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Peak Mind Pro: Mindfulness at Work

If there was a magic pill that made you sharper, more effective, more creative, and more socially skilled while simultaneously improving the quality of your decisions and reducing the number of mistakes you made – with side effects of lower stress and more happiness – would you take it?

Absolutely! 

And you’d probably give it to everyone on your team or in your organization as well.

While this magic pill doesn’t exist yet, mindfulness does all of those things. 

Mindfulness is your competitive edge

Many people these days have heard of mindfulness and how beneficial it can be, but they’ve dismissed it due, in large part, to misunderstanding what it actually is.

Set aside any preconceived notions of sitting cross-legged on a pillow with your eyes closed and mind going blank. Instead, think of mindfulness as heightened focus and awareness. This combo is your competitive edge. 

In action, mindfulness at work means being fully aware of what is happening, both inside of you and around you, and being able to direct and sustain your focused attention where you need it.

 

Awareness

How much time do you spend on autopilot or lost in your head? If you’re anything like the average person, it’s at least 47% of the time. That means that you are not fully present and focused on what you are doing roughly half of the time. That also means that you’re likely missing out on lots of vital information. Imagine how much more effective you could be if you raised that number even a little bit.

Focus

Being able to direct and control your attention – focusing on what is important while filtering out distractions – allows you to perform at a higher level while exerting less energy. Multitasking is a myth. When we divide our attention, we are actually shifting back and forth from one task to the other, albeit sometimes very quickly. That shifting eats up our limited resource of attention and actually requires more energy and effort resulting in more mental fatigue and stress and less quality work. 

The Solution

Mindfulness – being aware and focused – is a core element of psychological strength. As with all core elements, it is a skill that can be developed if you’re willing to put in the time and effort to do so. 

Tips to Try

While setting aside time most days for a formal mindful meditation practice (e.g., with an app like 10% Happier, Calm, or Headspace) can be tremendously beneficial, this just isn’t feasible for many people for a number of reasons. At Peak Mind, we are fans of finding effective ways to build mindfulness into the cracks of a busy, modern lifestyle. Try these tips out for a couple of weeks and see what a difference it can make.

1. Help you and your team have more effective meetings by starting with a little mindfulness. Ask everyone to set aside their phone, tablet, or laptop and spend the first 2 minutes of the meeting in silence thinking about the goals for the meeting. This will allow everyone to show up both physically and mentally, to become aware and focused on the task at hand. You will likely notice that meetings become more efficient.

2. Encourage employees (and model this behavior by doing it yourself) to carve out dedicated work times in which they focus solely on one important task or project. This means making these time blocks as distraction-free as possible by turning off notifications.

3. Build in mini-mindfulness breaks. Set a timer to go off hourly (or at least periodically). When the timer goes off, notice what you are doing and where your mind is. Were you focused on what you’re doing? Try to follow one full breath. This means resting your attention on your breath and trying to stay with it from the start of the inhale, to the pause at the top, and all the way through the exhale. Then, ask yourself, what do I want to focus on right now? 

If you are interested in learning more ways to help you and your team develop this vital skill, email us at info@peakmindpsychology.com

“The best way to capture moments is to pay attention. This is how we cultivate mindfulness. Mindfulness means being awake. It means knowing what you are doing.”
Jon Kabat-Zinn
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How and Why to Control Your Attention

What you focus on matters. Being able to intentionally direct and control your attention can make a big difference in the quality of your life experience.

Psychological resources

When you think about your important resources and how they influence your life, what comes to mind?

Most people think of money or other financial resources. Those are important, for sure. They’re the key to some aspects of stability, freedom, and pleasure. I’d argue, though, that we expend too much time and energy acquiring and protecting that particular resource at the expense of others that have a dramatic impact on our life experience. 

Just as your financial assets may make a tangible difference in the quality of your day-to-day experience, so will your psychological resources. Yet, we often overlook the importance of these resources and how the ways in which we choose to “spend” them will shape our life experience. Today, let’s focus on one important psychological resource: attention.

Attention

Simply put, what we focus on matters. The information we take in and the relationships, activities, and aspects of experience that we spend time on will have a big effect on us. What we focus on day in and day out shapes who we are, our outlook on life and the world, and, ultimately, what we do with our time on this planet. 

