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?

 

 

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 #042: What does it take to live a meaningful life?

A conversation with Dr John Geater MBE

Dr John Geater is at the time of writing aged 73. He is married to Jane and has three adult children. He is a medical doctor and has worked in Bhutan, New Zealand and in England. In 2006 he received an MBE from the Queen for his work in setting up the postgraduate medical education charity, PRIME (Partnerships in International Medical Education). He has taught holistic medical education in 26 different countries around  the world. Just before Christmas 2017 he was diagnosed with metastatic pancreatic cancer.

Do join us in this  fascinating podcast conversation as we discuss John's life and explore questions such as:

How do you respond when bad things happen to you?

How do you make sense of being diagnosed with cancer three times in your life?

How to embrace life's mysteries when things don't go the way you want or expect.

We also ask John:

What was it like running a leprosy hospital in Bhutan at the age of 25?

What would you say to someone who has a terminal illness and is scared?

To explore with us from Bronnie Ware's book the five regrets of the dying:
I wish I lived a life true to myself and not what was expected of me.
I wish I had not worked so hard.
I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.
I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
I wish I had let myself be happier.

What he is looking forward to in the life to come?

You may also find of interest:

Podcast #017: The Last Taboo Subject?

Podcast #028: The God I Don't Understand

Podcast #029: The Literal End Of The World?

Podcast #032: How To Know Joy When Life Feels Tough

Podcast #033: Practical Ways To Find Joy Through Disappointment

How Would You Define Success Part 3

When science demonstrates truth is stranger than fiction

It is a commonly held assumption among many people that faith in God is incompatible with a scientific world view. Our largely secular media would have us believe that science and faith in a universal creator God is an irreconcilable contradiction. (See We're All Materialists Now!).Yet the more closely you examine the evidence the more you realise this does not have to be the case at all.

Brian Enderle holds graduate degrees in both science and theology. In this 13 minute TED talk he explains how scientific understanding of the universe is even more amazing and fantastic than we could ever imagine.

The more you look at the findings the harder it is not to use hyperbole and extreme descriptions. Take the finding of how much of atoms are empty space. In case you were wondering a single atom is apparently a million times smaller than a human hair. Within an atom there is, according to Enderle, 99.9999999999999% empty space! That means everything around us that appears solid, physical and real is actually practically all empty space! We assume because atoms are so tiny and so numerous objects appear solid to us, but in fact they are not!

What does this have to do with faith?.....

Why having margin is not just about more time

4 important areas of margin

"I need more time!" How often have you said that to yourself? Its frequently how I feel. So much to do and apparently so little time to do what needs to be done. And yet when I have found myself with more time available, I've also found myself too exhausted or distracted to make significant headway with the different projects that I have told myself are important to me. When that happens it is easy to feel guilty or be too hard on oneself. Maybe part of the reason for this is because it is more then than just a time issue.

Part of the problem comes because we don't grasp that we have overloaded ourselves in a number of different ways. Talking about needing more time is way too simplistic.

Here are some examples. I am guilty of all of them on one occasion or another:

Can the right form of rest actually make you more productive?

Three life changing insights

Everyone seems agreed that we live in an overwhelming world with far too much to do and too little time to do what needs to be done. With our busy frenetic lifestyles there is always one more email to write, one more phone call to make, or one more task that could be done. Our electronic devices never switch off and we can feel the same way. The more productive I become then the more work I create for myself! I can feel like the proverbial hamster on a wheel going faster and faster just to keep still.

But could there be a better way? Could the secret to better productivity be found not in getting even faster, and doing more and more, but in learning to rest better?

Its more than likely that you, the reader, is a knowledge worker who has to produce results not physically with your hands and manual labour, but with your mind and greater clarity of thinking. However, there are certain assumptions that govern the way we look at how we produce as knowledge workers. Here are three assumptions we make. We assume:

  • knowledge is produced rather than discovered or revealed.
  • The amount of work that goes into an idea determines how important it is.
  • The creation of ideas can be organised and systematised.

The results of such thinking is:

  • We think of over-work as a virtue
  • We believe hard labour rather than contemplation is the source of great ideas and breakthroughs.
  • We assume success comes from being hard driven and work-obsessed to the exclusion of everything else.

So when it comes to rest, who has got the time for that?

Here are three surprising insights about rest that have also been confirmed by experience and neuroscience:...

Do you need more margin in your life?

Managing yourself in an overloaded world

So much to do and so little time to do it! That seems like the cry and experience of our day and age. With such an explosion of choice there is no limit it seems to what I can, have, do and fill my time with. But where do I put the limits? Should there be limits? How do I decide what is really important or trivial? What should I do now or leave for another day or time? That is why the concept of margin is so vital.

For me with a recent fracture of my wrist, and needing to take time off work, I have had to slow myself down considerably.  What seemed urgent and essential on one occasion feels less so now. At the same time I have started to slowly appreciate the importance of having margin or space in my life. It is something I find myself continually having to remind myself about. As my pace gradually begins to pick up I am reminded of the words of King Solomon (who certainly had a lot to occupy and distract him!), "Better one hand with tranquility than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind." (Ecclesiastes 4:6)

So what is margin?....

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:...

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?....