Saturday, December 7, 2013

Avoiding an Attention-Deficit Christmas

“My life feels like a river that has overrun its banks -- oozing sideways in unmanageable and unpredictable ways, rather than flowing steadily forward in a single direction.”

I wrote that in my journal a few years ago, and I found it recently while going through some boxes in my garage. It seemed like I was writing it down as a way to force myself to confront the issue, but I realized as soon as I read it that things haven’t gotten any better. If anything, as the dad of three “tweenaged” daughters, it’s gotten worse.

Busy. Scattered. Messy. Fast. Unpredictable. Welcome to the warp-speed life of a modern 43-year-old husband, father, author, coach, friend, son, brother, man.

In many ways, life today resembles the world of attention deficit disorder, or ADD. Think about the energy, excitement and excess of life -- its quest for novelty and newness -- its chaos and confusion. Consider the ever-increasing hurricane of data. Life for many of us has become a constant state of adaptation, irreverence and incoherence.

Our world has ADD.[1]

I understand that Attention Deficit Disorder is a medical term, but I think it’s become an apt metaphor for modern life, offering a model and a guide for what’s happening today in a world where we are living a kind of life never lived before. There was a time when the symptoms of ADD described a few folks, but now it seems to describe everyone I know.

People with ADD rush around a lot, getting very little done. They feel impatient and are easily frustrated. They lose their train of thought. They get distracted by something new and shiny. They have so much energy they cannot contain themselves, but they struggle to pay attention to one thing for more than a few minutes. They have big ideas but can’t execute them. They have a hard time finishing what they start. They multitask, but never actually accomplish anything. They make impulsive and rash decisions because their brains are chronically overloaded and overstimulated. They often end up feeling overwhelmed and powerless to combat the piles of stuff accumulating around them. They resolve to do better tomorrow. They are busy but unproductive -- which may be the most frustrating feeling in all the world.

Now you tell me: does that paragraph feel a little familiar? Anyone else feel like just getting through the day is harder than riding a unicycle while juggling helium balloons and eating a sandwich? And it only gets worse around this time of year!

You may be led to believe that you have ADD now, but you may, in fact, merely have a severe case of modern life. This may be why you feel too hurried to do what matters most, why you can’t take time to stop and think.

It could be, however, that the same techniques people use to manage ADD could help us understand how to navigate our way through the world in which we live -- a world that threatens to press us into a pattern of crazy busyness. It’s time to recapture life, to take back the time seems to evaporate and regain the sense of control you’ve inadvertently given away.

As strange as this sounds, it is our desire for control that often causes us to lose it. By trying to control as much of life as possible, you can make yourself crazy -- losing control in the process. You can feel like a spoon surrounded by a circle of a dozen powerful magnets. Pulled in every direction simultaneously, you go nowhere but begin to vibrate faster and faster and faster until you begin to spin aimlessly on your axis.

Some people are too busy because they feel the need to respond to every magnet: keeping track of too many things, processing too much information, responding to too many emails and voicemails and texts and tweets and Facebook messages -- all out of a sense that this is how we must live in order to keep up and maintain control.

But you’re not in control; the magnets are. We no longer control our handheld electronic devices; they control us. They chirp; we jump. Same with our material possessions, our kids’ grades, even our toys. The laundry, the dry cleaning, the oil change, the breaking news, the holiday shopping. Our vacations are not restful, and our hobbies are not refreshing. We’ve all but given away our free time -- the time that is supposed to be free. We have no time to do nothing, to breathe, to pause, to reflect.

I’m not talking about returning to the “good, old days” -- but we have to figure out how to keep modern life from stealing from us what’s good and life-building.

Modern life gives us the illusion that we can be everywhere and do everything. But, at some point in time, we must accept the fact that we can’t track everything. We’ll never be able to control every variable. It is foolish to even try. If we could summon the strength to give up trying, then we could demagnetize the things around us and stop vibrating and spinning in place.

When we stop trying to control and react to everyone and everything, we regain the ability to focus on the only thing we can truly control: ourselves. Then, and only then, can we control enough of life to appreciate what we have. Then, and only then, can we find joy and peace in spite of our circumstances.

More than 250 years ago, Samuel Johnson spoke of “the stability of truth.” Counterintuitively, that “stability” comes with the acceptance of instability -- when we acknowledge the inevitability to change and learn to adapt to it by reclaiming control of ourselves and our own emotional reactivity.

This is not simply the wisdom of some long-forgotten sage. It is just common sense. Warren Buffett knows how foolish it is to follow each stock he owns minute-by-minute. He makes his picks, and then he waits. He relinquishes control of the day-to-day ups and downs and lets the stock do the work. He gives control to the company he felt good enough about to invest in it in the first place.

Consequently, Warren Buffett has the bandwidth he needs to think clearly.

Of course, there are many practical concerns that keep us busy. We’ve got kids to get to soccer practice and dry cleaning to pick up and dinner to buy and prepare and eat and clean up after. The bathroom doesn’t clean itself, nor does the lawn mow itself. The car needs an oil change, and there’s that project at work. And don’t forget about the office party next weekend.

But behind and beneath many of these projects clamoring for our attention lies one, simple fact that few of us care to admit: we stay busy so we can avoid looking into the abyss.

Few of us are comfortable enough to contemplate the contents of that long, dark corridor that leads to the one thing that stares each of us in the face: our own mortality.

Sure, everyone once in a while something happens that forces us to confront the inevitable reality of death. Someone dies too young. A tornado touches down. A terrible choice brings awful consequences. But most of the time we manage to avert our gaze from all that unpleasantness by watching the new fall lineup on TV. We keep busy with our fantasy football leagues and reality shows and anything else we can think of to warm us with feelings of power, productivity and progress. We feed the illusion that we can defeat death, that ultimate confounder of our control. We stay busy to look away from loss, tragedy and pain.

But, in the end, you know death is going to win. All the activity you generate can’t bring back one person from the other side. This is perhaps the most difficult truth for modern men and women to embrace. Acceptance -- not busyness -- brings us to a peaceful place. When we accept our lack of absolute control, when we accept the inevitability of our own mortality, when we acknowledge our place in the grand scheme of things, we gain the fullest life possible and the amount of control we were meant to have.

[1] I am indebted to Dr. Edward M. Hallowell for this idea. I highly recommend his book Crazy Busy (Ballentine Books, 2006).

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