anyone else who asks how we’re doing.

“Y’know, just grinding,” we reply, even after a long weekend.

For the uninitiated, “grinding” is short-hand for “working super hard.” It’s a capitalist-driven dick-measuring contest, a way of assuring yourself and anyone around you that you’re working so hard that you couldn’t possibly work any harder. And to be clear, for a lot of people that may be true — a 2014 Gallup report estimated that the average full-time worker in the U.S. works 47 hours a week, “one of the highest figures in the world, and significantly higher than the rates in Western Europe,” reports The Independent

But what if “grinding” has actually become coded language used to mask the fact that really, we’re all working super hard simply because we can’t stay organized? Before you swiftly close this tab, just wait: Hear me out, because I, too, consider myself to be a hard worker who would like to work less hard and achieve the same passable mediocrity we’re all grinding toward. What prevents me from doing so, however, is the ever-looming clutter of my life.

First off, it’s important to define “clutter.” Obviously there’s the classic example of clutter, illustrated most commonly by a disorganized desk or workplace. But there’s also, according to Lifehacker, the more modern iteration of clutter that’s less physically visible. “Files on your computer, notifications from your Twitter and Facebook accounts, and anything that goes ‘ping’ in the night competes for your attention,” per their report. “This creates a digital form of clutter that erodes your ability to focus and perform creative tasks.”

If, by this point, you’re again ready to abandon this article because you believe that your absurdly long work hours are a result of capitalist theory, rather than a few rogue cups of coffee and coins on your desk, you’re right, of course. But those coffee cups, excess papers and all-around post-hurricane wreckage isn’t helping. According to the Harvard Business Review, “Scientists at the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute have used fMRI and other approaches to show that our brains like order, and that constant visual reminders of disorganization drain our cognitive resources and reduce our ability to focus. They also found that when participants cleared clutter from their work environment, they were better able to focus and process information, and their productivity increased.”

In other words, your messy desk is causing your work to take longer than it should, because your brain is too busy having a quiet little freak out to concentrate on the job at hand. And while that’s likely true, I should also note that there have been studies that have found the exact opposite to be the case, too: Astudy by Kathleen Vohs, of the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management, found that disorganized folks are actually more spontaneous and imaginative. “In one experiment for the study, Vohs divided 48 participants into two groups and asked them to come up with new ways to use a ping-pong ball,” reports Lifehack. “One half was placed in a messy room and the other half in a tidy room. Although both groups came up with the same number of ideas, a panel of independent judges determined the ideas produced by those in the messy room were far more innovative.”

Still, most of us office-bound cogs of the 21st century aren’t dealing with messy desks and stacks of paper. Instead, our mess is most often of the digital variety. The great paradox of using a computer — the pinnacle of efficiency — is that it also comes with an infinite number of distractions. My computer makes my job easier, but it also makes it so that my attention can, at any moment, go from writing this article to scrolling through the Yelp reviews of the restaurant I’m going to tonight. This, too, is clutter, and it is by nature distracting me from finishing my work as efficiently as I’d like. 

There’s a reason that distractions threaten your work output: According to a University of California Irvine study, ‘it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task,’” reports The Muse. Which is to say that every time you pause your “grind” to do a little YouTube wormholing, you’re increasing your “super hard” workday by the length of a lawn-care video, plus 23 minutes and 15 seconds.

So yes, our mental space and physical space is cluttered with distractions. Which means not only are we using vital brain energy to complete our tasks, but we’re also extending our workday by wasting precious brain cells dissuading ourselves from veering down the wrong internet wormhole. The latter of which, I think, is the real grind. 

Still, I’m convinced that our distractions, be they a messy desk or a stroll down Twitter lane, aren’t nearly as paralyzing as our lack of decision-making skills. Let’s face it, procrastination is by far the messiest bitch there is, but we all do it, extending our hours of suffering because procrastination is, by nature, a defense mechanism against being miserable. As Timothy Pychyl, an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University, explains in an article for Psychology Today, “putting off the task at hand is an effective way of regulating this mood,” he writes. “Avoid the task, avoid the bad mood.” 

The issue here is that by failing to prioritize your tasks, instead picking away at them like a sandwich you never really plan on taking a bite out of, you’re not only going to hand in some mildly shitty work, it’s also going to have a negative effect on whatever your next task is. “The last-minute efforts that become necessary when we put off the task usually mean a sub-standard job overall,” writes Pychyl. “More importantly, as [researchers] [Dianne] Tice and [Ellen] Bratslavsky explain, ‘the final and overall level of negative affect is likely to be even greater than if the person has worked on the task all along.’”

This is when things really begin to spiral. “The findings of a study published in PLoS ONE in January 2012 suggest that people who regularly work more than 11-hour days more than double their chances of major depression as compared to employees who typically work about eight hours a day,” reports Entrepenur. “‘Long working hours are likely to be related to less time to relax and less sleep,’ said study researcher Marianna Virtanen, from the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health in Helsinki. ‘It is also possible that excessive working hours result in problems with close relationships, which in turn, may trigger depression,’ she added.” 

So, learn to concentrate on the task at hand, learn to make decisions, and most important of all, learn to prioritize. That thing you’ve been putting off? Do it first, then the rest won’t seem like such a slog. Because while longer work hours may create the illusion that you’re a devout cool guy of the “rise and grind” culture, in reality, all you’re doing is ushering yourself along toward an early death, seated at a laminate-wood desk, with no one around you save some Gary Vaynerchuk surrogate screaming at you from your computer screen.

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This post originally appeared on MEL Magazine and was published November 4, 2019. This article is republished here with permission.

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