Much of schooling has been about changing what we as children intuitively knew to be right. That the world was not divided into academic subjects, that we learnt best when we interacted with each other, that day dreaming was good for us and that bringing work home from school was certainly a very bad idea.
And yet, we would come home from school, desperate to leave fractions, volcanoes and Woodsworth behind, only to find a ‘Homework’ book that mocked us from the school bag and haunted us until dinnertime, if not bedtime. Needless to say, our confusion started way back in our childhood.
Old habits die hard. After an entire childhood spent in this drill, it is hardly surprising that we would continue to do so well into our adulthood. However, that does not make it okay. Even if we were unable to do something about it as kids, we are now in a position to take charge. Especially when we know the ills it entails. It harms our mental, physical and emotional health and it is certainly not beneficial for our relationships. The person who cannot detach themselves from work begins to see the self with as a one-dimensional being, which not only curtails their lives but also leaves no space for others to enter. It is an impoverished life at best.
This becomes a vicious cycle. When we cannot ‘be’ at home while we are there, we fulfill none of our home responsibilities to ourselves or to those who are a part of our lives. Important duties get left on the backburner and come back in their urgency to haunt us at work. The forms we needed to fill for the class trip, the pizza we had to order for their class party, the talk with the friend who was fairing poorly, even the time needed to sit back and make sense of our day. Lives are busy as it is – by not creating well-defined boundaries, we not only add to the confusion, we also allow the urgent to take over the important and run the show while we trail helplessly in the back seat.
So what do we do if we want to live life with purpose?
First and foremost, we need to shed the myth that we have to multi-task to succeed. Why? Because the idea that multi-tasking works is itself a myth. Have you ever tried working on a project while listening to your child recount her day at school? Our brain works by focusing on one thing at a time. Juggling between tasks simply splatters our attention and drains it such that none of the tasks gets the benefits of our productivity and creativity. A recipe for shoddy work, a disappointed child, a confused mind and likely the guilt of not having guided through her mini trials and tribulations. Being fully present in the moment allows us to manage our mental energy rather than manage our time through the futile effort of multi-tasking.
Second, we need to learn emotional agility, the ability to leave one cognitive or emotional state behind and flexibly move on to the next. We believe that consciously focusing on our problems will produce all the right answers, all the time. We believe that if we were to ‘unhook’, we would delay important decisions and make wrong choices. However, the brain makes the complicated journey of life on more than a single system. When the Task Positive network of conscious focus is shut down, the Default Mode network takes over and unbeknownst to us, engages the resources of the vast subconscious to make sense of our world. The reality is that when we disengage from our problems and tasks, we allow our subconscious mind to do the processing. The only problem is that this mind is enormous and it is disorganized, haphazardly stuffing away observations and answers for years and years. Give it time to search and it will give you the solutions. “Sleep on it” is more than grandfatherly wisdom.
However, the subconscious can be tricky territory for emotional decisions. It is a part of life to experience disappointments at home and at work. An argument with a friend or a colleague. Family politics and office politics, a taunting slur or a negative piece of feedback. But it is getting hooked onto the thought or feeling that makes it attach itself to us like sticky tendrils that grow in our minds and block our capacity to think or act consciously. “I have to get this bonus”, “My daughter will get a bad grade”, “My friend will never talk to me again” etc. are the unspoken words that course through our minds – most of them subconscious judgments and evaluations from outdated beliefs and faulty assumptions. It is important to acknowledge these fears, so we can calm them down and thus disengage from our emotions. Calling upon our conscious brain to judge our reaction and plan a positive way forward allows us to stop acting out of fear and begin acting from a place of grounding and purpose.
This ability to move gracefully from one state of mind to the next enables us to make the most of this brilliance atop our bodies, the marker of our excellence, our unique human brain. All its systems are beneficial to us, but in balance and in context. When any one of them takes over, our lives begin to veer towards the edge. By being present in the moment and taming this emotional and cognitive frenzy, we allow ourselves to be organized and disciplined in how we want to manage our time.
Just as calling upon every system of our brains leads to harmony, honoring every aspect of our identity is what leads to balance. We are whole people and we owe it to ourselves to recognize our many facets. We are mothers, daughters, wives and sisters. We are friends, confidants, mentors and guides. We are professionals, entrepreneurs, artists, writers and more. There are even mysterious sides to that we have yet to uncover. Giving each one its due place enables us to bring meaning to our lives and belong to something larger than the self.