Managing the Noise
September was a strange month here in Massachusetts. Summer temps had continued consistently until this week. For me, it made settling into fall a tiny bit easier. Or so I thought. Until yesterday when I lost both of my sons. One was supposed to be at supervised study, the other coming home on the bus. When he didn't arrive, I called the school and they had a hard time locating them. After 30 minutes and several "eye-witness" accounts of what had happened - "they got picked up" - I panicked. If only they had a phone, I could call them...
Turns out, they were fine. Volunteering, something I had signed them up for but neglected to put on my calendar, at a local food pantry.
But it does beg the questions. Should they have phones so I can get in touch in situations like this? Or is there another solution?
My brain is essentially overflowing with information. Four kids' schedules, my own, my work, our social lives, the endless stream of questions - "What's for dinner? Where are my cleats? Can I go to Daisy's? What is 6 times 4,356?" I'm guessing yours is, too.
Add to this the massive amount of information we are consuming online and on our devices, and our brains may actually implode. At least, it feels that way.
Erik Fransan, Professor of Computer Science at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, whose research focuses on short-term memory, says that a brain exposed to a typical session of social media browsing can easily become hobbled by information overload. The result is that less information gets filed away in our memory. At any given time, the working memory can carry up to three or four items, Fransan says. When we attempt to stuff more information in the working memory, our capacity for processing information begins to fail and the information is forgotten rather than processed for long term memory.
In a New York Times op-ed Losing Our Way In The World, Harvard physics professor John Edward Huth argued that the Internet may have a greater effect on our sense of meaning than we realize. He explained that an over-reliance on technology has a tendency to encourage us to isolate pieces of information without fitting them into a broader cognitive schema. Without this process, our short and long term memory suffers.
I was the one that signed them up to volunteer...
So what can we do about it?
Avoid multitasking and set the expectation with others that this is not something we do. With the advent of smartphones, we are always available and that’s not good for our brains. It's ok to explain to our friends and family that we will not answer their calls, texts or emails if we are doing something else and that they will have to wait. Encourage our kids to do the same. And then follow through. We should be spending time with our families uninterrupted. It’s not only good manners, it’s good for our brains.
Set up blocks of time to complete different tasks and don’t let yourself be distracted by other tasks. For example, designate blocks of time to check email, text and write reports. Set a timer and commit to one task at a time, when the scheduled time is up, take a short break before committing to another tasks. If you get distracted, use mindfulness to bring yourself back to the task at hand.
Implement a Power Hour- Most research recommends sustaining attention for 20 minute blocks. Here in Concord, most teachers recommend 20 minutes per subject for homework in middle school. The “Power Hour” idea is similar to the idea above but a bit more specific. Find a space that is completely free of distractions, block the time in your calendar, if necessary. Turn off your phone and shut down email. Take out the work you need to complete and only that work. For twenty minutes, focus entirely on the task at hand. Do not allow yourself to be distracted. After twenty minutes, take a 5 minute break to stretch, walk around, take a quick walk, focus on your breath. Then focus on the task for another 20 minutes. Repeat the break. Repeat the focused work. Take a longer break of 10-15 minutes to do something unrelated to work.
Keep a notepad and pen on the table while you focus on one task, so you can jot down any distractions to follow up on later. Or trust and tell yourself you will remember it later.
In Gift of the Sea, Anne Morrow Lindbergh says, “…there is a quality to being alone that is incredibly precious. Life rushes back into the void, richer, more vivid, fuller than before.” She suggests that being alone and the creativity of daydreaming “demand something of oneself and (feed) the inner life.” We are seldom alone or quiet, and no longer embrace solitude. But doing so brings us inner peace to be strong in our external world.
Boy, do I need that inner peace and strength to power through all the mistakes I make as a parent. I need that strength to support my family and my friends. I need strength to manage the noise and to help my kids manage it, too.