People often share with me that they feel overwhelmed, that their life is out of control, that there are too many demands and not enough time. These feelings aren’t unique and are increasingly common in our information-rich world. Let me share some simple things neuroscience tells us can help us get our lives back under control. In this section I’ll share some things I do personally, and later I’ll share things I’ve found helpful when necessary.
Be Average, Be Simple
I make lists. Gosh, do I make lists. Some stay in my head and most of them get down on paper. A few go onto the computer and even then they might stay on paper. Anyway, perhaps, like me, lists are helpful to you. I learned to make lists by starting with simple ones. I wrote down only two things, made them easy to do and rewarded myself for doing them. The rewards were also simple. One reward I still use is simply stopping what I’m doing, taking a deep breath, closing my eyes and letting myself relax into my chair for about a minute. If you’re thinking this doesn’t sound like much, you’re absolutely correct — it’s nothing at all. That means there’s no reason for you to not do it and every reason to go ahead and do it.
Stay on Track
The list provides my goals. Next I put down a start time and how long I think it will take to accomplish (and I pad the time involved liberally). I don’t write down a stop time and there’s a reason for that. What I do write down is a break time and how long my breaks will be (I also pad this liberally). I use these break times to evaluate my progress (I’m gentle with myself), and (very important!) I decide if the goal is still worth achieving. The challenge (for me, anyway) is being honest with myself. I know from my studies that recognizing I’ve outgrown a goal is a sign of maturity and wisdom, not failure, and continuing to focus on something I no longer value is foolishness. Sometimes I just don’t feel like being mature and wise, though, and that’s a real sign I need a break (don’t you think?).
Overwhelm Me Not!
Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by everything on my plate. That feeling — more than anything else — is a signal that I have to objectively look at my list. I find out what task I’m supposed to be working on right then. Then I take a moment to balance and center myself, take a deep breath then go back to the task at hand.
When It’s Done, It’s Done
I keep my list with me. My personal choice is 3×5 index cards, a habit I got into when I was a teenager (ask me about studying with Master Logician John Leslie sometime). I don’t use a smartphone or some such because the act of writing on an index card helps me to remember. I have a separate index card for each task. This allows me to conceptualize and view each task separately.
Two things come from this:
- One, I’m not going back to the same well for each task.
- Two, being able to “tear up” the card when the task is done is (for me) gratifying.
That second part is a biggie: it’s a definite sign and demonstration that that task is completed, over, done with. Yeeha, time to celebrate (and I do). If nothing else, physically carrying a tasklist with you allows you to check things off when they’re done. And when they’re done, they’re done. I can always come up with ways to make a completed task better (so clever, me. I love to make work for myself, don’t you?) and when I do it becomes a new item on the list, not a reopening of a completed task. Few things are as cognitively exhausting as thinking you’re done with something then having to go back to it again and again and again.
Successful Multitaskers are Serialtaskers
I prioritize my tasks and recognize my limits, a kind of “Task A is my main task and I know when I’m tired of it I can do less demanding tasks B and C. Then once I get tired of them I can go back to task A refreshed.”
I group tasks that require different skills in my day. For example, let’s take task A as doing financials. Task B might be answering 2-3 emails and task C might be checking in with a co-worker via the phone. The important item in these three tasks is that they utilize (hence exhaust) different mental skills. Exhaust one mental skill, give that part of your brain a rest and spend some time on a completely different type of task.
Multitasking – I started by limiting myself to three things at a time and discovered I was much more productive. When I could handle three tasks easily I added a fourth and so on. Now consider the figure above. Notice that task 1 stops before task 2 starts and so on? That’s because few (very few!) people can truly do more than one thing at a time. What they do is time-slice. They do one thing then another, then go back to the former and so on.
The trick is to recognize what are interruptions and what truly deserves your attention. Interruptions that truly require your attention are called meaningful noise and are a study in themselves. So when I multitask I’m really serialtasking and I congratulate myself for each task I spend devote myself to (for however long I’m on it). Sometimes it’s just a glass of water, a cup of coffee or a walk outside. Again, this reward is for spending time on a task, not just completing it. I decided a long time ago to take back control of my life.
Maybe some of the above will work for you, as well. Later I will share six simple things neuroscience tells us can help people take back control of their life.