Attention is a limited resource, though, so it’s important to think about where and how you “spend” it. Unless you’re a fellow psychologist or really into mindfulness, you probably haven’t thought a lot about where your attention goes and why. 

Internal and external distractions

Our attention gets hijacked all the time, with and without our direct permission, We are constantly being bombarded by demands for attention. Things come at us from the outside (like notifications or loud noises) and from the inside (internal distractions like urges, thoughts, and emotions). Our minds, awesome little jerks that they can be, often don’t help us out because they happily chase any and every distraction unless we have the awareness and ability to stop them.

Being able to consciously direct your attention is an important skill and one that can be developed. Think about the implications here. Rather than having your attention jerked around by any internal or external distraction, what if you could choose where to focus and sustain your attention? What if you could hone in on something and filter out everything else? What if you could stay focused on the things, people, and tasks that you deem worthy? What a difference that would make! Strengthening your attentional control muscle gives you an advantage in virtually every area of life.

Get intentional with your attention

One of my favorite authors, Mark Manson, introduced the concept of our attention diet, comparable to nutrition. If we eat the super appealing, highly addictive, easy junk foods like candy and chips, we may find momentary pleasure. But at what cost? Repeatedly, over time, eating junk makes our bodies incredibly unhealthy. Manson argues it’s the same thing with our minds. If we repeatedly consume junk, there will be a negative impact on the quality, strength, and health of our minds. That makes sense to me.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love a good Netflix binge. But, if I’m being honest, what actually happens after more than a day of heavy TV watching is that my motivation goes down. It’s that much easier to hang out on the couch the next day and to lose steam on the projects that are actually important or value-adding to me. What’s more is that the quality of my thoughts and mood are impacted, too. My enthusiasm is dampened, and things in general feel a little more blah. I know this isn’t just me. 

Guarding your attention

In addition to having the ability to control our attention, being intentional about where we choose to direct our attention is critical. Here are a few tips for protecting and maximizing this precious psychological resource.

1. Take up a mindfulness practice

Mindfulness, a core element of psychological strength, is essentially attention training, and I believe that’s part of why it’s such a beneficial practice to cultivate. There are a ton of ways to build mindfulness, and I’d encourage you to experiment until you find some that work for you. If you’re interested in a deeper dive into this topic, join us at our next Quarterly Workshop (it’s virtual), Mindfulness: It’s Not What You Think, in July.  

2. Be ruthless with distractions and ntifications

You expend less energy and waste less of your limited attention if you set yourself up for success. Be brutal when it comes to notifications. Ask yourself, do I really want to let this app interrupt me and hijack my attention at any point? Do I really need these notifications on my watch? Put your phone on silent or do not disturb when you need to focus or, better yet, leave it in another room. Same thing goes with being available online for direct messaging. Remove distractions and attention hijackers from your environment when possible.

3. Reflect on what you take in

Spend some time regularly reflecting on what you’re taking in and the quality of your attention diet, so to speak. Are you gorging yourself on junk information and relationships or are you taking in high quality, nutrient rich ones? 

Bottom line: It’s important to consider how your attention shapes who you are and what your life is like. Being able to intentionally direct and control your attention can make a big difference in the quality of your life.

“Remember: What gets attention is not always important. And what is important rarely gets attention.”
Mark Manson
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Podcasts

Take a Self-Compassion Break

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There’s no denying it – the last handful of years have been very challenging. Aside from the personal adversity we’ve all felt in our individual lives, we’ve faced incredible collective adversity. The pandemic. Political divide. Crime and mass shootings. It has all been a lot to handle, and many of us have found ourselves searching for ways to move through it and cope.

Thankfully, the field of psychology has a very effective tool for times like these: self-compassion. By opening up to and being mindful of our own emotional experience, by realizing that we aren’t alone in the way we’re feeling, and by offering ourselves kindness rather than criticism, we can help support ourselves through truly challenging times.

The main audio of this episode is a replay of an impromptu self-compassion break I led the day after the mass shooting at the elementary school in Ulvalde, Texas. Quite a few people from around the world joined in community to learn how to apply this important tool during challenging times.

Not everyone who wanted to join was able to (it was a very last-minute session), so this week’s podcast episode is a replay of the audio of that session.

In addition, there is a very valuable section at the end of this podcast about what it means to support other people through challenging times. So many times we say, “I just don’t know what to say or do.” And so we do nothing. The final segment of this week’s podcast helps give you another perspective on those situations, and I give you some practical tips about how you can support others during painful or challenging times.

