Avoiding "Death by Overwhelm"
Where we talk about separating the signal from the noise of our day to day lives
In the day to day stress and noise of life it is easy to miss important signals and have our lives veer off into the hell of an urgent, catch-up mode. Every year we are surrounded by more devices, information, and feedback to the point where it can be difficult to separate out what is important. We butt up against Miller’s Law, overloading the channel capacity of our short term memory. Trying to keep our responsibilities in our heads all the time is a recipe for failure: we need life-long systems that allow us to confidently put things aside until they need attention.
As I write this I find myself at my highest bodyweight ever, reduced to buying up a size in clothing just to be able to walk out the door. From the simplistic, thermodynamic standpoint this comes from eating too much and not getting much exercise: calories in calories out (CICO). Yet there is more to it than that.
Don’t miss out on posts! Please consider becoming a subscriber by entering your email below.
After completing my 3rd Ironman in 2018 at the age of 50 I had dropped down to my lowest weight and body fat since college. I distinctly remember saying to myself and Minette how much I wanted to avoid a return to being heavy. Since then it’s just been a slow creep back up at about a quarter of a pound per week. The CICO view of that is that it works out to eating about 140kcal per day over my daily energy expenditure: about 1 large banana. ¼lbs per week? 1 banana per day? Yeah, just small enough amounts to not notice. Damn thermodynamics. I’ve done the reverse of one of those “How it started, how it’s going” happy posts on Instagram.
It’s not like I didn’t make attempts in the last 4 years to avoid this slow train wreck. There were lots of forays back into dieting and exercise programs, but they were inevitably derailed by me, life, stress, lack of focus, and so on. And I don’t have systems in place to avoid the problem in the first place or to ring alarm bells when it’s apparent that things are not working.
Butter Brad: “Oof, I’m fat again!” Better Brad: “Why didn’t you just eat less and get some exercise?” Butter Brad: “It’s complex.” Better Brad: “We’ve got to find a way to put this to bed forever.” Butter Brad: “mmmmm cookies…”
It’s not just my health that needs attention. We recently missed a credit card payment - and paid the resulting penalty - for no reason other than my not staying on top of payment dates. Adulting, home ownership, investments, cars, computers, personal and work projects: the sheer amount of things to periodically maintain or improve is daunting.
My Mother always repeats the adage A stitch in time saves nine, but it seems more like Just keep stitching and never stop might be more appropriate. This skill of “staying on top of life” has so far evaded me, and yet it is incredibly important. Without it my day to day can turn into a place of reactivity, guilt, and fear: that’s not how to thrive longer.
Too much noise, not enough signal.
The “signal” in our lives is our level of focus on what’s important: the “noise” is everything else.
For most of us today’s world is increasingly, inescapably complex. The stream of information has gone from gossip to the town cryer to one newspaper to 3 TV channels part of the day to infinite media all the time. Our perceived scope of influence has transitioned from “child #1 scraped his knee and the chicken laid an egg” to “pull up the live feed from drone #8 to see if the Amazon Prime delivery driver has left the packaging facility with our new toothbrush, and get the current Mars rover live feed up on the refrigerator”. With very little barrier to entry we can see information about the whole world, travel anywhere, and learn any skill.
All this can make our lives easier and make us feel more connected to the rest of the world, but it comes at a cost. On top of the obvious distraction pulling our focus away from what’s truly important, our creature comforts come with batteries to charge, advertisements to click out of the way, end user agreements, copyright notices, cookies to block, and inevitable age-related slowdowns, failure, and a final shuffle into the pile in the corner. Don’t get me started on the skills needed to book travel.
Reducing the noise, increasing the signal. Let’s take a look at some things we can do to get refocused on what matters most even when we feel like we can barely stay on top of the cleaning.
Simplify. While it’s true that today’s environment continues to make our lives more complex there are still many things we can do to make it more simple. There is a good reason we’ve seen a whole industry develop around minimalism, simplifying, and decluttering: it’s a truth that the most effective people are ruthless about simplification. Do I need 6 different streaming services? Could I eat a simpler diet? Can I find a bundle for my car and house insurance and only deal with one insurer? Can I take all my notes in Evernote instead of in books, on post-its, in Apple Notes, and in my journal? Do I really need to hold on to that ancient laptop or can I Marie Kondo that shit? Why are there three different stacks of unimportant crap on my desk?
Pay. Should we pay to have it all taken care of? Unless you are rich that adds up fast. Lawn service, tree service, spa service, pest control, maid service, car detailing, money managers, bookkeeper, home improvements, the list goes on. There’s a balance to be found between what we are comfortable doing ourselves (or whether we even have the skills), the time and stress of getting it done ourselves, how much time and value we gain from paying for a service, and how much we can afford. Minette and I have complex taxes that we simply could not do so we pay a lot and sleep well knowing we got the right amount of money back. When I was working a 9-5 job we paid for a housekeeper and loved always having the house at a baseline level of clean: now I’m at home during the days we’re doing it ourselves again to save the money.
Automate. We need to be proactive about both automating the important things - scheduling periodic car service, dental appointments, auto paying credit cards, reminders about upcoming bills, weigh-ins - and reminders/tasks to check key numbers and take corrective action where needed. The corollary is that we have to respect the reminder notifications: I have a particularly bad habit of letting those slide. Like paying, setting up automatic reminders also allows us to let those things go out of our focus for a while.
Track. I recently listened to superstar ultra runner Camille Heron talk about how she had logged more than 100,000 miles of running in her life. She was able to calculate that because she kept a journal of all of her runs early in her career. With the advent of always-connected personal devices we are able to get near real-time feeds of our finances, different health metrics, exercise, and sleep to name a few. There is even a Quantified Self Movement of folks who try to track everything all the time. We need to find a balance here as well: tracking everything just brings in more noise, but tracking the right things - sleep quality, food intake, body fat %, debt, discretionary spending, and so on - is crucial to keeping ourselves from getting too far out of whack.
Plan. As with my experiment in pre-planning tomorrow today, we can increase the signal strength of what matters most by doing a little more planning. We can use tools like todoist and Google Calendar - or just a plain old planner - to ensure that we are aware of important things that are upcoming. I’m in the middle of reading “Organize Tomorrow TODAY” as a followup to that experiment and it reinforces my thinking. The authors are clear that we set ourselves up for success by planning for and working on the things that move us towards our bigger goals: this can have a huge impact on getting the “signal” part done before the distracting “noise” part takes over during the day.
Conclusion. Taken individually none of these are going to solve our problem of missing important signals but I argue that taken together they are a strong system that will last us a lifetime. As much as possible we have to simplify our lives, pay for services, automate reminders, track the important things so we see them in the foreground, and have a daily plan to get the non-noise things done first. Strong99 is about how to thrive longer in life, not just live longer: we simply cannot thrive when we become overwhelmed by noise and miss important signals.