Juggling work, social life, relationships, exercise and life admin – being overwhelmed is a modern epidemic, but it’s not too late to take back control
If there’s one skill that modern life requires we must all excel at, it’s plate-spinning. How many times a day do you interrupt your day job to tackle some pressing task? Or halt a partner’s story about their day to attend to something you forgot to tackle at work? But listen closely and, amid the buzz of your WhatsApp inbox, clammer of hungry pets or kids, and insistent beep of a finished dishwashing cycle, you may hear another sound. Plates crashing to the floor.
But how do you know if you’re ‘fire fighting’ [fixing problems for the short-term]? It’s about reacting verses simply acting. Jumping at a dashboard warning light on your way to work verses an unhurried checking of the oil at the weekend. Battling the ironing board at 8:34am on a weekday morning verses mindfully smoothing the iron through your laundry while listening to a podcast. Chucking together a Ready, Steady, Cook-style dinner at 10 minutes past the kids’ tea time verses batch cooking on a slow Sunday afternoon. So, how do we escape the stress of the former for the bliss of the latter? Read on…
“For me, being organised means that I have routines in place and live my life in a way where there’s as little noise as possible – both psychically and mentally,” says blogger and self-confessed ‘Monica’, Anna Newton (theannaedit.com). “So, whether that’s sorting out my spice cupboard so that I can find the exact one I need to make dinner, or curating a to-do list that’s simple, clear and realistic so that I can complete it by the end of the day – ultimately, it’s about saving time so I can spend more of it doing things that I love to do.”
Anna’s new book, An Edited Life (£12.99, Quadrille), is a call to arms for anyone who finds their life cluttered with too many possessions, too many commitments and very little slack in the system. “Saying ‘no’ is such a toughie,” Anna admits, “but it’s a muscle that gets stronger the more we exercise it. Start with something that’s easy to say no to – whether it’s a purchase, or a social engagement – and then spend the money or time you saved on something that’s necessary or meaningful to you. If I’ve said no to an event or a meeting, I spend those hours knuckling down on emails, or writing blog posts so I feel like it was worthwhile. The more you say no, the easier it will become and more time and money will become available in your life for you to use accordingly.”
Sounds simple – strip out the unnecessary clutter from your home, diary and in-tray. But what if your fire fighting is the result of an intractable problem that just can’t be edited out? Caring for young children or elderly relatives, maybe. Trying to push a project forward against an exhausting tide of obstacles, or work with an impossible boss whose ridiculous rules can’t be shrugged off.
“If you’re dealing with an everyday problem that’s emotionally draining, that seems to come back no matter what you chuck at it, that’s when you know you’re wrestling a pig,” says performance psychologist Dr Mark Bawden, who has spent 20 years working in the fields of elite sport and was Team GB’s head psychologist at the 2012 Olympic Games. Mark’s latest book – Pig Wrestling: Clean Your Thinking To Create The Change You Need (£7.99, Vermillion) – uses this farmyard metaphor to help anyone grappling with an energysapping problem. “The idea comes from a quote from George Bernard Shaw: ‘I learnt long ago never to wrestle with a pig, you get dirty; and besides the pig loves it.’ We all have problems that we just can’t get on top of, but the key to avoid ‘pig wrestling’ is clean thinking.”
Say what now? “One of the reasons we fire fight is that we don’t get around to tackling the long-standing issues in the right way, so they keep creeping back,” says Mark. “We jump to solutions without cleanly defining the problem we’re trying to avoid.” The first step to breaking this cycle: climb out of that metaphorical pig pen. “The technological world has created a false sense of urgency everyone suffers from,” says Mark. “Here’s an example: you go to work with the best intentions to tackle the long-term issues, which you know you should be working on, but in the first three minutes you get hit by an email that sets off a chain of events which, in turn, means you never get around to the long-term goal. It’s very rare that we ‘get out of the pig pen’ and approach our long-standing problem from a more detached, logical way. So the first step is to take a metaphorical step away and start thinking strategically.
“The goal is to reframe the problem,” adds Mark. “The frame you’re looking at this through, or to put it another way, the story you’re telling yourself about the problem, is not serving you well.” So Mark’s books, or sessions with clients of his consultancy
MindFlick, walk people through ‘thought experiments’ designed to challenge their logic. “We all look at the world in different ways, so there are many perspectives on the problem you’re facing,” he points out. “Very often, when we get stuck or we’ve become wedded to the frame, we’re convinced we know what the problem is, that’s when you end up pig wrestling. But to rethink, to better frame the problem, is a chance to more forward.”
Which of course leads us to the uncomfy reality about these nightmare scenarios we feel blighted by – many are created or at least compounded by our own actions. Our unconscious biases or pig-headedness have us pulling a knotty problem tighter and tighter rather than teasing it apart. “You’ve got to be curious,” says Mark. “When people are finally switched to ‘receive’ rather than ‘transmit’, it’s often because they’re fully stuck and are looking for suggestions for a way forward. By that point people are fully open. Being playful with a problem, focusing on what it looks like solved, is the way to move towards resolution.”
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