Additional Resources:

  1. Fierce Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff
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Blogs

Mindfulness Practice, by a Former Skeptic

My mom and I are close. I’ve always adored her but, when I was younger, I scoffed a bit at (what I used to call) her Zen-Buddha-karma hippie interests. She had a mindfulness practice before people even knew what that was. Like a meditation practice. Deep breaths. All that. She was into yoga before it was cool, so I was exposed to it as a teen in the mid-90s. I didn’t mind yoga as a physical practice, but the meditation piece, though, no thank you. 

In fact, I turned down a trip to Costa Rica with her about 10 or so years ago because of it. She called to tell me about this amazing yoga retreat she was going on. I was in until she shared the schedule, which included an early morning meditation class. That was a hard pass for me.

Keep in mind that when I rolled my eyes at her meditation, I wasn’t some young kid who couldn’t sit still. I was a full-fledged doctoral level licensed psychologist specializing in the treatment of anxiety disorders. I knew a lot about the human mind and how it works, and I. Was. SKEPTICAL.

Make your mind go blank? I called B.S. MINDS DON’T GO BLANK!

Which is true, they don’t. The mind wanders if you don’t focus on the present, but it doesn’t just go blank. The issue was that I didn’t really understand what mindfulness meant. I didn’t get the point of meditation.

And that was a HUGE oversight on my part.

Thankfully though, as a scientist at heart and a clinician who continually strives to learn and stay current, I couldn’t help but delve into this world, and I am now a fully reformed skeptic. I’m 100% on the mindfulness bandwagon and strongly encourage everyone to hop on it with me. It is for your mind what working out is for your body…nothing short of transformative.

Here are some of the factors that made me change my tune.

The Data

Hardcore research studies may not do much for you, but they do for me, and the results are compelling. Scientists and researchers have been studying the effects of mindfulness based stress reduction, and it is nothing short of a miracle. Mindfulness Exercises:

  • Decreases anxiety, depression, anxiety
  • Decreases stress
  • Increases happiness
  • Increases focus and concentration

I’m into all of those effects. Mental health and wellbeing is my business! But here’s where it gets even more crazy cool and convincing. Mindfulness – a mental practice involving awareness of the present moment, simply paying attention to the here and now – affects your body. too. Studies have shown that mindfulness has done amazing things like:

  • Decreases physical pain
  • Turns off 7% of the genes involved in your stress response. Literally switches them off.
  • Boosts your immune response (for example, researchers injected people with something known to cause skin rashes, but the people who had been practicing mindfulness didn’t get one!)
  • Even slows down the aging process on a cellular level

Seeing data like these was enough to convince me that this practice, which has been around in various forms for thousands of years, was legit. My direct experiences, though, keep me believing.

My Own Experiences

The actual details of how I incorporate mindfulness and meditation into my life vary over time, from informal to formal guided practices, and I’m not always consistent. Fortunately, there is always the option to simply begin again when I get off track. For me, personally, the top changes and benefits I’ve seen from this lifestyle practice include:

Self-awareness and understanding

Mindfulness has allowed me to observe my inner workings, gaining a better understanding of myself and my patterns of thinking and reacting. My ability to see these processes unfold in the moment has increased, too, which leads to…

Less emotional reactivity

I seem to be much more even-keel emotionally, less reactive in the moment, which is great because I feel more in charge and in control. I’m also much better able to sit with my emotions (to observe those sunsets, if you caught last week’s email).

Pleasure in small moments

Because mindfulness is essentially an attention training process, there are some, perhaps, surprising side effects. One is that I’m more attune to the small pleasures and joyous moments in life. I noticed that I literally stopped to smell the roses on a walk not too long after starting my practice. Pre-mindfulness and meditation (Pre-M), I most likely would’ve just glanced at those flowers, if I had noticed them at all.

Patience

Another benefit, for me at least, is patience. Pre-M Ashley was ants-in-the-pants restless on a 3 hour road trip. Post-M Ashley handled a 13 hour flight…with an extra 3 hour delay…in stride. Very little misery. A surprising amount of pleasure. I blame mindfulness.

I’ve heard that boredom is an attention issue, that nothing is boring if you pay close enough attention to it. My own experiences echo that. I have rarely found myself feeling bored since starting a mindfulness practice, even when there’s very little apparent stimulation. I can be quiet and still (believe it or not).

