Advertising
Advertising

What to Do When It’s All Too Much

What to Do When It’s All Too Much
What to Do When It's All Too Much

    Things have been pretty hectic around here. We lifehackistes talk about and write about productivity as a way of dealing with the everyday distractions and time-sinks that prevent us from getting our important work done — whether that’s career-related tasks or following our personal goals. But what happens when everything falls apart? When disaster strikes and it takes everything you have to deal with it?

    Advertising

    I don’t want to get too much into my personal and family life here — suffice it to say that we’re facing some situations that promise to emotionally scar my step-children for life, and minimizing the damage is obviously the first priority. Dealing with it means often reacting to immediate situations, and where kids are involved you can’t schedule dealing with interruptions for later or plan around them. There’s an emotional toll, as well, that makes the trivialities of everyday life and work rather harder to face.

    Advertising

    And yet, I can’t drop out of anything either. My work and my partner’s work is what pays the bills and keeps our family fed. Miraculously, I’m managing to keep on top of most things and to get the important stuff done. Here’s a few of the things I’ve learned about staying afloat when the world is collapsing around you:

    Advertising

    • Have strong routines. Because I’ve spent the last couple of years building strong routines, scheduling everything from work and travel time to shopping and even goofing off, I don’t have to think about that now when my intellectual and emotional energies are needed elsewhere. Everything I need to work on is written down, so I don’t have to obsess over what I need to do next or what I am not doing that I should be — nothing’s getting forgotten, even if it takes longer to get to it than it normally would. Developing good practices when things are going your way helps dramatically when things aren’t going your way.
    • Prioritize. I’ll admit, I’m not very systematic in the way I handle prioritization. I don’t use Covey’s quadrants or assign priorities in my todo lists. I had started a few months ago using the idea of MITs (Most Important Tasks), where each night (or first thing in the morning) you write down the 3-5 tasks that are most important to get done in the following day. The idea is, if you get just those things done, you’ve had a good day. Taking a few minutes to figure out what you have to do tomorrow or today is essential to weathering a disaster — or rather, taking a moment to decide what you can manage without doing. I can’t miss class — the consequences for my students are too extreme and take too much work to deal with — but I can miss watching a video I’m evaluating to show my students, or a trip to the library to do research for a paper due in 6 months.
    • Procrastinate. That’s right, I said “procrastinate”. We spend a lot of time here at lifehack.org and other personal productivity sites looking for ways to combat procrastination, but sometimes it can be adaptive to put off work you just can’t focus on right now. Knowing your priorities is important, of course — don’t put off the essential stuff. But for the little things, promise yourself a weekend day, or the next quiet evening (whenever that comes), to catch up. Accept that you’re procrastinating, embrace it even, so your mind can let go of the anxiety and you can focus on what’s truly important right now.
    • Batch tasks. When you don’t know what new trauma tomorrow will bring, you have to take advantage of the quiet moments when they happen. Catch up on all the things you’ve put off over the last few days. Minimize your shopping list and do it all at once. Carry work with you in case a free moment arrives (waiting on line at the court house is a good time to get some reading done, for example).
    • Rely on others. This means two things. First, delegate stuff you wouldn’t normally delegate. Say “no” more often than you normally would, even when that means someone else has to take up the slack. Explain yourself if you have to, but don’t feel pressured to take time away from where it’s most needed. Second, lean on the people closest to you for support. Tell your family and friends what’s going on, and be open with people about how you’re feeling. Dealing with traumatic situations takes a lot more out of us than we think, and the people who care about us are more important in these times than ever. A lot of times, we don’t want to “burden” them with our problems, but that’s just asking for a breakdown — give them an opportunity to take some of that burden off your shoulders so you can deal with whatever problems you’re facing. (Men, this counts doubly for you — everything in our society says we’re not allowed to need help, but there are things bigger than we can manage, and where others like children are involved, denying help can put them at risk.)

    The idea is to keep as much of your energy and attention focused on dealing with the problems at hand while still meeting the obligations you can’t afford to let slide. It’s still hard — that’s just the nature of big problems — but it’s harder still when a disaster in one area of your life sets off a domino effect that ripples through every other area of your life. If you can keep things moving along, even if you can’t afford to keep your normal pace, you’ll be better able to face the disaster in front of you and to pick up the pieces afterward. Since I’m in the middle of this, I’d love to hear any other general advice people have for making your way in the face of disaster. Let us know your tips in the comments!

    Advertising

    More by this author

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain) How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works) Building Relationships: 11 Rules for Self-Promotion How to Become an Expert (And Spot out One Nearby)

    Trending in Featured

    1 The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain) 2 How to Stay Motivated and Reach Your Big Goals in Life 3 How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques 4 How to Stop Procrastinating: 11 Practical Ways for Procrastinators 5 50 Businesses You Can Start In Your Spare Time

    Read Next

    Advertising
    Advertising
    Advertising

    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

    Advertising

    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

    Advertising

    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

    Advertising

    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

    Advertising

    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

    More About Goals Setting

    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

    Read Next