Today’s world generates a lot of cognitive load, where our work and personal lives overlap and create even more complexities. We’re checking e-mails in the evening and on weekends, and making phone calls to resolve personal issues during the day.
We forget how much of the chaos in our lives is self-imposed. We complain about the complexity of our lives, we survey our crowded calendars and cluttered garages, and we wake up to the day already feeling overwhelmed. Yet at some point we agreed (or acquiesced) to taking on all those things. We complain about information overload even when we choose to over-consume information—a habit that we can control.
Here’s an idea: Don’t just do something—stand there!
When faced with a packed schedule and long to-do list, the natural inclination is to get busy and do something—anything. There is another option: Before you dig in, stop to think. Is everything that’s on your plate truly worth doing? You might be able to get the most important things done by filtering out the stuff that doesn’t really matter.
Because most of us are unconsciously allowing more possessions and commitments to stream into our lives. Stuff comes in so fast that we don’t realize how much we've accumulated. In contrast, letting go of stuff calls for mindfulness, new ways of thinking, focused action.
If you really want to get things done, you have to get more conscious about what you choose not to do. In other words, fight distraction with subtraction.
Imagine what it would feel like to have to have one more unscheduled hour in your life every day. What would become possible for you with that added space in your schedule? Now visualize a life where your weekends are largely unscheduled and you leave your office by 6 pm at the latest on a workday. It’s harder to let go than to take on, but it can be done. It just takes some practice over time.
Here are some tips to get you started:
1. Write a three-item to-do list. Keep a master to-do list, then choose the next three things you intend to do and write these down on a Post-it. A three-item list is doable and inviting. In addition, crossing off those three tasks provides a dopamine-driven sense of reward and momentum.
2. Clean out your inbox and unsubscribe to any automatic e-mail list that you do not always read. Purge your subscriptions to magazines, newspapers and newsletters.
3. Outsource your cognitive load. Draw out a map of your cognitive load:
- Take out a blank sheet of paper (or use a Walk-Around Pad), and map your cognitive load against the different thinking preferences as depicted in the four quadrants of the Whole Brain® Model:
A Quadrant: Financial, technical issues
B Quadrant: Unfinished projects, plans, organizational issues
C Quadrant: People and interpersonal issues
D Quadrant: Long-term concerns, “big picture” issues
- “Unload” by writing down the key areas that represent cognitive load for you, those areas that weigh heaviest in your mind, for both work and personal.
- Now look at the list. Is there anything you can outsource or delegate?
4. Stop the madness by creating a no-to-do-list. Attending meetings with no clear agendas or end times, spending large chunks of time on low-value/low-return activities or clients, mindlessly filling out unnecessary reports or other activities “because we’ve always done them,” checking emails throughout the day instead of at scheduled intervals… name your not-to-dos and then stick with it!
5. Get offline. Yes, you can.
You can balance FOMO (the Fear of Missing Out) with TOTO (the Thrill of Throwing Out). Savor the pure pleasure of a calendar with more blank space and a life with less stuff.
What have you chosen not to do? What about your team, colleagues or employees? How can you encourage them to overcome distraction with subtraction?