How we lose control of our lives and what to do about it.
My family stayed at a lakeside cottage last summer where the only telephone was an old-fashioned rotary model. The cottage was so remote that there was no cell phone service, just the stolid black telephone sitting atop a tattered phone book on an end table next to a worn-out peach-colored couch.
I remember the first time I dialed that phone. It was morning. I’d gone out for a wake-me-up swim, poured myself a cup of coffee, and was sitting on the couch to call a friend to see if he and his kids might like to join my wife, my kids, and me that night at a minor league baseball game. There was no urgency to the call, no need for me to hurry.
What a fool I had become. I felt embarrassed at my automatic impatience. I had become a man in a hurry even when I had no need to hurry.
Yet as I started to dial, impatience flamed within me: After each number, I had to wait for the rotor to wind back to its starting point. It was so slow! And it made an irritating sound as it retraced its cycle, like a rusty metal drawer stuck on its runners: 5 . . . 4 . . . 2 . . . By the time I had laboriously cranked out the entire number, I was in a total snit. How could anyone still own such a slow phone? I fumed.
Then I caught myself. This was absurd. After talking to my friend, I redialed his number, timing how long it took me: 11 seconds exactly. As if putting my life in danger, those 11 slow seconds had annoyed me beyond reason. What a fool I had become. What a modern man. I felt embarrassed at my automatic impatience. I had become a man in a hurry even when I had no need to hurry.
As the vacation moved along, I began to change. I grew to appreciate what that old phone could teach me. The sound it made started to sound less like a stuck drawer and more like an old windmill still stoutly doing its work after all these years. I came to think of it as a wise counsel, ensconced on its end table like a Buddha cautioning me to take my time and enjoy, while they lasted, the summer, the childhood of my kids, the ripening of my marriage, and these best years of my life.
If you feel busier and in more of a hurry now than you’ve ever been before and wonder if you can keep up this pace much longer, you’re not alone. Cell phones, 24/7 e-mail, instant messaging, rushed mornings, endless car pools to kids’ soccer games, hurried mealtimes, and longer workdays. Without intending for it to happen or knowing how it got started, we find that we live in a rush we don’t want and didn’t create—or at least mean to create.
It’s not that being busy is intrinsically bad. If you’re busy doing what matters, then being busy is bliss. You’ve found a rhythm for your life that works for you. This world is bursting with possibilities; its energy can be contagious. If you catch the bug, you want to jump out of bed each day and get busy, not because you are run ragged by details or because you are keeping the wolf from your door, but because you are in love with this life.
But if being busy keeps you from doing what matters most to you, or if it leads you to do things you deem unwise, like getting angry at a rotary phone, then being busy has become a problem.
Deciding what matters to you most and focusing your attention on that isn’t easy, though. That’s because the selection of things to do has never been as broad, nor the thieves of time, attention, and mental energy as common or as clever as they are today. If you’re not wise to these thieves, it is likely that they will run you faster and faster leaving, you less and less time to do what you really want to do.
How to make this crazy world work to your advantage and not against you? I have invented (or reinvented) some terms to describe some of the strangeness of this modern life—the situations or emotions brought on in part by all the new technologies. Sometimes just becoming aware of the problems these terms describe allows you to combat them. Here are some specific suggestions:
Wasting time engaging with any screen—whether on a computer, video game, television, or BlackBerry. Held by a mysterious force, a person can sit long after the work has been done or the show is over, absently glommed onto the screen, not especially enjoying what he is doing but not being able to disconnect and turn off the machine. Example: “I was supposed to write that article, but instead I spent the whole afternoon screensucking.” Or, “I haven’t finished my PhD dissertation mainly because I spend so much time screensucking, pretending I’m doing actual research.”
Tip: This is a difficult problem to solve, because it is done unintentionally. Unfortunately, there is no “patch” to combat screensucking. The first step is insight: being aware that you are susceptible to it every time you log on or switch on. Then make structural changes—to your environment or behavior: put an alarm clock next to the device and set it to go off at the time you want to disconnect, move your screen to a different room, program your computer to beep every 10 minutes. Be creative and devise methods that work for you.
Leeches are people or projects that waste your time and attention, leaving you feeling depleted and wondering why you ever got into this line of work. Lilies are people or projects that, when you engage with them, make you feel fulfilled and satisfied, glad to be alive and doing what you’re doing.
