How do I handle all the overwhelm and the many distractions I find myself having to deal with not just on a daily but even moment-by-moment basis? We have been looking at this 18 minute video by David Allen that gives much wisdom into this increasingly common life challenge:

David Allen’s fundamental point is that the best way to deal with feelings of overwhelm is to get everything that is on your mind out of your head into some trustworthy external system. The simple act of writing it down is the first step in the process – but only the first step……..

Now you have a list that is a mixture of some clearly defined actions (e.g. call favourite restaurant to book a table for four on Friday at 8pm) as well as statements that need more thinking to distill down into what they mean to you and what specifically you need to do next, if anything at all (e.g. just writing the word ‘Holiday’ could have an almost infinite number of possiblities).

That is another way we can get overwhelmed!  Our minds can become overloaded with trying to decide what each item on that list can mean. David Allen is a coach in this area with many decades of experience. He can spend anywhere between 1 to 6 hours with a corporate executive helping them to think through everything that is on their mind. This means getting it into a trustworthy external system and then deciding what each item personally means to them in terms of discrete specific next actions. It is filtering and processing through all the ‘could do, should do, might want to do, possibly do’ that can be ruminating in our minds. There is a lot there. It not surprising it can take 1-6 hours with a coach to get all that out. Thinking this through is hard work! The reason being it is not about information overload, but potential meaning and significance overload.

The next step is to have an external trigger in your environment so that when you come across that trigger it primes you to start moving forward with what needs to be done. Just because technology allows us to do practically anything anywhere from calling someone, answering email to writing an important document, it does not necessarily mean we should be doing any of those things at any given time.

Otherwise we can find ourselves reacting to whatever is latest and loudest in terms of other triggers in our environment – for example immediately reacting to the email that arrives and ignoring the thousands of others in our inbox. But just because it is latest and loudest does not mean it is the best use of my time right now. Saying yes to something now means saying no to literally a thousand other potential obligations. How can I be confident this is the right one? I can never be 100% sure, but if I have done the hard work of thinking beforehand I can more confidently rely on my intuition that what I am doing right now is the best use of my time.

We all use external triggers when the night before something critical to us the next day, to ensure we don’t forget or get distracted to take something important, we put it by the front door of our house (or write in big letters on the fridge door). We do that so we can’t miss or forget it when we walk by. David Allen’s methodology is to extend this concept further so that you have trigger lists to work on when you are at, for example, your computer or out shopping or at home with your family or as an agenda that covers all the bases in an important meeting. As your specific next actions are defined by context and not in just one huge list this begins to make life more manageable.

Psychologists call this ‘distributed cognition’ which means being able to control your focus by having a solid external trigger for it. Why this is so powerful is because your brain works best when it is able to rely on your external environment. Right now your brain is monitoring your external environment in amazing ways by adjusting your posture, sensing the room temperature, subconsciously noticing what is happening around you as well as literally a billion other activities that you are not even consciously aware of. So using an external memory trigger with a list of potential actions in the current moment relevant to the context you are in means you can use all of your intelligence and intuition to decide what is the most appropriate thing to to do in the here and now.

If you don’t set up an external trigger system then your brain will be thinking all the time what you need to think about and h0w you need to think about it in a recurring cycle that can feel like it will never end! We all intuitively know that and this is the reason we put important reminders on our fridge doors and leave items to take to the office by our front doors!

 Another practical outworking of this is recognising that I am not at my best all the time. I am able to perform at my best only at certain times and not continuously throughout the day. With a trusted system that I know I can rely on, my mind will be more likely to fully present and able to enter what is called the productive state – relaxed, focussed and in control with active awareness of all going on around me.

This becomes critically important because it is in this productive state I can best handle whatever life might throw towards me in the form of a great opportunity or a major obstacle or setback. 

As you can see this is a huge subject! Here are some helpful quotes from the video that expand on this:

Civilisation advances by extending the number of important operations we can perform without thinking about them. Operations of thought are like calvary charges in a battle – they are strictly limited in number; they require fresh horses and must only be made in decisive moments. (Alfred North Whitehead).

Don’t have more than 4 things on your mind or you will sub-optimise your ability to perceive and perform.

You don’t need to finish stuff. Your mind just needs to trust it will see the right thing at the right time and so then let it go.

Your brain works too hard to remember. It can recognise brilliantly, but it is terrible at recalling. As your mind moves so fast, it needs external prompts in the environment to get things done.

It is not about information overload, but potential meaning and significance overload.

What are some practical out workings for you of these ideas?

If this interests you also see:

Are You Out Of Your Mind?

Why Feeling Overwhelmed Can Actually Be A Mind Trick

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?