Feeling Numb

I was listening to a podcast not too long ago where the host talked about how he went numb to certain inputs in his life to the point that he couldn’t tell the difference between what was current and what wasn’t. Common examples of these inputs include books or magazines we have at home on coffee tables that we haven’t looked at in months, or it could be a closet of clothes that we hardly wear and we don’t know what needs to stay and what needs to go.

Another example comes to mind. We may keep our favorite quotes on sticky notes around our home (as I did), but it’s easy to become ignorant to them – we unknowingly begin to ignore the meaning behind them and become desensitized to any positive effect they might have on us.

We might have stuff in our basement, attic, or garage that we haven’t taken the time to sort through to figure out what’s useful/needed and what needs to go/be given away. We might put it on the backburner only to find we never quite get to it. It ends up taking up physical space in our home as well as mental space that we’re not even fully aware of; this will eventually have an effect on our attention at one point or another. We do nothing about it until it’s too late, and then we say we are feeling overwhelmed.

Digital examples of these inputs that we have gone numb to might include a mixture of read and unread emails in our inbox, photos on our smartphone, countless tabs open in the web browser on our tablet, unread newsletters, scattered folders on our computer desktop that we’ve been meaning to organize, or items in our list manager having a mix of well-defined actions and incomplete ones, which leaves a system you can’t fully trust.

We sometimes become numb to the commitments in our life too. Maybe we previously committed to a few projects, but it could be we have become numb to some of them because we are not looking at them frequently enough. While we might review our commitments every week, it’s easy to ignore or not pay heed to certain projects because we may have gone numb to them. It may be that the other inputs we’ve subconsciously ignored are having an impact on our performance too – even if we don’t realize that’s the reason. While it’s great to have a process for doing certain things, we must know better than to become a slave to it.

We may go numb to the situations in our lives that we haven’t fully accepted the reality of (and maybe we’re not doing anything to change that acceptance either). It’s a strange place to be in, and yet so many of us are unknowingly accustomed to being in this numb state, so much so that stepping out of it can seem alien. Sometimes we simply go through the motions. We live our lives passively on autopilot, so to speak. We are driven by the everyday events in our lives rather than driving our lives proactively in the direction we want it to go. In many ways, we are living in a reactive state.

Here’s the thing – we go numb to anything (and everything) when we see it often enough, causing our attention to sway somewhere that it isn’t meant to be. When those things are no longer current and complete, that is when we stop trusting and noticing them, yet they still take up more of our attention than they deserve. When we have these unprocessed inputs in our lives that we haven’t made a conscious decision about, they keep gnawing at us and end up undermining our effectiveness. When we have an incomplete inventory of things to work from, we can’t trust it, so we go numb to it, and so we procrastinate.

Here are some ideas to live our lives more consciously.

The fundamental idea is, do things belong where they are right now? If not, that itself should raise a red flag. We need to go through each input, decide what it means to us, and what we’re going to do about it.

Start with the physical. Go through the stuff in your home and take a hard look at everything to see if they are in place. If you’re not going to read those books you have in front of you, it might be best to put them away on the shelf. Remember, you can always get books back down from the shelf to read, but that requires you to act with intention. This is not a one-time process, but a recurring one, given that entropy is the default nature of things.

Go through your closet once a quarter (at the end of each season and before the start of a new one) to figure out the clothes you want to keep and the ones you want to store or give away. This ensures you’re wearing all the clothes in your closet rather than picking and choosing.

Pro tip: Create two separate piles of your tees (or any clothing). The idea is to wear them in rotation, so each piece of clothing gets equal and maximum use for longevity. This might sound crazy, but if you’re the kind of person who likes having the freedom to not think about these things, it’s a no-brainer to set up a process like this. You’re proactively thinking upfront about your choices rather than having to think about them on a daily basis.

We can learn to organize the files and folders on our computer. Are they set up in a way that requires the least thinking on our part? For instance, we need to have processes for how we deal with inputs, be it emails or files we download from the web. We need a place to capture all the unprocessed items that we haven’t yet made a decision about.

Go through all the unopened tabs in your browser to figure out what you want to do with them. If it’s an article you want to read, add it to your reading list for later. If it’s a video you’ve already seen and won’t need to watch again, close it down. Regardless, make a decision about each tab and move on, so you can open the browser next time with a clean slate.

Review your commitments on a weekly basis to ensure you’re not under- or over-committed, but appropriately engaged with what has your attention. If you have over-committed, is it because you’ve become numb/ignorant to the less important tasks awaiting you and you suddenly feel overwhelmed? Here’s the thing. We can either do a few things well or many things poorly. While both approaches require the same amount of effort, it’s always our choice. So, we must choose wisely.

We can do our best to keep ourselves on top of our commitments, but it’s not unusual to think things will occasionally slip through the cracks, so to speak. It’s not a question of if, but when. The question then becomes how quickly we get back on the bandwagon. If the inputs in our lives are making us distracted, it’s time to organize them and utilize our physical and mental space so we don’t become numb to situations/objectives. That way, we begin to feel in control once more.

Indecision is a big part of feeling numb toward things. We need to make decisions about what has our attention when they show up, rather than when they are about to blow-up last minute. We put off making decisions in going through the inputs because thinking is hard work. We think we can put it off, but it still takes a piece of us psychologically. Because of this, most of us don’t even know what it’s like to operate optimally with a clear head.

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