Tip: Get rid of as many leeches as you can rather than try to complete them (in the case of projects) or make them happy (in the case of people). This may be hard because of habit, guilt, stubbornness, or fear. If you find yourself “friends” with someone who doesn’t behave like a friend, let her waste someone else’s time or hurt someone else’s feelings. If you are stubbornly persisting in trying to make a failed project succeed, consider how much more effectively you could otherwise spend your time. Too often we waste years trying to get good at what we’re bad at instead of putting our energy into what we’re good at. If you are simply in the habit of tolerating leeches, wake up! Give yourself permission to make the most of the short time you have on this planet. And cultivate as many lilies as you can.
Since most of us take on more than we can easily handle, it is especially difficult to keep track of everything. Doomdart is my word for an obligation you have forgotten about that suddenly pops into your consciousness like a poisoned dart. You may be cheerfully driving along in your car or happily making dinner when out of nowhere a forgotten obligation (your husband’s birthday present, the review of your friend’s proposal you promised to write) pierces your consciousness and spreads its toxins throughout your being so that within minutes you are anxious and distracted.
Tip: As soon as the doomdart hits you, make a plan in your mind of how you are going to take care of the problem. “I’ll take care of it later” is not a plan; the doomdart will stay stuck, secreting its poisons. You need to tell yourself when and how you are going to take care of it, and your internal monitor needs to okay the plan. Then the dart will fall out and you can go on without pain.
The unearthly tone a person’s voice takes on when he is reading e-mail while talking to you on the telephone. Although subtle, it is unmistakable. Some clever people at the MIT Media Lab have developed a program for monitoring your attention electronically as you speak on your cell phone. Called the “Jerk-O-Meter,” the device is not yet precise and still sounds a bit tongue-in-cheek. According to an AP report, it would “analyze speech patterns and voice tones to rate people—on a scale of 0 to 100 percent—on how engaged they are in a conversation.”
Tip: While rude, EMV is so common as to be routine. If you don’t want a person to do something else while he talks to you, simply point it out gently. That should be enough to bring the person back. If you are doing it yourself, consider how annoying it is when it is done to you. Or you can simply talk to someone else who is simultaneously doing e-mail.
Guilt over not having done enough is hardly new. John Milton reminded us and himself, “They also serve who only stand and wait,” as he felt guilty over his declining powers owing to blindness. That brilliant paragon of guilt Samuel Johnson tried to reassure himself that “no man is obliged to do as much as he can do.” But computer technology and its gigabytes of memory have directly and indirectly so extended the number of items a person must keep track of (a finite, but large number), not to mention can expect himself to keep track of (a huge, virtually infinite number), that the likelihood of missing something has skyrocketed. It is a 100 percent likelihood for most of us. This brings with it gigaguilt about missing something or disappointing someone, even when we know that keeping track of everything is impossible and having enough time to please everyone is equally impossible.
Tip: Like so many painful emotions, gigaguilt does not respond well to reason. Clearly, it is unreasonable to expect the impossible of yourself, yet many of us do. The best solution I know of is to supplement reason with structure: establish a system that can dictate for you what you will commit to and what you won’t. That way, you don’t have to decide on the spot each time. For example, you can make it a policy that you will serve on only one volunteer committee at a time. Or that you will take on only a certain number of clients, patients, or customers at a time. Or that you never take calls during dinner. Set a regular time that you call your mother so you don’t have to feel guilty the rest of the time and so that she can depend on getting your call.
Reserve time for what matters most to you, and if you feel guilty that you are not serving others when you are doing what matters to you, remind yourself that you would be of much less use to others if you did not do what matters most to you some of the time. You would become depressed, frazzled, impatient, resentful, and ineffective. Have a talk with yourself, or with someone else, to get settled with the fact that you cannot do everything for everybody or even do as much for others as you might like to do.
A weed inadvertently imported into the U.S. from Southeast Asia that sends down roots of 100 feet or more and is all but unkillable. Kudzu is the term I apply to the clutter and piles that invade where we work and where we live, the unstoppable, unkillable stream of unexpected minor requests from people everywhere that slow us down, the spam that infests our e-mail, the junk mail that overruns our snail mail, and the useless information that we continue to collect in spite of our best efforts not to.
