Why feeling overwhelmed can actually be a mind trick

The myth of information overload

I know that can seem hard to believe - but trust me on this!
One of the marks of modern life is the nagging sense of all the things that need to be done. The list never seems to finish and it is so easy to feel overwhelmed and exhausted thinking about all you have to do. But does that have to be the case at all?  This 18 minute TED talk by David Allen gives a helpful perspective on how to deal with the feelings of overwhelm and never-ending distractions we all experience at one time or another in our lives.

One of the key points David Allen seeks to get across is that we don't actually need more time, but what we need is more room. Or in other words, enough space in your mind to be fully present in the here and now with what is most important to you at this moment to get your most important work done.

When we use the word work we mean work in the most general sense.  So work can be bringing about change in anything that matters to you.  From as small as changing a light bulb to as significant as changing the career or even spiritual direction of your life. The next question to think through is what is most important now in this moment?

Our brains if we rely on them alone can become exhausted and paralysed by all the potential choices and information we have to deal with. There is simply not enough room for our conscious minds to handle all that comes our way in even a single day. Neuroscience has shown that without external help our conscious minds can only deal with the staggeringly low figure of 4 items at any one time. That is why we so easily fall into the trap of feeling overwhelmed!

But, according to Allen, we delude ourselves if we think our basic problem is information overload.  If that was the case then our brains would literally explode every time we walked into a library. But they don't because every book in a library is carefully organised according to topic and so we only go to those that are most relevant to us at the present time.

Even more intriguing is to reflect on how one of the most relaxing places to be is in nature! The opposite, or sensory deprivation, with no external stimulation whatsoever can also be incredibly stressful.  That is why solitary confinement can be a form of torture. Nature has more data and information to integrate than almost anywhere else, but it is no where near as stressful to us because it does not have a huge amount of actions or potential actions screaming at us. When there are potential actions in nature then they are well defined and obvious - a charging bear or sudden thunderstorm for example. In those cases we know what to do and we have to act more or less immediately.

Compare that to dealing with an inbox of maybe hundreds if not thousands of emails. Many may be trivial and of little significance, but there also may be some that have huge implications on how I spend the next few days, weeks, months or even years! It is not the information itself, but the potential personal meaning and relevance that can be so overwhelming.

In a future blog post we are going to look at practical steps to get out of overwhelm. David Allen touches on this more in the video.

For now what are your reflections and thoughts on seeing how overwhelm can actually be more of a mind trick than reality?

Also see:

Are You Out Of Your Mind?

Why Making A Decision Can Be So Hard

Are You Being Efficient Or Effective?

How Do I Become Truly Effective?

Why We Need Timeless Principles To Be Truly Effective

What Does It Actually Mean To Be Effective?

Are you out of your mind?

That might well seem like a strange question for me to ask, especially as I work as a psychiatrist! It is actually from this 18 minute video by David Allen, who has spent many decades researching how the most productive people use their time in the least stressful way possible. I have been following David Allen's work for approaching a decade and found his insights enormously helpful. I think you will too.

Here are three ways our brains can help or hinder us:

David Allen's first main insight is that the incredibly complex and marvellous brains we have been blessed with are in fact very poor at organising the different priorities in our lives. If you need to consciously remember something, remind yourself about it, decide how important it is compared to everything else going on or manage your relationships, your brain is in fact very clumsy. Allen's figure of our brains only holding 4 items in those categories at any one time is infinitesimally tiny compared to the billion bits of information our brain is processing internally and externally in the environment around us right now. At medical school over 30 years ago we were taught the conscious mind holds between 5 to 9 bits of information. With our increasingly complex world and all the distractions we have to deal with, as well as the overwhelm of information, it means our conscious attention is severely curtailed. If you don't believe me just try getting through your day with a shopping list of 7 items in your head and not writing them down somewhere! Without an external up to date system in place to routinely store, retrieve and review what is most important to us at any one time, we are continually at risk of just reacting to whatever is the newest thing or most pressing demand (the latest and loudest).
Allen summarises this with a major principle of stress-free productivity:

"Your mind is for having ideas and not for holding them."

Your mind has incredible potential and resources, but it is a very poor organising system or office! That is why you have to get out of your mind!

The second major insight is that we are the most productive and engaged when we are fully present in the moment with no other distractions pulling at our attention. The phrase 'mind like water' captures this with the metaphor of water being highly flexible, fluid, in balance and always completely appropriately engaged with the environment. If you imagine a calm pool of water perfectly still then the water will respond to whatever you throw into it in just the right way. Throw a small pebble and you get a small ripple. Throw a large rock and you make bigger waves. When I am fully present and a challenge or opportunity comes into my life I can respond cleanly without too much or too little emotion. I just respond with the right amount of engagement and activity that the challenge requires. I don't react or under react. I just do what needs to be done and move on.

