The Smart but Scattered Guide to Success
Ginger was behind the eight ball once again. She hadn’t built in enough
time to put the finishing touches on the presentation she was due to deliver tomorrow to an important potential marketing client, and now it was 4:45, and she had to pick up her son from soccer practice in 15 minutes. She was supposed to run the PowerPoint by her supervisor before she left work, and she probably still had 45 minutes of work to do on it. She dropped by her supervisor’s office to deliver the bad news. “Kerry, I know you wanted to see what I came up with before I left, but Kevin’s soccer practice ends at 5, and I can’t leave him hanging. Can I get you something by 9 tonight?” Kerry didn’t even try to hide her displeasure. “Ginger, this happens all the time. You need to figure out how to manage your time better—it not only is affecting your work, but it affects mine as well. I’m a morning person. By 9 o’clock, I’m getting ready for bed!”
Ginger apologized as best she could, gathered her things in a hurry, and dashed out of the office, already calling Kevin on her cell phone to tell him she would be a few minutes late. As she made the drive across town to her son’s school, she frantically tried to think what else she had to do that evening. What were they doing for dinner? Then she remembered that she hadn’t taken the casserole out of the freezer to thaw and wondered if her family would tolerate another night of fast food instead.
She pulled into the school, and there was Kevin looking forlorn, the last one waiting for a ride home. He threw his backpack in the back seat and climbed in front. “How come I’m always the last one to get picked up?” he stewed.
Ginger apologized to him and then tried to change the subject. “How much homework do you have?” she asked. Kevin shrugged. “I got most of it done in school,” he said. “And Mrs. Clark gave us an extra week to finish our social studies paper.” Ginger wondered if that was the case. The last time Kevin told her about an extended deadline, it turned out he’d made it up because he’d gotten behind on the assignment and didn’t want to admit it. Ginger grimaced, remembering that incident, and then thought, not for the first time, the apple does not fall far from the tree.
Ginger pulled into the KFC and ordered dinner. This would just have to do, she thought, noting with relief that Kevin wasn’t complaining. When they got home, she handed the dinner bag to Kevin and asked him to take it in while she grabbed her computer bag. As she lifted it off the floor of the back seat, it occurred to her it felt awfully light. She swore quietly to herself as she unzipped the bag and peered inside. Sure enough, the two files she needed for her night’s work were there, but her laptop was not. Now what was she going to do?
By the time she got inside, there were tears in her eyes. Her husband, who’d barely beaten her home and was just taking off his coat, looked at her. “Now what?” he asked, and Ginger suspected his day at the office had been as stressful as hers.
She told him what had happened. “So now you have to drive back to the office to get the computer?” he asked. “Haven’t you been forgetting a lot of stuff lately?”
“Oh, and like you’re Mr. Perfect?” she seethed. “As I recall, we just had to cancel our credit card because you lost it on your last business trip. And you probably didn’t even lose it,” she added. “It’s probably somewhere in the bottom of your briefcase that you never clean out.”
Their daughter, Kim, had come downstairs while this conversation was going on and caught the drift. “Mom! Did you forget you were going to help me with the project I’m doing for my civics class? You promised me that I could tape an interview with you tonight—and the project’s due on Friday! If I don’t tape it tonight, I’ll never be able to finish on time.”
Ginger groaned. “Okay, folks. Let’s get dinner on the table and we’ll try to sort this out.” She opened the cupboard doors and pulled down dishes. Her husband was heading to the television to turn on ESPN to catch up on yesterday’s sports news. “Would it kill you to help set the table?” she thought to herself. As she gathered silverware and napkins it occurred to her that her life had been going like this for some time now. Either there weren’t enough hours in the day for her to do everything that needed doing or she had no idea how to use the time she had. All her nerve endings stood on end, and she felt like she would bite the head off the next person who criticized her. Something had to change.
Does any of this sound familiar? We’ve all had days like this. You could undoubtedly personalize this scenario and add to the list of stressors. And maybe we’ve concluded that this is life in the 21st century, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Just suck it up, grin and bear it, hang in there, take a deep breath, count to 10—give ourselves or others little pieces of advice meant to make us all feel better. But somehow it never does.
There is, of course, some justification for our frayed nerves. Life is more complex and demanding than it was a generation ago. The jobs people hold today pressure them to work ever faster and harder, and increasing numbers of jobs involve working nonstandard hours and telecommuting. This may make it easier to be there when the kids get home from school, but it also blurs the distinction between home life and work life in a way that makes us feel that there’s no downtime to be had, and we’re constantly trying to multitask despite convincing evidence that our brains really can’t do that. And technology and social media present additional intrusions on family life, so even when the whole family is together, we feel fragmented by smartphones and Facebook, texts and Twitter.
What does this leave us with? How many of the following apply to you or to people you live or work with?
Too many job responsibilities to fit into an 8-hour work day.
Home–work life conflicts as the demands in one sphere bleed into the other.
Dissatisfaction with our work because to do it right eats into our home lives and then we feel guilty that we’re not handling either arena the way we should.
The lure of technology and a 24/7 wired world where we can’t disconnect—and then we use the same technology to try to escape.
Conflicts between spouses because the work–home pressures they’re both experiencing leads them to blame each other for not doing their part to keep things running smoothly at home.
Conflicts between parents and kids because kids don’t seem to realize that there’s a future out there that they’re completely unprepared for.
A daily schedule that requires us to juggle multiple home, work, and family demands that to do well would require a 36-hour day to complete and a three-dimensional spreadsheet to keep track of.
All these things challenge us because we’re maxing out that part of our brain that is designed to manage complexity. Wrapped inside the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain just behind the forehead) is a set of skills called executive skills—skills that are designed to help you manage tasks of daily living. Maybe you’ve heard of them. Possibly you’ve seen our other books, like Smart but Scattered, where we describe executive skills in children, or you’ve seen stories in the popular press and your curiosity has been piqued.
They’re called executive skills because they’re the skills required to execute tasks. They’re a disparate group that includes things like task initiation, sustained attention, planning, organization, time management, emotional regulation, and impulse control, among others (see the box)—but what they have in common is that the better these skills work, the better able we are both to carry out tasks of everyday living and to develop a plan to achieve life goals that are satisfying to us. Conversely, the weaker these skills are, the more we’re likely to struggle with the kinds of demands routinely placed on us by work, home, and family life.
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