Tip: A great antidote to physical kudzu is what managers call OHIO: only handle it once. When it comes to a document or journal or any concrete item, try your best to (1) respond to it right away; (2) put it in a labeled file, not a pile; or (3) throw it away. In the majority of instances, choice “3” is the best.
For requests that stream in from every direction, the best antidote is a blockade: don’t let them reach you. What you haven’t heard, you can’t feel guilty about not doing. You can create blockades in whatever fashion that suits you. Just don’t keep your door open to everyone. The open door was a nice idea even a decade ago; now it is like opening up the Hoover Dam.
I’ve treated ADD in my psychiatric practice since 1981. In the mid-’90s I began to see an upsurge in the number of people coming to me complaining of being chronically inattentive, disorganized, and overbooked. While some had the true, genetically transmitted syndrome of attention deficit disorder, most did not: they had an environmentally induced stand-in. Gemmelsmerch is my word for the forces that distract the mind or steal it away from what it wants to do or ought to be doing. It is as pervasive and powerful as gravity.
Highway accidents are high in gemmelsmerch, compelling drivers to slow down and gawk. A jackhammer outside your window is high in gemmelsmerch. Getting news that you will be audited by the IRS is high in gemmelsmerch. So is listening to angry rants on the radio. TV shows—or almost anything that appears on a screen—are high in gemmelsmerch.
Tip: Reducing gemmelsmerch in your environment and learning how to resist its pull are modern survival skills of the highest importance. Here are just a few examples of some of its day-to-day sources, along with possible ways to control or eliminate it:
The computer glitch you could spend the next three hours on fixing rather than doing the important work you’d love to postpone. Do the important work first. Prop an index card in front of you that reads do it now. Gemmelsmerch is like a riptide off a beautiful beach. If you are not warned of it, you may go swimming and never return.
Mail waiting to be opened. Set a fixed time to open your mail and stick to it. Unopened mail is so loaded with gemmelsmerch that it may be best to keep it in another room.
The telephone and cell phone. Turn them off. Limit the time you will take calls. For example, our pediatrician has a call-in hour every morning. He takes calls at other times only for emergencies. Decide if you truly want to be available constantly.
An open door that allows people to pop in. Close the door when you do not want to be interrupted. Put a sign on it that reads working: available at __ o’clock.
Other items on your to-do list that beckon whenever what you are working on becomes difficult or boring. Recognize this as a moment to take a break. Stand up, do a quick bit of exercise, have a glass of water, meditate for three minutes, then go back to what you were working on. Try not to allow yourself to abandon what you were doing
New ideas that pop into your mind while you’re working. Keep a pad next to you at all times. Use this to write down great ideas or mundane stuff you don’t want to forget (like buy a quart of milk on the way home) so that you can return to what you were doing.
E-mail—and Junk Time. You sit down at your desk fully intending to compose the important memo that’s due. When your computer boots up, instead of going straight to your word-processing program, you check in first with your e-mail and end up staying there for 45 minutes. To minimize this “junk time” (the time-stealing equivalent of Doritos that you gorge on, leaving little room for the main task), see tip for “Screensucking.”
The time of day when you are mentally at your freshest, most able to concentrate and think clearly, least burdened by annoyances and new tasks, most able to bring your entire mind to bear on a single task. For most people this is in the morning, hence the name. For others, however, it comes at midday or even the evening.
Tip: Know when your “morning” burst comes and make sure you use that time to full advantage, doing your most important, most difficult work.
Wanting what’s new, what’s the latest, what’s now, a person can become all but addicted to keeping up, second to second, with what’s “going on".
While there have always been people who crave information, there has never before been so much that is so readily available—CNN, the Internet, newspapers, radio, even those relics called books—that we feel starved when the information stops.
Wanting what’s new, what’s the latest, what’s now, a person can become all but addicted to keeping up, second to second, with what’s “going on,” relying totally on the judgment of others to select what belongs under that curious term. After a while, nothing goes on in the information addict’s life except what others have decided is going on in the world.
In another of the many paradoxes of modern life, info addicts can lose their own ability to make a difference in life because they are so busy keeping up to date on all the differences that other people are making.
Multitasking ineffectively. Multitasking originated as a term to describe what a computer does during the microseconds between keystrokes as you are typing. For most people, multitasking is exciting and sometimes necessary. But rarely is it as efficient or effective as devoting your full attention to one task.