Develop Your Own Mindfulness Practice

There are an endless number of ways to start to build your own mindfulness practice, ranging from apps like 10% Happier to Peak Mind programs like Ascend and our Quarterly Workshops (and, of course, you’re welcome to join those), but where I really want to direct you is to this amazing FREE online summit coming up in January. 

Dr. April, Peak Mind co-founder, is teaming up with Fleet Maull of the Heart Mind Institute to host the Best Year of Your Life Summit. It’s 10 days of free content from THE leading psychologists, meditation teachers (including one of my personal favorites, Sharon Salzberg), and visionaries. (Seriously. I flipped when I saw the line up). It’s way more than mindfulness, but what a great place to start (or strengthen) your practice. See you there!

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Podcasts

The Difference between Mindfulness and Visualization

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Ashley and I have been doing quite a few workshops centered around what psychological strength is and what the components are that make it up. And, there’s one component that consistently generates more confusion and questions than any other. That topic is mindfulness.

The skill of mindfulness sits at the center of our wheel of psychological strength, and it’s the core of psych strength for a reason. You need strong mindfulness skills to develop skills in all of the other areas. Your relationship with your thoughts relies on mindfulness. Mindfulness is the foundation of emotional intelligence. It impacts your relationships, your sense of self, it interacts with your habits and behavior and is an important component in life design. It really is the core of psych strength. However, it frequently gets confused with other similar skills and techniques. Specifically, visualization.

In today’s episode, I want to dig into these two concepts: Mindfulness and visualization to give you a solid understanding of what each of them is. How they’re similar, how they’re different, and more importantly, when to use each one of them because they’re both useful for different things.

Supplemental information:

  1. Podcast episode 0239 – “How to not hate meditation”
  2. Cheryl B. Engelhardt’s episode
  3. Use of mental imagery for sports performance

Following action steps and guided visualization is key to achieving your goals. Knowing the difference between mindfulness and visualization can be the difference between desired outcomes from goal setting and facing an uphill battle. With the right clarity, every single day you propel yourself forward step by step closer to your goal and living your life in a fulfilling manner.

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Mindfulness to Combat Judgments

As the centers for disease control and prevention (CDC) loosens its standards, states and municipalities around the country start to re-open, and we are thrust into yet another highly uncertain time. Our lives were shaken up like snow globes when the novel coronavirus first reared its nasty head. Now, just as some of the snow is starting to settle and we are getting used to sheltering in place, things are being upended again. Only this time, the uncertainty seems to be met with heightened anger.

We’re trying our best to use the available information to predict the future so that we can make informed decisions about how best to proceed, and people have strong opinions on what the right course of action is now. The reality, though, is that no one knows for sure. Buzzwords like SARS COV-2, and Wuhan, China, are heard among feisty internet trolls, while talk of Covid-19 vaccinations and Covid-19 pandemic are heard through inter office chatter. The truth is, there is a lot going on and too much to pay attention to. Our focus should be on practicing mindfulness, and not getting wrapped up in the escalating tensions that this easing of restrictions brings. 

While our opinions and, ultimately, decisions about how to move forward within our own lives may differ, we share one thing in common: we are afraid. Afraid of getting sick, of people dying, of a resurgence in cases that will extend stay home orders, of financial insecurity, of losing access to basic needs like food and shelter. 

Bottom line: uncertainty breeds fear.

And fear can drive judgment and hostility, which I’m pretty sure won’t help any of us. Anger isn’t going to increase collaboration or productive problem-solving. It’s going to lead to blaming, defending, and a bunch of other unhelpful junk.

Which brings me to the point for today. 

Watch out for Judgy McJudgerson.

Our brains are wired to judge. It’s one of those default, built in short cuts that helps them process information quickly. It’s also one of those default, built in short cuts that causes lots of problems.

Our little internal Judgys like to add their stamp of approval (or disapproval) to things and in doing so add fuel to the internal fires of anger (or sadness or guilt or shame or jealousy or whatever).

It’s important to understand, though, that those judgments, those declarations of “good” or “bad,” are a product of our mind and not an objective aspect of reality.

Let me say that another way. There’s a difference between a fact and an opinion, right? It’s the same difference as between an observation and a judgment.

