Chapter 2

The Frenetic Life

Q. My life is hectic. Too often I feel confused and just can’t seem to get things done. If I back off and take a breath, I feel guilty. If I proceed, I make a mistake. Life is chaotic and I feel trapped. Is it me?

A. Well, yes, it Carpenter_Systems_Comps_R6.inddis you, but that’s a good thing, because you can fix you. You are the supreme commander of you!

Up until seventeen years ago my life was a swirling, confused ordeal. Yet in a flash of insight, at a specific moment in time that I vividly recall, the chaos disappeared for good.

Because the new vision enabled me to create the conditions in my life that I wanted, my first effort was to forge all the free time and money I needed, and that’s what I did. Immediately upon experiencing the insight, my business and personal life began to improve, and I’ve been incrementally building value ever since.

This is what I want for you: to experience the Systems Mindset insight and then create exactly the life of freedom and wealth and peace you’ve always wanted.

But let’s start by tackling the elephant in the living room, what may be your largest challenge in acquiring the Systems Mindset.  Although this particular elephant isn’t the subject of the book, it’s the reason most people can’t even get started in the process of securing the personal control they need to effectively manage their lives. It’s the plague of what I call DDD: Digital Drug Dementia, the mental-paralysis epidemic that is ignored even though, or maybe because, most people are infected. It’s the primary reason for personal flakiness. (Flaky people are everywhere. Have you noticed?) DDD is the reason most people can’t concentrate, and concentration is mandatory if there is to be action one layer deeper: down in that place where life results are created.

DDD detracts from every facet of a life and makes it impossible to break free, so let’s see if it’s a problem for you. (If it is a problem and you’re not willing to deal with it, then no matter what you learn here, getting a grip on things is going to be tough.)

Q. OK. I admit it. I’m a bit flaky. How did I get this way? Just how big a problem is it?

A. I should qualify this. It’s OK if you’re a little flaky because, for good reason, a tendency in that direction is part of the human condition. Thoughts race through our heads in a sequence that is not always logical, but this rapid thought fluidity, fostered over eons, gives us quick adaptability to the rushing torrent of the world. This wonderful ability to adapt is why we humans are at the top of the food chain.  Our experience varies moment to moment, and we adjust quickly to the ever-changing stimulus: first we try this; then we try that, and then we go in yet another direction to see what happens next. We’re experts at instantly adjusting to circumstance: listening, talking, thinking, analyzing, testing, seizing opportunity, changing our minds, learning, and taking action right now due to the new information that just popped up.

It’s the human gift that our brains are fluid and able to move fast, so don’t waste mental energy thinking it’s an internal dysfunction.

But this incredible agility—our innate capacity to turn on a dime—is also an open door for the DDD elephant to charge into the living room and take residence, paralyzing our ability to focus.

What is the digital component of the DDD plague? It began sixty years ago as TV made its debut and our culture first met the screen. It’s the media we absorb; it’s the devices we respond to throughout the day, our attention flitting from one thing to the next. We’re moving fast, fast, fast! It’s the steady onslaught of email and social media: Texting! Twitter! Facebook!  And it’s the passive entertainment, too, including TV, movies, and portable music devices with their infernal earbuds that lock us in our cages no matter what else we might be doing.

There’s online gaming, too. It goes on and on…

Bam! Bam! Bam! We lurch from one topic to another hundreds of times—thousands of times—each day, and a lot of us have become quite good at it. And in all of this we don’t get much practice concentrating. Truth is, we learn how not to concentrate, becoming experts at shallow-thinking multitasking.

And we get impatient with ourselves and with others, wanting answers now!

Look around at any cluster of people and see how many are mentally extracted from the real-time events of the moment, hammering away on a smartphone or plugged into music.

And it’s not just that our concentration abilities have been crippled in this focus-hostile world. As we’re swallowed up by our devices, we don’t think creatively because we don’t need to. Information is ceaselessly delivered to us and for a huge swatch of humanity, it’s not necessary to think originally and so it doesn’t happen much. Instead, we absorb, with even further attention span diminishment. You know it’s true.

The screen delivers gobs of information, and we acquiesce to what feels best right now. There’s a huge stream of random input, but not a lot of output.

Have you heard the adage that “your strongest point is also your weakest point?” It’s a cogent observation, and here it’s illustrated perfectly: Our instant adaptability delivers flightiness as a byproduct.

Here’s a quote from the Preface of my book, Work the System:

“In the past thirty years the lure of instant gratification has seized a huge chunk of our population. For members of the hooked-up generation, too many with the attention span of a gnat—addicted to smart phones, preoccupied with social media, and dumbed-down by the silliness of much of the media and entertainment industries—it’s a stretch to slow down to consider the root of things. The nervous gratification of the moment is a distraction from the quiet contemplation of the reasons why events unfold as they do. Today, unlike twenty years ago, a good now is available by just plugging in and tuning out. For too many of us, slowing down to examine things is not entertaining, and that’s too bad because it’s mandatory that we take the time to understand the machinery of our lives if we are to modify that machinery to produce the results we desire.”

That’s bad enough. Now, add the drug component of DDD. Especially in the United States, back in the sixties, mind-altering substances made their wholesale introduction and are now, fifty years later, socially acceptable.  Yes, there has always been alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine, but they were ingested sporadically with the understanding they were probably not all that good for us. Twenty-five years ago, the social acceptance of prescribed mood adjusters began. (In those days it began with Prozac for adults and Ritalin for children.) Now, the legalization of marijuana is front and center.

