Stop Being Your Own Worst Enemy

Stop Being Your Own Worst Enemy

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Say Goodbye to Stress


Stop Being Your Own Worst Enemy



Have you ever wondered why you feel so discombobulated when you try to do too many things at once? It’s because you overload your neuro-circuitry and everything in your brain goes awry. A bottleneck occurs in your frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for focus, attention and working memory among other things, so information no longer squeezes through to other parts of the brain. An increase of neural firing is desperately needed, but instead, activity fizzles. Worse, your brain tries to divide and conquer. Activity that normally runs through both halves of the brain at once — presumably to strengthen the connection between thought and task — splits instead, with one half veering to the left hemisphere, the other traveling right. Instead of doubling, brain activity cuts in half. Instead of accomplishing everything, you often wind up accomplishing nothing. I think any of the multitasking mavens who shared their stories in this chapter would agree.


Modern Overload

Multitasking, the art and skill of doing more than one thing at a time, is something we all love to do. Ok, maybe some of us don’t love it, but we think it’s a requirement given the demands of today’s world. At work you can’t just focus on writing a report. You’ve also got to keep checking your e-mail and pick up the phone every time it rings, which is often. Then, e-mail follows you home, stealing chunks of focus away from cooking dinner, reviewing homework and chatting with your spouse. Text messages and two or three different phones also compete for your attention. In case you’re not on overload yet, TV, iPad, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and a mind-boggling array of other social media sources add to the multimedia din. But, as the Multitasking Queen story illustrates, the idea of multitasking predates the era of electronic and digital overload.

Thanks to the proliferation of technology and gadgets, we’ve begun to multitask at insane levels. Observational studies have found that the average computer user at work switches between windows or checks e-mail an average of 37 times an hour. More than 90 percent of workers say they make or take work-related communications outside of the office, including during vacations, according to a recent Lexmark International study. Nearly 75 percent say they stay “switched on” during weekends with 20 percent admitting they interrupt social engagements for work reasons.

We all assume we can handle this amount of multitasking and in fact, many of us think we’re pretty good at it. Actually we’re pretty bad at it. One study by researchers at the University of California at Irvine monitored interruptions among office workers and found they take an average of twenty-five minutes to recover from disruptions such as phone calls or answering e-mail before returning to their original task. The heaviest-hitting multitaskers have the most trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information so they can even bring one task to successful completion.


This Is Your Brain on Multitasking

Scientists estimate that each time you switch from one task to another you more than double the time it takes to complete either task. As a result, performance quality takes a nosedive. You weaken the memory of what you were doing, which leads to shallow learning. Even after you cease multitasking, splintered thinking and lack of focus can persist.

At its worst, multitasking can have dangerous consequences: We all know by now that drivers who text or talk on a cell phone show the same level of impairment as drivers who are legally drunk. At its best, constant task switching and attentional flip flopping cut into work and family time and stifle creativity. Would Sir Isaac Newton have dreamed up his breakthrough ideas on gravity if he’d been yakking on a cell phone while also texting and surfing the Net rather than sitting in quiet contemplation under an apple tree?

And multitasking really does ratchet up stress levels. The brain responds to task-and-information overload by pumping out adrenaline and other stress hormones that contribute to the feelings of agitation and edginess. Long-term exposure to these hormones can lead to classic stress symptoms like headaches, stomach aches and sleep disturbances. One report by the Institute of the Future in California found that 71 percent of white-collar workers feel stressed about the amount of information they must process and act on while doing business; 60 percent feel overwhelmed. The more overworked an employee, the more likely he is to make mistakes, feel angry with his employers and resent his colleagues. Those with higher stress levels also report more symptoms of clinical depression and poorer health.


Stop the Madness

There is evidence that multitasking is a hard habit to break because it mimics some aspects of addiction. Some people need their fix of constant data flow and task jumping so much they become dependent upon it. As a result they develop shorter attention spans and lose their ability to complete activities that require deep concentration. Their desks become littered with half completed projects, they have difficulty thinking clearly and they feel like they’re drowning in a pool of unfinished business. There’s even a term for this narcotic-like effect: pseudo-attention deficit disorder.

But extreme multitasking doesn’t have to be a way of life. If your goal is to reduce stress and increase productivity, it pays to adopt a philosophy of single-tasking. Single-tasking — now there’s a word for the information age! — means slowing down, doing less, and turning off the information spigot, at least sometimes. As you sit here reading — and perhaps also responding to texts and instant messages that pop up on your computer screen — you may think this is easier said than done. I can tell you it’s harder for some people to do than others.