Mindfulness to Combat Judgments

One powerful psychological strength tool at your disposal is mindfulness, which can be simply defined as focusing on the present moment without judgment. One way to use this tool is to differentiate between observations and judgments. Check your mind’s internal commentary for facts and opinions.

When you see someone handling things differently than you would, old Judgy is going to take over and say “That is different. Different = bad.” That’s a judgment, a short cut, an opinion.

Instead, an observation is “That is different.” End of story. 

Judgments open the door for a host of other (often not so helpful) inner commentary to arise like, in this case, name calling and blaming. The result on you? Likely unnecessary anger or stress.

Now, I’m not advocating that we take a completely “You do you” approach to COVID. I am all for critically consuming information and deferring to the experts who have more knowledge and understanding about the factors at play here and trusting their guidance. What I am advocating for, though, is building psychological strength in the face of adversity. As we like to say at Peak Mind, “You are a human with a brain.” In this case, that also means you’re judgy. So am I. But we don’t have to live by default. We can actively shape the way our minds work and definitely how they influence us.

A Challenge for You

This week, I challenge you be on the look out for Judgey McJudgerson. It’s everywhere, and it can be sneaky. Catch your mind’s judgments and strive toward more factual observations. You’ll probably be shocked by just how prevalent judgments are in your thoughts. That’s ok. It’s natural but also changeable.

The importance of being mindful and combating judgments extends far beyond COVID, but why not start working on it now? You can build mindfulness and learn more effective yet simple strategies for reigning in Judgy inside our ASCEND program. 

“Can you look without the voice in your head commenting, drawing conclusions, comparing, or trying to figure something out?”
– Ekhart Tolle

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What Does Your Best Self Look Like? 

If we’re all being honest we’ve all had days where we showed up as our BEST! …and then there were those days where we feel like we fell short.

Here’s something really cool: There’s INSIGHT in that.

Hear me out! Think about what you’re like when you’re at your best. What are you doing? Thinking? Feeling? 

Take 5 minutes to jot down some thoughts about the characteristics that would describe you when you’re really firing on all cylinders.

If you’ve done that, you should now have a picture in your mind of the type of person you’re hoping to be on most days.

Now, let’s go a little further. If you really sit down to think about it, there are probably other tangible, circumstantial differences between the days when you were at your best and the days when you weren’t. It might be:

  • How much you had on your plate
  • How well you had been taking care of yourself
  • How organized you were
  • Whether anything unexpected came up

There’s likely a whole slew of characteristics you can name. 

Take 5 minutes and jot a few of them down. 

Now let’s evaluate!

Based on what you wrote down, there is a certain set of circumstances that had at least a partial influence on how you felt and experienced your day. Some of those circumstances are inside of your control, and some aren’t.

Take a critical look at those factors that you can control, and think about how you might put some structure in place to support you, going forward. Answer this question: How well did you pay attention to how you felt achieving your goals?

I’ll give you a tangible example.

When I’m at my best, I feel organized and in control. One of the circumstances that helps me feel that way is when all of my upcoming tasks and responsibilities are written down and accounted for on my schedule.

When this happens, I can let my mind relax because I know I’m not going to drop a ball. 

So, one thing I’ve started to do on a daily and weekly basis is look ahead and pencil everything in on my calendar. I mean everything. If it’s on my calendar, it’s not in my head.

This simple task helps me show up closer to my best ever single day.

This approach is a great fit for me. Perhaps your needs are different, after all, we all have different skills and experiences. 

Take just a few minutes today to identify what you look like at your best and the circumstances you can create to make it more likely that you’ll get to show up as that person. Set an intention to practice and experiment with those things for the next couple of weeks.

If you really want to dive more into a set of practices and routines that will support you in consistently showing up as your best, you’ll appreciate our Self-care [by Design] mini-course. 

“Incredible change happens in your life when you decide to take control of what you do have power over instead of craving control over what you don’t.”
– Steve Mariboli
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Psychological Strength in the Face of a Pandemic

Our message this week is a long one, but it’s worthwhile.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve undoubtedly heard of the coronavirus. You’ve probably also been affected in some way:

Events have been canceled. Businesses and schools have closed or shifted to remote options. Supplies at grocery stores have sold out in places, and the stock market has plummeted.

With organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) and Center for Disease Control (CDC) issuing the need for safety precautions like social distancing and working from home, and various levels of government calling various states of emergency, it’s hard not to worry…or worry that you’re not worrying enough. As the death toll rises in the United States the Covid-19 pandemic has caused a major public health crisis. 

