Workplace Wisdom

How to Handle Spacing Out

What do you do when you’re so busy your mind goes blank?

During my webinar “Self Management in Frantic Times”, a number of folks chatted in more questions than we could cover during the session, and I’m going to answer them from time to time in this format.

(A fond reminiscence of times gone by: One of the pleasures of the old model of public speaking was that after the formal program, attendees who wanted additional or individualized information would wait till after the session to ask their questions. I always liked it because the questions weren’t “cleaned up” for public consumption, and you could tailor the answers to be personally relevant, so the interaction felt like a consult at a clinic instead of a show. It was like sending lots of pieces of concrete help and new relationship out into the world.)

One of the interesting, complex questions — or at least, one of the questions with a complex answer — has to do with how to keep from spacing out when there’s too much to do.

Why would a perfectly, good, smart, functional brain create the equivalent of a blank space? First, we’re assuming that this kind of blanking out is completely separate from any kind of brain dysfunction, as might occur with various forms of senility, or even with the kind of brain fog that can accompany hormonal surges, or the side effects of various meds. Of course it helps to be aware if you’re subject to any of these physiological possibilities.

Most likely reason: not enough sleep. Your brain may be taking a split-second time out before it gathers itself up again and starts working. Action steps: try to schedule yourself for seven or eight hours of shut-eye a night (the medically recommended amount). If that’s just plain undoable (which is very sad, because it is so important and makes almost everything else feel better), at least try to add 30 minutes, and eventually, an hour per night to the inadequate amount of snoozing you’re getting now.

Or maybe you’re forcing yourself to work on too many things at once, and you’re having a sort of brain jam. Perhaps you’ve been trying to live out the fallacy of multitasking, because it’s what people do nowadays. Maybe people interrupt you too often so your brain has to constantly restart on the same thing over and over. No wonder it gets stuck for a second now and then! Action steps: Clear the mental decks. Stop working for a couple of minutes. Stand up and stretch, with special attention to your shoulders and neck. Drink some water. Look out the window. If you can, go for an actual walk outside. Then actively choose to resume work, with a mental picture of the specific things you are going to do.

Or spacing out can be the result of a kind of low grade panic — if you’re anxious about the too many things you have to do and the risks of not doing them satisfactorily — and going blank shuts off the negative self-talk for a second of mindless relief. Action steps: Consciously refocus yourself on your purpose and your goals. List out everything you “need” to do so you don’t have to worry about losing track. Then make choices! If someone besides you is responsible for setting your priorities, go have a negotiation. Whatever you choose to work on now, work on it now, and not on anything else. You’ll get done sooner and feel less distracted.

Above all, trust your brain. It’s actually trying to help you. Return the favor.

Onward and upward,

LK

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