Opinion

’24 hours with…’ is the most exhausting read on the internet

Strategist Al Crawford has a bone to pick with one of Mumbrella's regular features - "24 hours with...".

In 1962, Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, his account of life in a Stalinist Gulag. Plot spoiler: it’s a pretty grim read.

In fact, it’s an unvarnished tale of monotony, cruelty and deprivation.

Mumbrella’s ’24 hours with…’ is a similar exercise to Solzhenitsyn’s: capture the essence of someone’s existence by recounting a day in the life.

Obviously, the tone and content tends be bit rosier for the subjects featured, largely because they’re not in a freezing Siberian internment camp on starvation rations.

However, with certain memorable exceptions, the days recounted are high-octane, diametrical opposites: happy, hyperactive days full of plate-spinning and Pilates.   

They’re exhausting reads and they make me envious and horrified in equal measure.   

Mumbrella’s “24 hours with… Kerwin Rae” was particularly notorious

Turns out I’m not alone. Some readers even feel impelled to share their friendly advice below the line. It’s often as generous and considered as your average YouTube comment or tweet.  

Mumbrella’s readers are often forthright

I have a slightly different take. I point the finger at the sample, the task and the system, not the individual.

After all, what exactly are you expecting from these columns?   

For starters, most of those interviewed are upper management over-achievers who have not got there by sitting on their behinds.   

Globally, 87% of people are unengaged at work, but these aren’t the types to phone it in. In the thrilling world of research, we call this a biased sample.   

As a result, most days feature bar code diaries and multiple catch-ups with minions (sadly, not the Despicable Me kind) as they busily go about guiding their colleagues and subordinates towards the light and away from the darkness.

If you want to read something different, there needs to be a hefty rebalancing of the base. A Buddhist monk on a meditation retreat or a couch-surfing, bong-smoking teenager would make for more minimalist, but probably less interesting, reads.

A compounding factor is the task itself. If you’re asked to provide a publicly digested account of a typical day, it takes monumental honesty and introspection to admit that half of it is spent in deep contemplation or, as in my case, taken up in daydreaming or plotting revenge against those who have wronged you.

As a result, most accounts become exercises in signalling and self-deception rather than searing honesty.

To be clear, this isn’t deliberate or cynical posturing. Much of it is unconscious.  

Behavioural economists and social scientists will tell you that we’re experts in kidding ourselves and misreporting.

There’s increasing evidence, for example, that we work less, and sleep more, than we actually think we do. But we tend to underreport it largely because it’s fashionable to sound like you’re busy and knackered the whole time.

And the things that make us most human are, of course, the hardest to share. Petty jealousies and frustrations, periodic boredom and deep sadness are automatically deleted as over-sharing or under-performing.

There are ways around this, of course. The Experience Sampling Method pioneered by Larson and Csikszentmihalyi sets off a beep at regular intervals and gets people to note activity and mood then and there.    

My suspicion is that if we got subjects to wear probation ankle monitors that solicited half hourly feedback, we’d get a better picture of what they were up to.  It would also have the added upside of mystifying their work colleagues.

For all the bias and accidental misreporting, there’s also a horrifying reality. Our current work environment leads us towards busyness over productivity and shallow work over the deep variety.  

Cal Newport’s Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World is a salutary reminder of this.  From our desktops to our emails to our propensity for meetings, there’s a concentrated assault on our ability, and desire, to concentrate on, and immerse ourselves in, anything for extended periods of time.

The fact that many of the columns tend towards dizzying levels of activity is a symptom of the madness of our current working world.    

And the reason for some of the visceral reactions is that we can see ourselves in the mirror and it doesn’t look pretty.

‘24 hours with’ is a frequently exhausting read because we’re leading exhausting lives. Like the Siberian Gulag, we’re letting the system dictate our lives, rather than taking control back.     

Fight the power, I say. But in the meantime, hang onto your hairpiece, because you’re going to see more action-packed accounts of lives lived at Mach One.

Right. I’m knackered and off for an extended period of navel-gazing.

Al Crawford is a strategist and was previously chief strategy officer of Clemenger BBDO Sydney.

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