For more than a decade, my day job as a clinical psychologist has been helping people learn to manage anxiety effectively. So here are a few tips to help you keep your cool while staying safe:

Understanding Your Mind

First, it’s important to understand a couple things about how the mind works:

This is an oversimplification, but it’ll make the point. There is a part of our minds that is capable of mental representation. This means we are able to daydream, worry, plan, and predict. We are capable of imagining things, creating them in our minds. 

Unfortunately, the part of our mind that controls emotions can’t tell the difference between real and imagined. That means that imagined worst case scenarios provoke the same emotional response as actual bad things happening. Our fear systems can sometimes get activated by things that are happening in our minds, not in real life.

Another thing you need to know is that our minds are master storytellers. They are designed to take a few data points, connect the dots, and fill in the gaps. Our minds make assumptions, create predictions, assign meaning, offer interpretations, and add judgments to the bits of information we take in. In other words, they spin up stories, and, when anxiety is writing that narrative, it’s going to err on the side of danger, overestimation of threat, and catastrophe.

Knowing these things, it is important to question your mind and to separate the facts from the fictions. Facts are the things that you can know for sure, right now, through your direct sensory experience. Fictions are the things elements and detailed added by your mind.

 

ACTION STEP 1: Hone in the FACTS of the situation.

A challenge with the coronavirus situation is that most of us have very few (if any) direct experience facts, so we have to rely on other sources of information. In an era in which information is readily available anytime, anywhere, misinformation is everywhere. 

Remember, anyone can post ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING, regardless of credibility or evidence to back it and one in which shock value is rewarded by clicks, views, and shares.  If you are one of those people who needs to see data collections and what studies show, then Google Scholar is a good tool, along with directives from the WHO and CDC. 

Our minds are powerful, but they are not always accurate, and this is evident when it comes to the illusion of truth effect. Our minds will believe things they hear repeatedly, regardless of the merits of that information. They mistake repetition for indication of truth. 

Even when we rationally know that the source of the information is questionable or that claims are alarmist or unrealistic, a part of our mind is still soaking up that information and encoding it…and it will stick like  – and in the long term be treated as – fact even though it didn’t start that way. This is not positive psychology and should be monitored closely. 

ACTION STEP 2: Go on a media diet and limit your input.

Be incredibly mindful about the content and media you are consuming right now. Make sure it comes from reputable sources, and limit how often you check the news and social media.

In these uncertain times, credible sources are issuing cautions, and It’s hard to ignore all of the signs that suggest that something bad is, in fact, happening, which means that It’s not realistic to “just not worry about it” or “carry on with life as usual.” How do we determine when and how much to worry, and what to do about it?

I advise my patients to use this general framework to help tease apart realistic from excessive worry:

1.     Is this an actual problem (as opposed to an imagined or hypothetical one)?

2.     Is this an actual problem for today (as opposed to one that must be handled down the road at some point)?

3.     Is this an actual problem for today that I can control (as opposed to something that I have no control over and cannot influence, prevent, or change)?

If the answer to all three questions is yes, it’s time to problem-solve and come up with an action plan. However, if the answer to any one of them is “no”, it’s time to use your psychological strength to keep fear in check and to focus on what matters right here and now.

However, this does not mean go on a social media diet. During unprecedented times like these where social connections are harder to come by due to limited face to face interactions, we must utilize social media as a means of social support. 

Whether it’s staying in touch with loved ones, and planning a socially distanced meetup outdoors to get some physical activity, or accessing mental health care online with a telehealth provider, social media may be used as a means to help you cope during this pandemic.

ACTION STEP 3: Use these filters to help size worry:

1.     Is this problem a real problem?

2.     Is this a problem for today?

3.     Is this a problem that I can control?

Coping skills like mindfulness (paying full attention to what you’re doing right here, right now), thought challenging (questioning the accuracy and helpfulness of what your mind is saying), and valued actions (acting in line with who and how you want to be as a person, regardless of external circumstances) can help keep excessive fear and worry in check.

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Feeling Fuzzy or Forgetful? A Lesson About Cognitive Load

I’m going to cut right to the chase today – we’ve been hearing from many people that they’re feeling foggy, forgetful, or absent-minded.

