Coping with your crazy busy life
Coping with your crazy busy life
Dr. Edward Hallowell, psychiatrist and founder of The Hallowell Center for Cognitive and Emotional Health, was a faculty member at Harvard Medical School in the 1990s when he began to see an upsurge in the number of people who complained about being chronically inattentive, disorganized and overbooked. Many came to him wondering if they had Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). While some did, most did not. Instead, they had what he called “a severe case of modern life.” This imitator was not true attention deficit disorder, but rather an environmental stand-in.
Now a renowned author (SHINE: Using Brain Science to Get the Best from Your People, Married to Distraction, and co-author of the best-selling Driven to Distraction), Dr. Hallowell talked with BeWell about how the hectic pace of modern life has led our society to suffer from broader, culturally-induced ADD. Dr. Hallowell explores this phenomenon in his book, CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap! In the following interview, we have taken the liberty of incorporating key excerpts from this examination of our frenzied lives and the ways we can better manage how we really want to live.
Why do we like being “crazy busy”?
On a physiological level, being “crazy busy” makes people feel important. If you are busy, then you must be in demand. This is not necessarily true, of course. And, on a physiological level, you get a rush each time you speed through something. You can get hooked on that feeling and become an adrenaline junkie. Speed is a form of ecstasy. In short, we get off on it, so we crave it and then start to demand it.
Modern life makes us feel as if we can be everywhere and do everything and it gives us magical tools that heighten the illusion. Watch the modern mother coordinating the schedules of three children, her career, her pet, and herself: how did she ever do it before cell phones, email and voicemail? As harried as she is, she is not bored. A part of her feels like a master of her universe, making good on a difficult task.
So, what’s the downside?
Pushing the limits of how much we can do is exhilarating. However, doing too much too fast can be exhausting, misguided, and potentially dangerous — for instance, cell phones while driving. In our overloaded world, time and attention can be depleted before the day’s work has even begun. The quality of our work diminishes with speed. The faster you do something, the less well you do it. When you’re up, you ride this fast life like a surfer atop a great wave, but when you’re down you wipe out.
Could you explain the “C-state” and the “F-state,” and talk about that critical moment in-between?
You are in the “C-state” when your performance is effective and your temper is even: you feel calm, cool or collected. When your performance is ineffective and your temper unpleasant, you are in the “F-state”: feeling frenzied, frustrated or flustered. We often move from one state to another without realizing that these two states are separated by a precious interlude of warning. To acquire the skill of identifying the interlude when you’re in it, all you have to do is know that it exists. During the interlude, if you listen, you will say to yourself: “I’m about to lose it.” Don’t take the bait: back away, go outside, take a break. Listening to that voice can save a career, a marriage, or at least a day.
Is “time management” or “attention management” the goal?
Most current advice related to the problem of modern life focuses on the need to get organized. While disorganization is an important problem, it is not the root of the matter. You can be very well organized and still feel overwhelmed by modern life. There is so much you must do each day, and on top of that so much you could do, that your attention can be split and head off in many directions at once, like water from a garden hose whose nozzle has been set on wide spray. Instead, it is best to set your nozzle on jet stream. Focus your attention in one direction with full force.
You “pay with your attention.” The idiom “to pay attention” has never been more apt, because the cost of your attention has never been this high. The cost is all that you must deny your attention — a dizzying list of other readily available targets. We are seduced, tantalized, and subliminally redirected by extraneous stimuli. People become victims of their own enthusiasm. All you have to do is get on to Google and in seconds you’ve found 23 things you want to do. We must train ourselves to stay on task as much as the world is training you to go off task.
What is the value of accepting limits?
You are far less likely to “get into trouble” if you accept limits. This concept is obvious with things like food and alcohol; we understand that when we eat or drink too much we put ourselves at risk. The risks are less obvious with commitments — but equally as dangerous. Know that keeping track of everything is impossible and having enough time to please everyone is equally impossible. Be careful not to over commit.
Early in my career, I learned that I had a maximum. As time went on I gained skill, my maximum increased, but there was always a maximum beyond which I could not work well. I learned to sense when I reached it. I learned that if I let the job control me, if I responded to every request immediately, I was doomed. If I took control, let my instincts, knowledge and experience guide me and followed a plan, then I could get the job done well.
Do you have suggestions for gaining control?
The great trap for overachieving populations, such as Stanford’s, is the illusion of not having control. I know the first thing I would hear from many of your readers is: “I understand the principles, but I have no choice. My boss, my work, my family demand it.” I would respond by saying, “You have more control than you think.” You will get your more important work done if you realize how much control you give away when you make yourself available to others on a 24/7 on-call basis — a boundary that is far too porous.
Words of advice?
You must choose. You must prioritize. In order to do well and be happy, you must say, to many people and activities, “No, thank you.” In this era, you must deliberately preserve and cultivate your most valuable connections to people, activities and whatever else is most important to you. As you take back control and lead a sane life, you become the person you really want to be. You will enjoy — while they last — the childhoods of your kids, the ripening of your marriage, and these best years of your life. You will give yourself permission to make the most of the short time you have on this planet.