Any idea why so many people joke about having Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) these days? Ed Hallowell, former professor at Harvard Medical School and bestselling author of Driven to Distraction, has an explanation.
From: CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap! Strategies for Handling Your Fast- Paced Life
Having treated ADD since 1981, I began to see an upsurge in the mid-1990s in the number of people who complained of being chronically inattentive, disorganized, and overbooked. Many came to me wondering if they had ADD. While some did, most did not. Instead, they had what I called a severe case of modern life.
Modern life makes us feel like we have ADD. What gives?
Research says we live in an era of information overload. When our brains get exposed to lots of info in little time, we can’t possibly process everything. Our minds go wild and we rush decisions, lose our keys, miss appointments, forget stuff, etc.
What do we do when we feel overwhelmed? We jump from one thing to the next. This is where a calm mind runs into problems…it begins to multitask.
“Our brains evolved to focus on one thing at a time. This enabled our ancestors to hunt animals, to create and fashion tools, to protect their clan from predators and invading neighbors. The attentional filter evolved to help us stay on task, letting through only information that was important enough to deserve disrupting our train of thought. But a funny thing happened on the way to the twenty-first century: The plethora of information and the technologies that serve it changed the way we use our brains. Multitasking is the enemy of a focused attentional system.”
Not only does multitasking create residue in the brain, but it destroys our attention span, feeds mental chaos, lowers our IQs and makes us act like jerks.
Here’s how it could be affecting you…
- Increases Cortisol Production – Multitasking has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol, which can over stimulate the brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking.
- Rewards Your Brain for Losing Focus – Dr. Levitin says that, “Multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation.” In other words, multitasking feels good as we enjoy getting distracted. Unfortunately, feeling good trumps mental clarity.
- Lowers Your IQ – Simply having an opportunity to multitask hurts our ability to think straight. Research by Glenn Wilson of Gresham College, London, found that “being in a situation where you are trying to concentrate on a task, an e-mail is sitting unread in your inbox, can reduce your effective IQ by 10 points…Wilson showed that the cognitive losses from multitasking are even greater than the cognitive losses from pot smoking.”
- Increases Anxiety – Switching tasks repeatedly leads to anxiety. It stimulates the body’s sympathetic nervous system, aka fight or flight system. When your brain is releasing fight and flight hormones, you can kiss a calm mind goodbye.
- Makes You More Aggressive and Impulsive – Multitasking raises stress hormones in the brain that can lead to aggressive and impulsive behaviors. Multitasking can hijack the brain, making us more irritable, especially when perceived pressure mounts.
What’s the antidote to the negative effects of multitasking?
Use 4 Proven Methods to Calm Your Mind in a Chaotic World
According to cognitive neuroscience, the first thing we should do is “externalize information to clear the mind.” How do we do that?
Method 1: Clear It
Writing things down clears and soothes our minds. It’s based in neurology. Here’s how Dr. Levitin explains it.
“When we have something on our minds that is important – especially a To Do item – we’re afraid we’ll forget it, so our brain rehearses it, tossing it around and around in circles in something that cognitive psychologists actually refer to as the rehearsal loop…The problem is that it works too well, keeping items in rehearsal until we attend to them. Writing them down gives both implicit and explicit permission to the rehearsal loop to let them go, to relax its neural circuits so that we can focus on something else.”
The power of writing stuff down works wonders to clear the mind. It prevents us from exhausting our mental energy and accumulating too much “brain residue”.
Once we’ve cleared our minds by writing down all the “to-dos”, the next step is to align those “to-dos” with our brain’s strength. According to a number of experiments, our brains are great categorizers and ‘four’ seems to be the ideal number of categories our brains like.
Method 2: Organize It
So let’s organize our “to-do” list into four parts like David Allen, author of Getting Things Done suggests.
Do it Now – (If you can do it in less than 2 minutes, do it now. He recommends setting aside 30 minutes to address the do it now items to keep them from piling up.)
Delegate it – (If some one else can help you get it done, delegate it).