You know, when you walk into a room and totally forget to do the ONE THING you went into the room to do?!

If you’re a mom, you’ve likely experienced it and had people say, “Oh, you’ve got ‘mom brain.'” 

As it turns out, “mom brain” is something much more pervasive, it has a scientific name: cognitive load, and many people are experiencing it right now.

Cognitive Load

Cognitive load is a state that we experience when our finite amount of working memory is used up by the current mental tasks we’re trying to accomplish. 

Quick background, “working memory” is our quick-access memory system that is used for things that we’re currently working on. 

The good thing about working memory is that we have quick access to it. The bad thing is that it’s not reliable. Information isn’t even really encoded there. You have to work hard to keep information in working memory, like reciting your shopping list over and over in your mind, and the second you stop reciting it over and over, it’s lost.

It’s that resource-intensive repetition that causes cognitive load.

The only other option is to commit the information to long-term memory, but that takes hundreds of repetitions over the course of days or weeks. Not realistic for day-to-day tasks.

In our normal lives, this looks more like:

  • Attempting to work while being interrupted by kids or others
  • Trying to remember that long list of items you still need to accomplish (appointments, email replies, items to buy, phone calls to make, what food is in the fridge, etc.)

By simultaneously holding “mental space” for all of these ongoing things, we deplete our working memory down to zero. Just like a computer out of memory, our information processing system has shut down. 

There’s nothing left to help us remember that we went into the other room to grab our cell phone charger, for example.

And, as a result, we call our kids by the wrong name, lose our car keys, make errors at work, forget important items on the shopping list, forget an important family member’s birthday, the list goes on.

Who cares?

If you’re a well-intentioned, empathetic person who’s honestly trying to do a good job, you likely beat yourself up for being stupid or lazy or forgetful when this happens.

But, like so many of the topics we cover at Peak Mind, cognitive load is just something that happens to humans who have brains.

If you are a human with a brain, you will experience cognitive load at some point, and if you’re taking on more than others around you, you’re likely to experience it more often. You’ve got more on your mind.

The good news is, you can increase cognitive load, but it’s even easier to reduce the cognitive load. If you are struggling with your working memory capacity or your processing capacity, you are likely struggling with cognitive load malfunctions. But, there are a few tips and tricks from the field of Life Design that can help you minimize it.

Minimizing Cognitive Load

STEP 1: Brain dump

The problem that’s causing your cognitive load is that you’re trying to hold too much stuff in working memory at the same time.

To get it out of your working memory, sit down, and write down everything going on in your mind. There are likely quite a few categories of things, such as:

  • Important, upcoming dates, deadlines, and responsibilities
  • Daily, mundane tasks you need to do
  • Shopping lists
  • Other family members’ / people’s needs
  • Things you’re particularly worried about right now

Brain dump them all onto a piece of paper, and add to it over the course of the day. Anytime a thought pops up that you feel like you have to remember, write it down.

STEP 2: Organize

Start to clump those categories and the items underneath them into broader groups, like:

  • Running lists (e.g., shopping, to-do lists, etc)
  • Dates & deadlines
  • Feelings & emotions

STEP 3: Create a System

Chances are you can’t eliminate many of these items from your list. It’s not realistic.

However, YOU DO NOT HAVE TO HOLD THESE ITEMS IN MEMORY! Tools exist specifically for things like this!

The goal of this step is to make a system that you can use to handle the items that normally are in your mind, opening you up to have less memory problems, better mental clarity, and a better ability to problem solve. 

Here are my favorite tips:

  • Every single date and deadline gets scheduled on a calendar. And, I mean ALL OF THEM. If it involves other people, it goes on a shared calendar that notifies them 1 week, 1 day, and 1 hour before the event.
  • Every to-do list item that requires time to accomplish either gets put on the same calendar or it gets put on a back-log list (my list is in my iPhone). 
  • Create a running shopping list on your phone or in a common place in the house where everyone who needs to access it can access it. 

There are probably other bullets that you need to employ to take care of your unique situation, but the general concept is to account for all of the “stuff” clouding up your mind by putting it in a reliable, safe place so that you don’t have to remember it.

Iterate, iterate, iterate

Chances are, you’ll falter at first. You’ll forget to add items, or you’ll revert back to your old habit of just mentally reciting everything.

Adjust, go back to your system, and review it regularly to remind yourself that you’ve got everything accounted for. 

