Peter Senge taught me the lesson of the boiled frog in his 1990 book, The Fifth Discipline. He described how, if you want to boil a frog, you put him in cold water and gradually turn up the heat. The frog won’t notice the incremental changes until it’s too late.
He offered us the principles of systems thinking to save us from becoming boiled frogs. Sadly, today I hear the waters starting to roil.
When we’re stressed and overwhelmed with the too-muchness of modern life, our brains start to overheat. We see the world as a bunch of parts and react to individual problems rather than looking for the patterns behind them.
And that can be dangerous.
For example, with our overtaxed brains we may:
- Become overreactive.
- Sweat the small stuff and miss the big issues.
- Think either/or (us vs. them) rather than both/and. Make others the enemy.
- Be subject to manipulation by demagogues offering cheap, false solutions.
- Forget what’s most important to us.
Systems thinking invites us to step back, see a bigger picture, question assumptions, and learn—an antidote to reactivity in a rapidly changing environment.
Viewed holistically, the world is more than the sum of its parts. Complex issues are viewed in terms of whole systems in which parts interact and are shaped by their relationship to the whole. Trees, as Susan Simard teaches us, can be seen both as individual entities (parts) and players in a complex network of relationships (systems).
Scope creep: how my brain began to overheat
You’ve undoubtedly experienced “information overload.” If you’re like me, though, you may have missed how it snuck up on you.
Back in the 1960s, when dinosaurs still roamed the earth, there were two usual ways of receiving long-distance communications: the telephone and mail. On rare, sometimes not happy, occasions, you might receive a telegram from Western Union. Receiving that level of information felt manageable.
As change occurred, the heat was turned up. Enter the fax, overnight deliveries, and FedEx. Follow those with the personal computer, internet, cell phones, emails, and social media.
No wonder our poor brains heat up.
Maybe tomorrow we’ll have AI-based brain transmissions.
“No apology needed.”
Recently, a colleague apologized for missing my email. She described the stress of managing communications coming to her in so many ways:
Multiple email accounts
Cell phone messages
Direct messages over Instagram, Facebook, and X (Twitter).
Express carrier pigeons. (Oops, wrong century.)
I felt exhausted hearing her list. How could she not miss messages?
Our brains were not set up for this. I told her, “No apology needed.”
Helping our brains to calm
Often, when we feel overloaded, the best we can do is to react. We swat at tasks like flies we’re trying to obliterate.
We see the world in terms of problems rather than patterns.
Then, we start swatting faster, reacting because we “don’t have time” to think.
If we could move from operating in parts mode to systems mode, we might ask, “Am I/are we doing what’s important? And how could I/we see what’s happening as part of an integrated whole?”
For me, that might mean limiting inputs, at least some of the time, and looking for ways to allow my brain to chill.
I don’t have a good answer—the issue is vast, but here are nine steps to try:
- Take a brain break. Step away from thinking and needing to figure things out. Head into nature, listen to music, or pick your favorite non-thinking way to relax. By “turning off” for a bit, we may improve our thinking.
- Meditate. This usually works for me better after step 1.
- Put on a red nose and laugh. Our lives, in their un-do-ability, are perfect material for clowning acts. Clowns get their laughs by doing the same thing over and over again, consistently failing. So why not clear the brain by donning a red clown nose and laughing about our struggles to “keep up.”
- SSS – “See the System Silly.” We keep taking on more challenges, reading more media, using “conveniences” that require dense operating manuals, playing with high-tech do-dads, and buying new software that come with steep learning curves. No wonder we feel overwhelmed. It’s time to step back and see the whole—and then make choices.
- Let go of something. Not everything is critical and we don’t have to do it all. (OK, I’m not so good at this.)
- Design or choose structures that support us. When life is complex, daunting, and full, simple aids like schedules, checklists, procedures, and routines can help. I use easy tools like “Trello” to help me sort out my brain and manage the wealth of opportunities I have.
- Create a game. In a game, we get to win and lose. We play; we screw up. We take on too much and then we say, “Oopsie, I missed an email.”
- Share with others. The moment I heard my colleague talk, I recognized my situation in hers. Together we can invent solutions. Or realize that we’re not defective humans—just overstressed ones.
- Reclaim our agency in a world of re-activity. Agency, contrary to the way I sometimes act, doesn’t come from doing more. It can come from doing less and taking time to delight in the small beauties that surround us. Last week, for me, it was a glistening leaf on a discarded piece of cardboard. When I delight in beauty and give myself over to what I love, I feel whole. I can welcome more Light into my world—and perhaps, for a moment, let magic transform a parts-based, task-oriented, transactional way of approaching life into a place of possibility and hope.
Fall is beautiful—and I love watching shimmering scarlet leaves. They won’t hang on the trees much longer.
Fortunately, the emails can wait.