CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and about to Snap. Strategies for Handling Your Fast-paced Life
By Edward M. Hallowell, M.D.
Swirling around, swept into the air like dry leaves before a great storm, we're tossed about by forces we invented but no longer control. The wind rules, picking us up and taking us where it blows.
Busy. Fast. Wired. Going who knows where. Welcome to our attention deficit world.
In its energy, excitement, and excess, in its novelty, speed, chaos, and confusion, in its dust storm of data, in its creative spirit and freedom from convention, in its emphasis on adaptability and on the now, in its ever changing nature, in its irreverence and incoherence, today's world looks much like another world I know well: the world of attention deficit disorder, or ADD.
ADH is a medical condition I have specialized in diagnosing and treating for the past twenty-five years. I have come to see it as a metaphor for modern life, offering a model -as well as a guide-for what's happening today in a world where we are living a kind of life never lived before. Once applicable only to a relative few, the symptoms of ADD now seem to describe just about everybody.
People with untreated ADD rush around a lot, feel impatient wherever they are, love speed, get frustrated easily, lose focus in the middle of a task or a conversation because some other thought catches their attention, bubble with energy but struggle to pay attention to one issue for more than a few seconds, talk fast or feel at a loss for words, often forget where they're going or what they're going to get, have bright ideas but can't implement them, fail to complete what they're doing, have many projects going simultaneously but chronically postpone completing them, make decisions impulsively because their brain's circuitry is overloaded, feel they could do a lot more it they could just get it together, get angry easily when interrupted, feel powerless over the piles of stuff that surround them, resolve each day to do better tomorrow, and in general feel busy beyond belief but not all that productive.
Many people who do not have true ADD do have many of those symptoms these days. You might say they suffer from a severe case of modern life.
The practical lessons I have learned from working in the world of ADD can be generalized into lessons about how to handle modern life. Many skills and techniques people use to manage ADD apply to today's busy world, helping a person take advantage of its opportunities while avoiding its peculiar new dangers. While living life today can seem like riding a hike no-handed while reading a book and juggling six eggs, it doesn't have to be like that.
How many people feel too rushed to do what matters most to them? How many people feel in a hurry all day and into the night? How many people can't take the time to stop and think? People are trying to recapture their hold on life, to lake back the time that's mysteriously been stolen from them, and to regain the control they've unintentionally given away.
Paradoxically enough, it is in part the desire for control that has led people to lose it. Paradoxes abound in our busy new world. The control paradox is but one. By trying to control life as much as possible, YOU can run yourself ragged, losing control in the process. You can feel like a tin can surrounded by a circle of a hundred powerful magnets. Pulled at once in even' direction, you go nowhere but instead spin faster and faster on your axis.
In part, many people are excessively busy because they allow themselves to respond to even' magnet: tracking too much data, processing too much information, answering to too many people, taking on too many tasks - all out of a sense that Ibis is the way they must live in order to keep up and stay in control. But it's the magnets that have the control. We have magnetized our electronic devices (to use the airlines' term), our material possessions, our children's grades and even toys, our career goals, the laundry, the dentist appointment, the up-lo-the-second news and expert advice, and even our vacations to such an extent that we have all but given away our free time, our time to do nothing but breathe in, breathe out, and feel the earth beneath our feet. We could take a lesson from that old rotary phone-not to bring back the good old days, but to keep the current days from stealing from us what's good.
Modern life makes us feel as if we can be everywhere and do everything, and it gives us magical tools that heighten that illusion. Only when we accept that we can't track and control every variable do we finally give up trying. Then we can demagnetize the magnets surrounding us. The tin can can stop spinning.
When we stop responding to everyone and everything, we regain the control we can effectively exert. We give up pursuing total control and better use what we have. We learn the wisdom of what a rabbi once said: "Happiness is not having what you want but wanting what you have." We control enough of life to relish what we have. Then we gain dependable joy. As Samuel Johnson said some 250 years ago, "The pleasures of sudden wonder are soon exhausted, and the mind can only repose upon the stability of truth." Paradoxically, at the core of that "stability'' is the acceptance of instability, of change.
This is not the wisdom of just an anonymous rabbi or an eighteenth-century essayist. It is also practical street smarts, the wisdom of, say, the veteran stock picker. Great investors like Warren Buffett don't follow each stock they own minute to minute, day to day, or even week to week. They make their picks, then let go of control. They wait a few years and let the stock do the work. They give control to the company they felt good enough about to invest in in the first place. And they are never too busy to think.
Of course, many practical concerns keep people busy, but behind all of them lies a reason most people don't acknowledge or even perceive. At the deepest level-the level we rarely visit-we stay busy to avoid looking into the abyss.
Now and then we have to-someone dies too young, a had guy wins, or a hurricane hits-but most of the time we manage to avert our gaze from all that. We keep busy 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. We stay busy to control the whole shebang.
Of course, death wins. All the activity the whole world can generate can't bring back one person who has died. This is perhaps the hardest truth any of us ever learns. Acceptance-not busyness-brings us to a peaceful place. By accepting that we do not have total control, by accepting death, by accepting our place in nature, we gain the fullest life and what control we are meant to have.