Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Maybe a Strong Gust of Wind Wouldn't Be a Bad Thing

I have a headache. While I'm sure much of it has to do with the intersection of my allergies with the rapidly changing Central Pennsylvania weather, I'm equally sure that I can blame the merry-go-round that is the impending month of May.

The end of the semester is approaching, as are two writing events I love: my critique group's semi-annual retreat and the Pennwriters conference. This weekend, I'm going to a show at York Little Theatre and participating in a chapel choir concert in Lewisburg, honoring the retirement of our director, Dr. Payn. These are all wonderful things….so why does my head hurt?

Well, for starters, as a visual person, I've littered my living space with little reminders of all of the things I need to do, both for these events and on a day-to-day basis. Even when I am alone in a quiet house, everywhere I turn, something calls to me.

The need for visual reminders (beyond the usual lists) is a double-edged sword. Leaving things out where I can see them reduces my anxiety over forgetting to do them, but, at the same time, it increases my stress when my eyes have no place to rest.

Apparently I'm not alone. Researchers at Princeton have found that:
Multiple stimuli present in the visual field at the same time compete for neural representation by mutually suppressing their evoked activity throughout visual cortex, providing a neural correlate for the limited processing capacity of the visual system.

Um, yeah. What I just said. Too many reminders and I can't focus. My brain can't take it all in, and even if it manages to do so, it can't process what it took in. Or, in plain English, from an article in Psychology Today:
  1. Clutter bombards our minds with excessive stimuli (visual, olfactory, tactile), causing our senses to work overtime on stimuli that aren't necessary or important.
  2. Clutter distracts us by drawing our attention away from what our focus should be on.
  3. Clutter makes it more difficult to relax, both physically and mentally.
  4. Clutter constantly signals to our brains that our work is never done.
  5. Clutter makes us anxious because we're never sure what it's going to take to get through to the bottom of the pile.
  6. Clutter creates feelings of guilt ("I should be more organized") and embarrassment, especially when others unexpectedly drop by our homes or work spaces.
  7. Clutter inhibits creativity and productivity by invading the open spaces that allow most people to think, brain storm, and problem solve.
  8. Clutter frustrates us by preventing us from locating what we need quickly (e.g. files and paperwork lost in the "pile" or keys swallowed up by the clutter). 
"But," I whine, "I need my reminders!"

So what's an overwhelmed visual person to do? Two things:

Make lists -- not just of what needs to be done, but of what I've accomplished as well. So much of what gets done in a day leaves no visual evidence behind (those emails I finally drafted and sent, for example, or the slides I created for class that live on my laptop and not amid the pile of papers on my desk). As a result, the things that are calling to me bully me into believing that I'm not accomplishing anything, even when I've put a sizable dent in the to-do list.

Corral it little by little. While I know that clearing my workspace is important, I'm at a point where I don't have time to get off the task treadmill long enough to do it right. So, as a stop-gap measure, I need to take short breaks throughout the day to stash like items in a (well-marked, brightly colored) folder, to pick up and put away a few things that have simply been neglected and to pool the clutter in one (or two) spaces rather than letting it call to me from all over the house. 

Ah. A plan. I feel better already.

Now if only Mother Nature would decide what season it is.


  1. It's true. All that visual stimuli can be unsettling in so many ways. Ever been in a first-grade classroom lately? No inch uncovered with things to look at. And we wonder why kids can't focus.

  2. There is so much going on in brain research right now. What we will know in just a few years is absolutely astounding. Things we've come to accept as productive and beneficial (multitasking, labeling items in a classroom so beginning readers attach clumps of letters to objects) may prove not to be so. Mutlitasking in particular is not the benefit we've been led to believe it is.