The third major insight is understanding our basic problem is not a lack of time. Allen challenges us with our tendency to say we don't have enough time by provocatively asking, 'How much time does it take to have a good idea? How much time does it take to be strategic? How much time to be present and loving with someone?'

The issue is not about having more time, but  instead having enough space in your mind to be fully present in the here and now with what is most important to you. To be fully engaged in the present moment is a powerful place to be. It is relaxed focus and situational awareness of what is going on around you. Being in such a state also means you are in the best possible state to do deal with the unexpected.

These three insights are radical concepts that can take a lifetime to fully apply.

There is a lot more that can be said about this, but for now what questions or comments do you have about David Allen's insights?

 

 

An incredibly brief history of medicine

A journey with Dr John Geater

The British National Health Service (NHS) reaches 70 years of age on 5 July 2018. There is much to be thankful for and celebrations to mark this anniversary are taking place all over the United Kingdom. In that time there have been previously unimaginable changes in medical treatment. In the UK it is remarkable how the NHS has evolved to continue to provide universal health care for the whole population, while still being free at the point of delivery. However, in the overall history of medicine the NHS is relatively recent.

This 30 minute video by John Geater seeks to summarise the history of medicine and explain how our understanding has changed and evolved over the last 2,500 years or so.

Of course such a brief overview will have major gaps, make significant assumptions and miss out many details, but I think it provides a helpful summary. There are 10 significant observations:

What is it like to have a stroke?

How the two sides of the brain function so differently

Jill Bolte Taylor is a Harvard-trained neuroanatomist who experienced a severe bleed in the left hemisphere of her brain in 1996. By the afternoon she could not walk, talk, read, write, or recall any of her life. It took eight years for her to completely recover all of her physical function and thinking ability. This 18 minute talk from 2008 was given twelve years after her experience. Such was the impression she made it was the first TED talk to go viral on the Internet:

This is a deeply personal account of what it is like to experience a sudden stroke. As the left side of her brain became increasingly affected she suddenly lost the familiar 'brain chatter' we all experience and she was plunged into inner silence. She writes:.....

The Master and His Emissary

How the left brain has come to dominate Western culture

You can make a pretty strong case for saying that the human brain is the most complex object in the entire universe. It contains 100 billion nerve cells (called neurones). Each of these neurones contains a vast electrochemical complex and powerful micro-data-processing system. As complex as each cell is it would fit on the head of a pin! And in spite of all the research in the last century there is much we still do not understand.

Someone who has thought about this a lot is Iain McGilchrist. He is a psychiatrist, doctor, writer and former Oxford literary scholar. (We were also contemporaries at medical school in Southampton in the 1980s, but our paths did not often cross). In this fascinating animated 11 minute lecture from the Royal Society of Arts McGilchrist explains the main themes from his book, "The Master and His Emissary". It is about the functioning of the human brain. His in depth training in both the arts and sciences makes him uniquely qualified to write on this subject.

McGilchrist has produced a huge masterpiece, and this article and video can only give a simple broad overview. However, one of his key points is that the implications of brain science are highly significant in understanding the development of Western culture.

The main focus of discussion is around the two cerebral hemispheres. By carefully reviewing over 50 years of brain research McGilchrist explains how a simplistic understanding of the left side being just concerned with, for example, reason and language and the right side just with emotion and visual imagery is too simplistic. Both sides of the brain have elements of these abilities, but it is also true that there is a significantly greater emphais of function on one side compared to the other. The purpose of the corpus callosum that connects the two sides of the brain is to inhibit the over emphais of one side of the brain. However, the corpus callosum has been shown to have got less influential over time and the left hemisphere has become in our day and age much more dominant.

Why does this matter?

Podcast #041: How can faith and prayer enhance mental health?

I was recently pleasantly surprised to be invited by a prestigious financial institution to speak on the subject of how prayer and faith can enhance mental health. It was a wonderful privilege.

On this podcast I unpack the main elements of my talk along with exploring how money is such a helpful analogy in pointing to understanding spiritual treasure.

In particular we explore:

How faith and prayer enhance mental health as I am able to delight in God for who He is rather than what I can get out of Him.

The key to this is understanding and experiencing grace in my life.

How faith rather than being a vague and nebulous concept is actually incredibly specific. Indeed our entire global financial system is based on faith.

Why faith can only enhance mental health if it is based on something specific and reliable.

How the highest form of prayer is delight.

The problems with defining mental health.

How the Hebrew word 'shalom' conveys the highest form of mental health as complete wellbeing or multi-dimensional thriving and fulfilment.

For more on this also see:

How can faith and prayer enhance mental health?

Podcast #033: Practical ways to find joy through disappointment.

Podcast#032: How to know joy when life feels tough.

Podcast #013: How to grow in resilience.

