|The Scream by Edvard Munch - 1893|
My oldest daughter, who has two small children and works part-time as an ER nurse is forever complaining how she can’t keep up and she feels like she is becoming ADHD. At work and at home she is always juggling multiple tasks that compete for her attention and leave her feeling frustrated and out of control. The brain was not meant to be stressed to such an extreme degree by the amount of multitasking and information processing that is required today. Ninety-eight percent of people do not manage multi-tasking well and feel uncomfortable as a result. Face it: most brains are just not wired for it. Studies have shown that high multitaskers have difficulty filtering out irrelevant information and they have diminished organizational skills. They also have more difficulty switching between tasks. Multitasking involves different mental patterns than mono-tasking. Attention is spread thin and stress escalates even as we try to demonstrate that we are juggling it all just fine.
Technology, which is supposed to make our lives easier, has proved to be a double-edged sword. I can remember back in the 80s when I bought my first apple IIe computer. Hardly anyone I knew owned a computer. That was for geeks. There was no social media. If you wanted to communicate with friends or family, you had to go visit them, pick up a phone or sit down and write a letter. Every task you can think of took much longer than it does today because processes were often manual and relied heavily on human beings. As a result, the pace of life was much slower—yes, perhaps inefficient. But it was easier to focus on a single task and complete it successfully. News and entertainment were not 24 hours a day. You were not tethered to a cell phone, iPad or computer throughout your day and you had no fear of being incommunicado. Of course, there is no doubt that technology also greatly enhances our lives in many ways. The problem is it’s been too much, too fast. We have not yet learned how to filter the mountain of information that is instantaneously available to us. We have not figured out how to navigate all the avenues of knowledge and expression that advanced technology provides.
So how do we stop the world, slow it down to a pace that our brains can manage?
- First of all, in EVERY day there has to be at least a few precious minutes of silence that are all your own. No matter what the conditions of your life are or the number of stressors, there has to be time where you can connect with yourself and shut out all the demands, noise and people around you. You are not much use to yourself or anyone else, if you can’t be comfortable in your own skin. Yoga, meditation, prayer or ritual is a good place to start to build self-awareness. Or maybe it’s something as simple as sipping a cup of tea and staring at the wall. My husband likes early morning silence, a cup of coffee, and the newspaper. Find yourself a few moments of peace every day.
- Organize yourself and tasks to avoid stress. Don’t procrastinate. Anticipate. Writing lists of tasks and keeping track of status gives you a sense of control. Have your fingertips on all the information you need to run your life—links, passwords, processes, deadlines. Have it organized and easy to find.
- Avoid information overload. Cut back on print and TV news, email, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. Set a time limit. Develop a “filter” that allows you to quickly scan and separate the wheat from the chaff. Learn to click that Delete key. Unsubscribe from email newsletters that you don’t really need. Do a brain dump of project information once a project is completed so you can turn your focus on the next project. Give this whole information thing some serious thought and nip and tuck it every place you can. You have to decide what is and is not essential.
- Schedule your day whether at work or at home. Do the best you can to arrange time to suit your objectives. If it makes sense to reschedule so you can focus on a project, do it. If possible, avoid meetings and commitments which are not useful and derail your focus.
- Get over the notion that multitasking is a sign of accomplishment. The more you try to juggle, the more ineffective you become. Multitasking is a great way to scramble your brain. Eventually you lose the ability to filter out what is irrelevant. Instead, analyze. Prioritize. Cut down on as many distractions as possible and focus on a task. Don’t commit yourself to more projects or tasks than you can reasonably manage.
- Aim to use the least amount of effort in everything you undertake. This doesn’t mean you cut corners; it means you learn to think smart.
- Find creative outlets – writing, music, art, crafts, gardening, and so on. Choose something that you find enjoyable and relaxing. Creativity charges your battery and it’s cheaper than Prozac.
- Fit physical exercise into your day, especially if you are desk bound. I admit to being lazy, but I try to accommodate exercise.
- Watch your diet. Figure out ways to eat healthy that don’t involve a lot of work if you’re tired and don’t have the time. Get a crockpot. Get someone else to do the cooking. In any event, have a plan because the minute you walk across the threshold and into your kitchen all your good intentions are going to fly out of the window.
- Inflict some organization on your environment. Whenever your workplace or your home becomes cluttered and disorganized, you need to be able to recognize that you’ve reached critical mass. Everything does not need to be perfect, but there is a point beyond which the amount of disorder makes it difficult to function.
- Avoid random information stuffing. Having worked as a technical writer and supervisor for many years, I am aware of the importance of organizing information so that it can be easily processed and assimilated by the end-user. Well, YOU are an end-user. You should never accept information into your own brain that isn’t broken down into logically organized, concise chunks. The brain you were born with may not have been blessed with the best wiring, but your education and how you choose to organize information trains your brain. It’s got to be organized in a way that allows you to quickly retrieve the information you need. I imagine there are classes that help you learn to manage memory and improve brain function. All I know is that the brain works just like the hard drive on a computer; if you don’t organize it properly, you can never find anything.
- Delegate to your spouse, your children, and your coworkers. It is sometimes hard to let go of things and entrust them to others, but it has to be done. Most people will be all too happy to let you do all the work. At home or work, there has to be a conscious sharing of responsibilities.
- Get an adequate amount of sleep. If you are having difficulties getting to sleep and staying asleep, break down the cause and investigate healthy remedies. Everyone suffers from a bout of insomnia from time to time. In my case, it is usually caused by caffeine late in the afternoon or evening. Some swear by Melatonin; others try meditation or smartphone apps that feature soothing sounds. I usually get up and read for an hour and if I’m really desperate, I take an Advil PM. Check with your doctor and try to find non-drug solutions.
Okay, so is that more information than you want to deal with? Fine. Take one suggestion and work on it. Think of life as a crazy quilt of multi-colored patches. Grab a corner and start working on it. Think about the structure of your life. Little by little a pattern is worked out that you will find satisfying. You owe this to yourself.