Over time, the anxiety associated with being afraid you might drop a ball will lessen as your mind catches on that it doesn’t have to take on so much anymore.

This system is one of the core elements of my self-care routine. I have a daily, weekly, and monthly task on my calendar to review this system, add to it, make adjustments, reprioritize, etc. It keeps my mind clear and my anxiety level down. 

If you want to develop your own blockbuster self-care routine, you can follow the method I use in Self-Care [by Design].

But, for now, be kind to yourself. If you’re feeling forgetful or frazzled, know that it’s simply cognitive load theory because you’re human and taking on more than one human being’s worth of stuff right now. No need to lose hours of sleep worrying this is Alzheimer’s disease or simply a part of aging, but that this is simply a side effect of your busy life! 

“Be kind to your body, gentle with your mind, and patient with your heart. You are still becoming, my love, and there is no one more deserving of the nurturing grace of your love.”
 – Becca Lee
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Be Like Gerda: Finding Gratitude in Darkest Times

Profound Conversations

You know those conversations that just stick with you? The ones that don’t necessarily seem significant at the time but that worm their way into your memory, take root, and blossom into something that fundamentally shifts your worldview?

Have you ever had that experience second-hand? When you weren’t even a part of the original conversation, you just heard the recap?

I have, and I want to share that with you.

Gerda’s Story

A few years ago, back before Peak Mind was even a consideration and April had just gotten into podcasting, she and I were catching up on the phone talking about grateful people and stories of gratitude. She told me about a recent guest she had just interviewed, a woman who survived the Holocaust. April told me that in their conversation, the woman (who I now know is named Gerda Weissman Klein) remarked to her that no one ever talks about the good parts of the Holocaust. 

EXCUSE ME?! The good parts of the Holocaust? There were GOOD parts of the greatest human atrocity of modern times? 

Gerda told April about the compassion and support and friendship and sacrifice amongst the Jews in the concentration camps.

I can’t even begin to imagine the hardships and suffering that survivors had to endure, and I was blown away that one would highlight the bright spots.

Honestly, I was blown away that there even were bright spots.

That fact speaks to some of the strengths of the human spirit.

Finding a bright spot, something to appreciate or be grateful for, doesn’t negate the pain, the suffering, the hardship, or the adversity you are facing. Those things are real, and they’re there. They’re hard to ignore, and they tend to demand and hold our attention.

Finding Gratitude 

In my clinical practice, I often teach both kids and adults about our brain’s natural negativity bias, the importance of finding a “but at least” in every crummy situation, and the power of gratitude (there are SO MANY psychological and physical benefits, trust me). I am often, however, met with a version of “But this sucks! There’s nothing good about it.”

That’s when I share my second-hand conversation with Gerda. If she can find something to be grateful for during the Holocaust, I’m pretty sure we can find something here in the united states.

The attitude of gratitude – or the act of finding and focusing on those bright spots –  helps us have a more balanced view of our experience. It helps us to be strong and resilient. It gives us a lifeline to cling to when it feels like we’re drowning.

Don’t short-change this practice, though, by quickly naming things you should appreciate. Seek out the unique bright spots for that day, and when you find one, savor it. Really focus on it, tap into that sense of gratitude, and hold on to it for just a little while (10-12 seconds to be exact. That’s about how long it takes positive stuff to get encoded in our memories, in contrast to the negative stuff that gets socked away pretty much instantaneously).  

And as you work to find your bright spots during difficult times, please don’t let gratitude become a sneaky way to shame yourself. “You’ve got a roof over your head and food to eat. You should be grateful. Why are you struggling?” or “There’s always a bright spot. Why can’t you find it? What’s wrong with you?” Commence self-criticism spiral. 

In those moments, perhaps the bright spot is simply that you tried; amidst everything else going on, you tried, and that speaks to your strength.

Whether your circumstances in this pandemic make it easy or difficult, I implore you to find something to feel grateful for each and every day.

Be grateful.

Be strong.

Be like Gerda.

“I pray you never stand at any crossroads in your own lives, but if you do, if the darkness seems so total, if you think there is no way out, remember, never ever give up. The darker the night, the brighter the dawn, and when it gets really, really dark, this is when one sees the true brilliance of the stars.” 
 – Gerda Weissman Klein

 P.S. If you want to hear Gerda’s powerful story, here’s her interview with April.