Defer it – (Things that take more than 2 minutes can be put on hold, perhaps to later in the day after you’ve finished your do it now items).
Drop it – (Some stuff needs to be discarded when your priorities change).
Nice. We’ve cleared our minds and organized them. Now we’ve got to focus them to calm them down.
Method 3: Focus It
A focused mind is often a calm one. To focus our minds, it’s a good idea to understand how the attention centers of our brain work. You already know that our brains evolved to give attention to one task at a time. New neuroscience also suggests that our brains have two dominant attention systems that affect our everyday thinking.
One attention system is the “stay-on task” mode, which is the birthplace of concentration. It helps us navigate in the dark, review some paperwork, do taxes, pay attention to details, etc.
The other dominant attention system is the “mind-wandering” mode, akin to daydreaming. “Mind-wandering” is now known to be a natural state of the brain that offers restorative qualities, allows creativity, emotions and ideas to flow.
Generally speaking, when the “stay-on-task” mode is active, the “mind-wandering” mode is dormant and vice versa. Behind both modes, we also have an “attention filter” that reacts quickly, like an alarm. The “attention filter” can shake us out of either the “stay on task” or “mind wandering” mode.
For example if you are mentally “focused” or “wandering,” your “attention filter” will get stimulated when your smartphone alerts you. In today’s chaotic world, the “stay on task” mode disruption is the most prevalent in our daily lives, constantly stimulating the “attention filter”. Think of audio all the alerts on everything; cell phones, computers, iPads, etc.
Over time, an overactive “attention filter” makes you feel distracted, overwhelmed, confused, and stressed. Exercising the “stay-on-task” attention mode of our brain strengthens our ability to stay focused, productive and calm.
How do we strengthen the “stay on task” attention mode of our brain?
Two methods work well to improve our ability to focus. One is an informal approach for daily life. You can do it anytime. The other is a more formal approach that requires dedicated practice time.
The informal method is what I call “Zen-tasking.” To “Zen-task,” simply focus your attention to the task at hand to obtain a clear result in whatever you’re doing.
“Zen is not some kind of excitement, but concentration on our usual everyday routine. When you do something, if you fix your mind on the activity with some confidence, the quality of your state of mind is the activity itself.”
“Zen-tasking” is essentially being mindful in everyday life. Being mindful means being present in everything you do, whether it’s listening, eating, writing, reading, working, walking, etc. All of these activities harness the power of the “stay on task” mode of the brain, which support a calm mind. There’s an ancient saying, “Use one thought to cancel out thousands of wild thoughts.” You can now see that the ancient saying is supported by modern neuroscience.
Method 4: Train It
To enhance the “stay on task” mode of the brain, you can also train your mind formerly with meditation. While “Zen-tasking” is a practical and informal approach to focus and calm your mind in daily life, meditation offers a formal approach.
Just like physical exercises train our bodies for the better, research shows that meditation exercises change our brains for the better too. With meditation, a focused mind becomes a calm mind.
Whether a meditation method uses the “stay-on task” mode, using mantras or other focused forms of concentration or allows for a structured “mind-wandering” mode, the formal approach trains the mind to become mindful and peaceful. The basic idea of all meditation methods is that it becomes a means to ensure the attention filter is off while a calming mode is turned on. For more info about mindfulness meditation practices, I’d recommend The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems.
I hope in your future, you’ll plan to try one of the four methods to calm your mind in our chaotic world.
- Clear It – Writing stuff down clears our minds and prevents information overload from hi-jacking our minds on a chaotic ride of multi-tasking.
- Organize It – Categorizing our “To-Do” list into 4 groups helps free up mental space. The 4 Ds are Do-It Now, Delegate It, Defer It, and Drop It.
- Focus It – Focusing our minds by “Zen tasking” in everyday life activities strengthens the “stay-on-task” attention mode to improve our concentration and focus, and helps our minds to stay calm. One focused thought cancels out thousands of wandering ones.
- Train It – Meditation in a comfortable place can change our brains to be happier and calmer. It helps us formally train the brain to be more focused and calm.