Podcast #011 Money.

Why does a loving God allow pain and suffering?

Podcast #007 Religion

Podcast #018: Spiritual Maturity.

The power of the right question

Learning from a skiing accident

I now suspect it was bound to happen sooner or later. I was recently on a skiing holiday and managed to break a bone in my left arm.

As I write this I am plastered up with a sling and can just about type with a single finger! At this point it would be so easy to get frustrated and disappointed with life, myself and the universe.

I could ask myself questions like, "Why am I such a bad skier? Why did I allow myself to go on that slope? Why did I not stay back that afternoon and rest rather than going out to ski again? How am I going to deal with all the inconvenience and hassle this will cause? I haven't got time to be unwell. Haven't I got more important things to do than just stop to recover? What have I done to deserve this?"

The problem with questions like that is they are focused on the past or outside of anything I can control. They put me at risk of getting into a negative defeatist spiral. By putting me in a victim mindset they can so easily lead to depressive thinking.

The human brain is so powerful that asking questions like that to myself will only cause me to find reasons to reinforce my situation. In other words what you focus on will only get bigger. Argue for your limitations and you will invariably be right. Argue for your possibilities and options, then you will be right as well. The choice is yours. There is a much better way.  This does not just apply to skiing accidents, but to so much else in life.

Fortunately I was able to not go down that negative road and instead ask myself a better, more future focused question: What does this now make possible?

In addition to that I was able to join that question with two true statements:...

Preventing permanent solutions to temporary problems

Challenging 4 myths about suicide

I have a friend who over 10 years ago made a serious suicide attempt. His wife had called me at around 8.30am saying he had left home very early without speaking to her. She knew he had a lot on his mind and was worried about him. He had not responded to her repeated calls or texts. He was not at his office. We agreed the police needed to be called. Thankfully his attempt was unsuccessful and all these years later he is in a much more positive place.

Sadly that is not the case for the people mentioned in this short 1 minute video below:

The tragic fact is that 84 men commit suicide in the UK every week. Suicide is the leading cause of death in the UK for those under 50.

The Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) is a U.K based charity dedicated to preventing male suicide. They offer support and focus on changing the culture that prevents men from seeking help when they need it.

Here are 4 myths about how to respond to someone who you suspect may be considering suicide:....

An unspoken and hidden epidemic?

A permanent solution to a temporary problem

One of the great tragedies of modern life is the increasing numbers of people who feel life is not worth living. It is a difficult subject that gets relatively little coverage and yet when you look at the statistics it is quite staggering how widespread an issue it is in our increasingly complex and challenging world.

According to Dr Catherine Le Gals- Camus, a former WHO Assistant -Director General, Non-communicable Diseases and Mental Health,  "Suicide is a largely preventable public health problem, causing almost half of all violent deaths as well as economic costs in the billions of dollars. World-wide, more people die from suicide than from all homicides and wars combined. There is an urgent need for co-ordinated and intensified global action to prevent this needless toll. For every suicide death there are scores of family and friends whose lives are devastated emotionally, socially and economically."

I find the quote that more people die from suicide than all homicides and wars combined staggering and will need to verify its accuracy, even though it appears to come from a reputable source. The World Health Organisation quotes worldwide approximately 1 million people die by suicide every year and that this is set to rise to 1.5 million by 2020. Even so there can be no doubt of the tragic consequences of such a final act. (See Rick Warren and The Secret Anguish of Major Depressive Disorder).

Suicide rates tend to increase with age, but there has recently been an alarming increase in suicidal behaviours amongst young people aged 15 to 25 years old, worldwide. With the exception of rural China, more men than women commit suicide, although in most places more women than men attempt suicide.

Suicide is now the leading cause of death for men aged 15-49. Men are three times more likely than women to take their own lives. They accounted for four out of five suicides in 2015.

Key factors associated with suicide in men include:...

How to get better at almost anything

4 lessons from sport and music

This short 5 minute video helpfully illustrates what is needed to get better at practically any skill. While the focus is on physical activities such as playing an instrument or throwing a ball, the same principles are assumed to apply to any field of endeavour you might want to get better at.

In a fast changing and increasingly complex world the need to learn new skills and to be able to get better is vital if not essential. Hence practice becomes very important if we are going to improve in any skill and do that with speed and confidence.

To help us understand how our minds work, the speaker helpfully distinguishes between two kinds of brain tissue - the grey matter and white matter. It is the grey matter that does the 'work' in terms of processing information and directing signals and sensory stimuli to the other brain cells. Meanwhile the white matter is made up of mostly fatty tissue and nerve fibres. When we move our bodies then information needs to travel from our brain's grey matter down our spinal cord through a chain of nerve fibres called axons to our muscles.

So what happens to the inner workings of our brains when we practice a skill?....