Remember that your brain will not handle any one of the tasks you are attempting to multitask as effectively as it would if you were doing each task one at a time.
What most of us do is fraz. We multitask hurriedly, missing key bits of information, being impolite, or failing to produce our best work. That’s because the brain is actually switching attention rapidly back and forth from one task to another, so that activities just appear to be happening simultaneously.
Tip: Remember that your brain will not handle any one of the tasks you are attempting to multitask as effectively as it would if you were doing each task one at a time.
This beast pursues you every day. Wherever you go, the megaloctopus extends its tentacles, trying to trap you and keep you from doing what you’re trying to do. The megaloctopus is made up of all the people who want your time, all the tasks you’re supposed to get done, all the places you’re supposed to go, all the opportunities you possibly could pursue, all the temptations you try to resist, all the hopes you’ve ever had as well as all the fears—in short, all that may rise up and steal you away from the task you are trying to complete right now, in the present moment.
Tip: The best way to combat the megaloctopus is to know it’s there. Don’t fall into the trap of believing you ought to do everything you’re asked to do or could do. The megaloctopus depends upon your believing that. Practice saying, “Stop!” or “Enough!” You can do only what you can do, and you will do what you can do much more effectively if you’re not trying frantically to squeeze in more than you reasonably can. Cut those tentacles when they start to entwine you.
A combination of pissed-off and puzzled, “pizzled” denotes how you feel when a person, without either asking permission or providing an explanation, brings out a cell phone to make a call or answer a call while you are walking together, eating together, meeting together, riding together, or doing anything else together. A variant of the same emotion arises when a person at an adjacent table, booth, or seat does the same thing. As pizzle mounts, rage will ensue.
Tip: As modern life evolves, we will develop a new etiquette for such situations, but it is not yet clear what that will be. It may become as impolite to take a call on your cell when you are with someone as it would be to light up a cigarette in church. Or expedience may rule, and it will become polite to fall silent and wait while your companion takes care of the important business the cell phone is bringing in.
People have always struggled with problems of forgetfulness and losing things, but today’s rush and the gush of information have made these problems make millions believe they have early Alzheimer’s. The amount of data and items people have to remember and organize today exceeds what it has ever been before in history. What looks like forgetfulness derived from a neurological problem is really fuhgeddomania, forgetfulness derived from data overload. And what looks like a tendency to lose things is a result of people having more things to keep track of than a normal human brain can manage.
Tip: One solution is to delegate the tasks of remembering and organizing, where possible, and to add structure—lists, reminders, filing systems, computer programs. Placing certain items in the same place every time you finish using them helps combat the problem of loseophilia. And, once again, it is good to set a limit on how much you commit yourself to remembering or keeping track of.
The more emotion that enters into the picture, the better it is to have a human moment: a shared family dinner, a live meeting, a face-to-face conversation.
A human moment occurs when two or more people meet in person and connect with one another. Milling around in a shopping mall surrounded by other people does not qualify as a human moment. An electronic moment occurs when you meet others via the telephone, cell phone, or e-mail. Over the last decade, human moments have increasingly been replaced by electronic moments, so that people spend less time in one another’s physical presence.
The electronic moment is efficient and great for the transmission of data. But the human moment conveys far more information: tone of voice, body language, facial expressions, and all the nonverbal cues that constitute such a vital part of human communication and connectedness. The more emotion that enters into the picture, the better it is to have a human moment: a shared family dinner, a live meeting, a face-to-face conversation.
For at the heart of making the most of life today is not good organization in the end—although that is helpful—but the ability to identify and then treasure and protect our connections to what we care about: people, places, activities, pets, a spiritual practice, a piece of music, even objects that are dear to us. If there are too many connections, none will flourish. Pick the ones that matter and nourish them religiously: consciously and deliberately preserve time for a family dinner, or lunch with a friend, exercise, playing the instrument you love, going to your child’s play, weeding the garden. In so doing, you’ll nurture the positive emotional state that will free you to deploy your time, attention, and energy toward creating the life you want.
Edward M. Hallowell, MD, a psychiatrist and ADD expert, is co-author of the best-selling Driven to Distraction (drhallowell.com).
From CrazyBusy, by Edward M. Hallowell, MD. © 2006 by Edward M. Hallowell, MD. Reprinted by arrangement with The Random House Publishing Group.