Saturday, November 1, 2014

Gridlock, Complexity and Overwhelm

Doesn't it seem that gridlock on the highways is getting worse? Rush hour seems to have bled into most any hour of the day. And whether it is road construction causing slow downs or seemingly more cars of the road, gridlock seems to extend to more places as well as more times of the day. And more "gridlock" experiences seem to be popping up in more parts of life: trying to call an automated phone number for a business transaction, waiting in a longer phone queue with a credit card company, bank or utility, trying to navigate the claims department of an insurance company....Add in climate change, ISIS and constant news reports of the Ebola virus and our fear of it taking over New York City or Boston or most anywhere leading to a catastrophic situation for all, and it seems like the world is rapidly spirally downward. Feeling overwhelmed and stuck in something beyond our control is happening more often to more people every day. As sociobiologist Rebecca Costa studied civilizations that collapsed ( including Mayans Khmer, Romans, Ming and Byzantine societies), she noticed, as my colleague Jed Diamond summarizes in his ManAlive newsletter, "the first symptom of impending collapse was that they all experienced gridlock when the magnitude of the problems they needed to solve exceeded their abilities. In other words, they hit some cognitive threshold where they could no longer understand or manage their biggest, most dangerous problems." As the cultures became overwhelmed they passed their problems on from one generation to the next. In her research, Costa began to ask why. And what she concluded was a simple but powerful force: complexity. In our current, as in past times that reached the brink of collapse, more information was being generated than the people alive were able to process and comprehend. Jed Diamond cites Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, as saying that every 48 hours we produce as much new data as we generated from the dawn of humankind to 2003. As a result, at any point in time, we need to make decisions with only a fraction of the available information we might ultimately need to make the best decision. When there is so much data out there that it is just plain too time consuming and overwhelming to find it and analyze it all, we work with what we can handle, which might mean missing some critical pieces. Diamond writes, "when things become too complex, we have way too many options to consider. The number of wrong choices exceeds the number of "right" choices, and we enter a "high failure environment." Think of yourself when you are stressed. What kinds of decisions to you make under that kind of pressure? Compare your decision making under high stress to your decision making when you can take the time and space to thoughtfully consider a decision. Too much information to consider creates a kind of mental gridlock, and one bad choice leads to another in a domino effect. What do we do to take care of ourselves in a climate of gridlock? How can we keep ourselves from getting overwhelmed and overstressed? 1. Realizing that gridlock is not just a matter of being on the highway at rush hour, but a culture condition, is a good first step. Consciousness allows the possibility for behavioral change. 2. Slowing down and turning to meditative and introspective techniques can help us ground ourselves in the moment and discern more intuitively what is true. 3. Turning off the tv, radio or getting off the computer can help us move away from the information and sensory overload of our media-oriented society. 4. Reaching out to connect with friends and loved ones face to face grounds us in our interconnection and the shared experience many of us have of life today. 5. Pet your dog, take a walk in the woods, sit by a pond or even on a bench in the park. Reminding ourselves we are part of a natural world, and not just an information world can help us ground ourselves and reduce overwhelm. As we slow down, reconnect and simplify, we can step out of the gridlock, even for moments or hours. And sometimes that change of perspective makes all the difference!

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