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Where should I be looking? Balancing demands on your attention

Where should I be looking? Balancing demands on your attention

When we move countries, there are about a million things that need to be done, an equal number of decisions to be made, and an equivalent number of people trying to get something from you. They may desire your attention, your answer, your time, your energy, your money, your friendship, your space or perhaps your sanity.

We can feel like we are being pulled in multiple directions all at once. When this happens, we lose our energy and feel ineffective. We blame these feelings on not being able to multi-task well. Yet, the reality is that multi-tasking is a myth. As humans, we are not wired to do two things simultaneously. Rather, we switch our attention between two, or more, competing focuses. How fast we are able to do that is what determines our ability to appear to multi-task.

How “multi-tasking” can burn you out

In our home environment, we may have been able to accomplish a lot of tasks, seemingly simultaneously, because we had done them a million times and our bodies almost automatically completed the task with very little involvement from our conscious brains. Switching the laundry, quizzing our child on spelling words, and making dinner may have been an easy experience. Yet, in your new location, this seems really difficult. Why?

Even though the activities are the same (i.e. doing laundry, quizzing spelling words, making dinner), the environment is different. Perhaps there are different laundry machines with buttons that may be written in a different language, a smaller capacity, or different load types, the spelling words are for a language you don’t speak, and the stove is gas instead of electric and only has three burners. Each of these new experiences takes more attention from you. Nothing is on auto-pilot. Everything takes your sincere concentration.

Over time, in addition to all the adaptation to adjust to the country, this extra amount of effort can make us feel burnt out and stressed. We end up feeling like we are running around like a crazy person just to accomplish normal, daily activities. In the end, we question ourselves and our abilities.

The importance of slowing down and focusing on one task at a time

When our minds are focused on multiple things at the same time, because we are switching our attention back and forth, the quality of our thinking declines. Decisions are made with only partial information since our attention has been pulled to other things before we had processed everything. This means that we may regret our decisions later when we have had time to think thing through or when information we previously missed is presented to us.

Our capacity to reason isn’t impaired in these moments, rather we are unable to see the whole picture and make our decisions based on partial information. Due to the stresses of living abroad, it is plausible that it takes even more concentration than normal to be able to digest and process information. We may have to learn to take into account cultural variations, interpersonal differences, or language issues before deciding what’s the best course of action.

So, slowing down and making ourselves focus on one issue at a time is a key factor in making sound decisions. We may need to purposefully collect extra information to assure that we have adequately captured all relevant aspects of an issue. In order to know what information is needed, we need to keep our thoughts on the issue at hand.

Techniques to harness control over our attention

  • Stop making long “to-do” lists. Prioritize items and keep your daily list to 3-4 tasks. Focus your attention on these priority tasks. Feel good about completing what is most important.
  • Cut the fluff. Prioritize tasks related to your well-being and that of your family. Anything outside of those priorities can be cut off your “to-do” list. You don’t need to volunteer for a book sale or bake 5 dozen cookies for a school party.
  • Turn off your phone when you have something important to do. Most of us have our phones connected to our Facebook pages, Pinterest, Instagram, and news update feeds. These can distract us from focusing on what is most important. Therefore, when you need to talk to the dishwasher repairman in a foreign language, turn off your phone so you can concentrate fully.
  • Teach children to be respectful and quiet when you need to concentrate. Nothing can be as distracting as children competing for our attention when we are driving around a city lost or trying to navigate through heavy traffic. Teaching kids to go into quiet mode is a great strategy to allow us to focus.
  • Say “No”. It is completely OK to say no whenever you don’t understand everything, you feel rushed to make a decision, you are unsure of what you are agreeing to, or you don´t want to do something. You can ask for more time, more information, more assistance, or just flat out say, “no.” It’s always wise to be safe rather than sorry.

By controlling what you focus your attention on, you will feel more in control and secure in managing your new environment. Being overwhelmed can make you doubt yourself. Pulling back and taking control can help you avoid those feelings. Not everyone and everything is important. You have the right to make those choices based on your needs and those of your family.

Knowledge is Power

What new information did you learn from this posting? Did it help you identify something in your family you would like to change? Share your experience below and what steps you plan on taking to guide your family.

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Friday, 06 December 2019

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Dr. Deanna Marie Mason

Calle Téllez, 26, 28007 Madrid
T. +34 912 192 862

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