“Crazy Busy” by Edward D. Hallowell

CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap! Strategies for Coping in a World Gone ADD by Edward M. Hallowell CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap! Strategies for Coping in a World Gone ADD
Edward M. Hallowell
Ballantine Books
2006-03-28
256 pp.
9780345482433

I “read” this book in audio format some time ago and, ironically, have not had the time time post about it until now. As a result I have forgotten many of the details, but I recently got the print version out of the library to remind myself of the salient points, and I’d like to post them here since I’m certain I’m not the only crazy busy person around here.

First of all I should say that, since I don’t work or have kids, I am not busy in the traditional sense. Nevertheless, I have the same feeling of not having enough time (or energy) to do everything I want to do that everyone else seems to have these days. I think this just proves the absurdity of the default human approach to choice and abundance: we want it all, and we especially want the hottest, newest, coolest thing.

I blogged about this before; my main problem is the internet. I can quite pleasantly fritter away hours following Twitter links and trying to put a dent in Google Reader (how kind of them to stop counting unread posts after 1,000), but that doesn’t get me any closer to the goals I have when I’m not in front of the screen and clicking the mouse to get my next morsel of cyberkibble. Neurologists have studied the pleasure we get from acquiring new information and unlike other cravings, our desire for data is never sated but in fact increases with success. The stomach can fill, thirst can be quenched, sleep can refresh, but our brains can’t get enough. Under natural circumstances it would be what biologists call an adaptive trait, something that helped our ancestors survive and got us to this point, but in the information age it has become a bit of a liability, like being a diabetic in a candy store.

I got Crazy Busy in hopes that it would give me the wisdom to manage my brain’s appetite in a more sensible way. It’s a very enjoyable book, and the author has made up all sorts of humorous names for the different pressures of modern life—gemmelsmerch (ubiquitous distractions);  gigaguilt (guilt over missing or losing track of electronic communications); screensucking (the online equivalent of thumb sucking); doomdarts (suddenly remembered obligations that haunt you).

The overall goal of the book is to help people to do what matters most to them, and the first step is to acknowledge one’s limits, starting with death. As a culture we are rather averse to contemplating our own deaths, but a little actuarial knowledge goes a long way to putting one’s use of time into perspective. The book even contains a table of how many minutes you likely have left, depending on your age. Once it is established that we do not have time for everything, we can move on to Hallowell’s ten principles for dealing with overload:

  1. Do what matters most to you. In a word, prioritize.
  2. Create a positive emotional environment wherever you are. You’ll think and cope better and more creatively.
  3. Find your rhythm. Put as much of your life on automatic pilot as possible, saving your brain for more important tasks.
  4. Invest your time wisely so as to get maximum return. This entails considering what you really get out of every activity.
  5. Don’t waste time screensucking. Except for reading this blog. 😉
  6. Identify and control the sources of gemmelsmerch (distraction). This consists mainly in creating rules to abate and contain unimportant and unscheduled demands on your time.
  7. Delegate. Be “effectively interdependent,” not independent.
  8. Slow down. Don’t be in such a rush. A few more seconds at a stop light are not going to kill you, but stressing about it might.
  9. Don’t multitask ineffectively. In fact there is no such thing as effective multitasking; multitasking is terribly inefficient.
  10. Play. What this really means is to be as absorbed in what you are doing as children are when they play.

If you think that’s complicated, there are a number of other lists and a great deal more advice in this book on how to deal with the various issues that lead to a state of “crazybusy.” That’s just a symptom of how complex our lives are now, and that each problem does need to be taken in turn and dealt with. Not dealing with these problems is not really an option any more. But as the author states, we should not try to achieve a state of total control over every second of our lives. Not only is it impossible, it would be a terrible way to live. Instead we should just exert enough control so that we can spend most of our time on the most important things. As for which techniques to use, I think the best rules are the ones you use. It’s better just to get started and build skills as you go along.

One skill I’ve been using lately, inspired partly by this book and partly by this article at Datamation, is to make more use of electronic filters. It’s not good enough to say no to something I’m not interested in; that takes time and brain cycles. It’s much better to arrange it so I never see these things in the first place. That means unsubscribing from newsletters that never get read anyway, setting my email to shunt coupons off to another folder that I can consult when I go shopping, and setting Tweetdeck to filter out FourSquare announcements (yet another reason to love Tweetdeck!). The idea is to let technology do the filtering for me. I’ve also engaged in massive Twitter downsizing (apologies to those I’ve unfollowed or never followed), which has noticeably improved my peace of mind and productivity (hence this post). It’s a baby step, but that is exactly what is needed to deal with distractions that come a few kilobytes at a time.

What are your tricks for dealing with information overload and multimedia mayhem? How do you keep your brain on track and your priorities top-of-mind? Are you really surfing the web or flailing helplessly in the rip tide of distraction?

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4 comments on ““Crazy Busy” by Edward D. Hallowell

  1. Matt says:

    Great post!

    I now spend most of time at home because of chronic illness. Most of my waking hours is spent in front of the computer screen. Although I'm now unemployed I feel I don't have enough time to do all the things I want to do.

    You're right: “The stomach can fill, thirst can be quenched, sleep can refresh, but our brains can’t get enough. Under natural circumstances it would be what biologists call an adaptive trait, something that helped our ancestors survive and got us to this point, but in the information age it has become a bit of a liability, like being a diabetic in a candy store.”

    I can't get enough knowledge/information from the internet.

    Thanks for posting this. It really helps.

  2. Sylvia says:

    Thanks, Matt. I'm sorry to hear about your illness. It sounds like we are in very similar situations–we have plenty of time but it's still not enough!

  3. Stefanie says:

    Habit/ a schedule (doing the same task at the same time everyday or on the same day every week), discipline, and being ok about hitting ctrl + A + delete when the feed reader gets too full. Also prioritizing and planning ahead. I'm sure there are other things, but these are the big ones that help me get done what I need to do and want to do. The image of you clicking your mouse for cyberkibble made me laugh. 🙂

  4. Sylvia says:

    Stefanie, thanks for that. That is all very good advice, especially having a schedule or routine and planning ahead. I've been trying to do exactly that lately (with help from technology, of course!) and it does seem to work … when I stick to it! I guess that's where the discipline comes in! 😉

    I sometimes do feel like a rat in one of those experiments—push the button and get a reward! But then we are animals, no matter how much we try to pretend we are not!

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