People don’t just think it’s OK, they think it’s necessary.

In the West, consider that eighty percent of us drink caffeine to the point of addiction, while here in the United States, any number of surveys show that an average of ten to twelve percent of the adult population uses antidepressants, with each individual convinced that their brain cells are somehow not active enough.

And what about alcohol? Ten percent of us are alcoholics. Add in nicotine and all the other legal and illegal substances, and it’s safe to say that ninety-eight percent of us ingest some form of mood-adjusting substance every day.

(Regarding the social acceptance of it all, here’s something that popped up this early September morning as I am working on the very last run-through of this manuscript and, in fact, as I was reviewing this very chapter. At first I saw it as a synchronicity or a coincidence, but now I’m quite sure it’s neither. It’s just how things are out there now. Here’s what happened: As I took a breather from concentrating on these words, here in my office at Centratel, I wandered back to the break room where the local newspaper had just appeared on the lunch table. What was the above-the-fold headline that caught my eye? Here it is: “Park District Evolves on Alcohol: It Plans to Start Selling.” Read that again and notice the word “evolved” was used, suggesting the Park Department, in this decision, has reached a higher plane of consciousness.)

But my point is not about the good or bad of it—there’s no moral judgment here—it’s about the naked fact that if foreign substances are ingested into the body system, thinking becomes impaired, and impaired thinking is the antithesis of mental concentration.

Our preoccupation with drug and alcohol ingestion, combined with the pervasiveness of our electronic gizmos, gives us the freneticism of DDD. It’s everywhere: at work, at home, in our schools, . . . and it’s worse now than it was just a few years ago.

And so, for most of us, our attention spans have been abbreviated and we’re hyper, as we flit from here to there at the mercy of external and internal stimuli. We can’t focus! It’s our kids who especially suffer, having no clue that they’re stumbling because they’ve never experienced a relaxed, uninterrupted day. They don’t know about calm.  They haven’t learned to sit still, uninterrupted, and quietly think things through. (I recently asked my fourteen-year-old granddaughter, “Do you and your friends really text each other hundreds of times a day?” Her quiet and unapologetic answer was, “yeah.”)

So, we have an enormous capacity to adapt to a changing environment, and that’s exactly what we’ve done. Though our brains were not designed for inane distraction and chemical assaults, they are stimulus-response miracles and have dutifully adapted. We’re multitasking marvels, but part of the price we pay is a brain that only functions in short bursts and that unfocused mental comportment simply isn’t effective for achieving long-term goals, and worse, it stunts the possibility of being enthralled with the everyday life that surrounds us.

The other part of the price to be paid is the wasted time and effort expended on the inanity. What if that same time and energy were expended on creating something of long-term value, for instance, something that could lead to personal freedom.

The most obvious indicator of DDD is the inability to sit down and read a book. These days, outside of academia, it just doesn’t happen much. The reason that reading a book is a lost art is because most people can’t get through a single paragraph without being interrupted by their own wired minds, thus making the effort frustrating and unrewarding. It’s too hard to focus.

Because it’s the easy way out for our minds, we’re more comfortable being swallowed up and engulfed rather than sitting still to contemplate.

In his breakthrough book, The Shallows, Nicholas Carr says “the computer screen bulldozes our doubts with its bounties and convenience. It is so much our servant that it would seem churlish to notice that it is also our master.” Carr continues, “Over the last years I’ve had the uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory.”

Indeed, our minds have adapted!

But Carr delivers this ironic good news: reading a book is the quick antidote. Because our brains are incredibly adaptable, and even after years of electronically shortened attention span and too much stimulant of one kind or another, they can re-learn to focus in a matter of days. Carr specifically recommends a book, not a magazine or a newspaper, each of which has a flighty here-and-then-there quality. What about using a Kindle or other E-reader? For attention-span therapy, they are not as effective as the hard copy.

And Carr says there is no reason to go Luddite by giving up our electronic pals. We’ll learn more about communication strategies in Chapter 28.

Yes, pick up that book as you reject those state-of-mind altering substances. (And that includes cutting way back on the caffeine. I’ve written a series of Systems Mindset essays on two ways to accomplish that. (Go to workthesystem.com and search “caffeine.” )

Here are some actions you can take for quickly regaining focus and getting calm enough—and strong enough—to get your life under better control. Why not start these efforts today, even as you work your way through these pages? Consider these steps as part of an overall preventive primary system that you apply all day long:

  • Daily, read a book for at least 30 minutes in a single stretch.
  • Stop, or at least cut way back, on mood-adjustment chemicals.
  • Limit the TV.
  • Reduce the smartphone and social media involvement.
  • In spare moments that pop up, resist the temptation to check for correspondence (email, texting, etc.) or to report your movements (Facebook, Twitter, etc.). Instead, read the book you’ve carried along, close your eyes for a brief meditation, or just calmly observe what’s happening around you.

And so, there’s this question: Have we entered the age of narcissism? Yes, probably, but don’t concern yourself with societal changes you can’t affect. Instead, look to your own life—inside your circle —where you can cause rapid and substantial system improvement.

Enough about the elephant. Let’s get to managing the machines of your life.

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