A good first step is to make a list of everything you need to get done. In a way this is what April Knight did by slipping notes into a box each month. Go through the list to evaluate whether every item truly needs to be there and toss out anything that isn’t important, can be delegated or doesn’t truly require your immediate involvement. Once you’ve got your final list, put the mundane, rote tasks aside for the moment and prioritize the bigger items from most to least important using a 1-10 or A-Z designation.

Now structure your day so that you spend the first 15-30 minutes banging out the mindless need-to-dos like responding to e-mails and signing off on forms. After that, focus on the highest priority task for an uninterrupted, designated block of time that lasts at least 30 minutes or a predetermined amount of time to sufficiently address it. Allot as much time as you need for each task, and only that task, until it’s completed or you’ve reached a predetermined target goal for progress. It helps to underestimate what you think you’ll be able to accomplish so you don’t get discouraged or feel like you’re falling behind.

Multitasking junkies may experience actual withdrawal symptoms when they try going cold turkey to slow themselves down. You’re apt to find a gradual approach more palatable. For instance, see how you feel when you shut off your cell phone in 30-minute increments and check your e-mail only once per hour rather than every time an e-mail pops up. Once you can tolerate that level of disconnect, consider extending your technology blackouts for longer intervals.

If your desk is a mess, clean it up; a less cluttered desk equals a less cluttered mind. You’ll waste less time if everything is kept in a designated place. Keep your door closed if you have one, or ask your co-workers to check in only at appointed times unless there’s an emergency.

At home, set limits on how often you check up on work. You might, for example, delegate the first hour you come home and the last hour before bedtime as technology-free time to help you relax and savor the separation of work and family. I strongly believe family meals should be sacred, with no texting, answering phones or watching TV allowed. Leave your cell phone at home for short trips to the market or dry cleaners to help you get more comfortable with the idea of being unplugged. Or like Newton, find an apple tree to sit under and just think. Who knows what bright ideas might pop into your brain when you give it a break from multitasking madness?


The Power of No

People with 15-20 major items on their daily to-do list either haven’t sorted their priorities carefully or they’re seriously over-committed. I think over commitment is partly caused by a propensity for multitasking; it too is epidemic and causes needless stress. When I have a patient who is drowning in obligations and responsibilities we explore how he or she got there.

Over-obligators generally fall into one of two categories:

They’re either compulsive people pleasers who fear disappointing or angering other people, or they’re poor time managers who have a warped sense of what it takes to get stuff done.

People pleasers need to dial down the guilt. They must get comfortable with the word “no” and learn to reframe their criteria for saying “yes.” Before agreeing to take on a responsibility, do a cost-benefit analysis to decide whether or not it’s worth your time. I don’t mean you should only be saying yes to things that make you money, but when you sign on for something you prefer not to do, you are in actuality saying no to your own priorities.

Time mismanagers need to get real and do an honest assessment of what they can reasonably take on. Not every offer that comes your way is a good use of your time or feeds your priorities. And since we are speaking of priorities as they relate to both people pleasers and time mismanagers, do you know what yours are? Have some clear ideas of what you value most. Whether that’s family time, career, charity work, exercise, learning — or yes, even money — keep in mind what’s most important to you every time you respond to a request. This will help you dispassionately decide what deserves your attention.

I do realize that saying no takes some practice and may not be easy for you, especially if you’re used to saying yes reflexively. So I’ve got some tips for you.

Keep track of how many times each week you now say yes and you wish you hadn’t. Surprised at how often that is? I had one client who had serious political aspirations but always complained about not having enough time to pull her campaign together. She was a people pleaser and an incurable yes woman. Her unwanted yes count was astonishing; it wasn’t difficult to determine what sucked away her potential planning time.

Saying no is a skill you need to practice. The more you do it the easier it gets. No need to be defensive, ungracious or apologetic when turning down a request: a polite but firm “thanks, but no thanks” usually does the trick. You don’t owe anyone an explanation for your decision, but if it helps, come up with a well-crafted stock reply you can pull out whenever necessary. You might beg off for genuine health reasons, family commitments, or work obligations. I sometimes use humor to lessen the blow.

If someone is insistent and won’t take no for an answer, tell them you’ll think about it; you can always write them a polite and final note saying no at a later date. Stepping out of a pressure-filled situation gives you some time to think and reaffirm your priorities. Plus it’s less stressful to turn someone down when you’re not face-to-face.

If you’d really like to help out but it’s too much of a commitment at the moment, you can offer up something less. You might say, “I can’t do this right now, but I can donate such and such. . .” This allows you to be involved without full engagement. Honestly, most opportunities that come your way are interesting on some level.

The biggest surprise for yes people is that the world doesn’t come to an end when you say no. You won’t become a pariah or the object of derision because you graciously declined an invitation to become involved. There may be some lingering guilt at first but I promise you this rarely lasts long. There are only so many hours in a day. Doing more of what you want to do and doing less in general will make you a happier person in the long run.

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