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September 09, 2020

Simplicity: A strategy to confront the complexity in our lives

Three tips for balancing priorities and maintaining a healthy lifestyle

Men's Health 50-Plus Men
Work-Life Balance Tips Tyler Franta/

To balance life's myriad demands, experts offer three recommendations: Create a to-do list, prioritize and remain flexible.

Feeling overwhelmed? Join the club. 

Blurred work-life boundaries spurred by a competitive environment. The squeeze of the "sandwich generation" where elderly parents and children or even grandchildren, in my case, present contending priorities.

Then, there is the personal challenge of maintaining our own health as we age. Not to mention COVID-19, social unrest and, of course, no visits to the Linc this fall to cheer on our Eagles. 

Today, the risk of succumbing to the complexities of life is a real and present concern. The antidote? Simplicity.

This past week I was put to the test with my own wave of personal challenges right out of the baby boomer handbook. At work, I was emerged in a full range of COVID-related projects. At home, my wife and I were in full preparation for a holiday weekend at the shore with our children and grandson. 

Of course, there were the necessary second-tier matters: paying the bills, deciding if I should go back to the gym or stick with my new workout routine, and getting back to the landscaper about those improvements we’ve been considering for months. Normal things we all manage, but then I got slammed.

My 90-year old mother had a fall. Nothing tragic, but a small fracture that currently has her hospitalized and then off to rehabilitation. We’re blessed. Mom, with the help of a home health aide each day, is able to live by herself. She’s as stubborn as they get and fiercely cherishes her independence. 

She was actually completing her own self-developed exercise routine, walking the halls of her senior building when her walker caught the base of a pillar and sent her toppling. Is she at a crossroads? Its too early to tell, but certainly my experience is a case study in the complexities of life that we all face.

The problem is real

Modern life has many of us feeling in over our heads because the complexity of our world surpasses our complexity of mind, according to Harvard University professors Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey. The cognitive impact can range from mental slowness, forgetfulness and confusion to difficulty concentrating. The scholars point out that this has nothing to do with how smart we are, but with how we make sense of the world and how we operate in it.  

The Harvard Medical School says that constant stress – whether from a traffic-choked daily commute, unhappy marriage or heavy workload – can have real physical effects on the body. It has been linked to a wide range of health issues, including mood, sleep and appetite problems – and yes, even heart disease.

Finally, a point that documents the prevalence of such feelings, the Cleveland Clinic reports that anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States. Each year, they affect 40 million adults aged 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population. And while anxiety disorders are highly treatable, only 36.9% of those suffering from them seek help.

Fighting complexity with simplicity

In football, the growth of a quarterback’s proficiency is often expressed in his ability to mentally slow down the game. As his skill at reading defenses and the flow of the game increases so does his accuracy and, ultimately, his success. 

The same can be said, it seems, from what the experts prescribe as an antidote for feeling overwhelmed by our complex world. Make it simple. In short, mentally slow down the pace, think about what’s really important and create the perspective that gives you the capacity to make clear and confident decisions. 

Among a long list of advice offered by experts, here are three from New York University that I use regularly to stay balanced and keep my healthy lifestyle on track. Like many of the behavior-driven tips, they represent nothing earth-shattering, but serve as important reminders of the habits that can sustain our well-being during times of stress.

  1. Use a to-do list. If there is a common thread running through my life, it’s my preoccupation with lists. I use the "Notes" feature on my iPhone to construct a weekly electronic to-do list with daily installments. The tool enables me to email the list to myself and print out hard copy when I need to add some handwritten notes. The iPhone allows me to capture thoughts quickly before they’re gone. According to NYU, whether you use a daily list or have a running tab, the key is to find a method that works best for you.
  2. Prioritize. This is the strategic part of task management. We all love the feeling of checking the hypothetical box when we complete a task, but the challenge is to check the important boxes first, the one’s with the most impact on our lives. To get a feeling of accomplishment, it can be tempting to knock out a bunch of low-priority tasks. However, this is the classic false sense of accomplishment. NYU recommends the 80-20 Rule – 80% of the reward comes from 20% of the effort. The trick to prioritizing is to isolate and identify that valuable 20%. Once identified, prioritize time to concentrate your effort on those items with the greatest reward. Prioritize by color, number or letter – whichever method makes the most sense to you. Flagging items with a deadline is another idea for helping you stick to your priorities.
  3. Be Flexible. I wholeheartedly agree with NYU’s advice to allow time for interruptions and distractions. They suggest planning for just 50% or less of one's time. With only 50% of your time planned, you will have the flexibility to handle interruptions and the unplanned "emergency." When you expect to be interrupted, schedule routine tasks. Save (or make) larger blocks of time for your priorities.

The literature is full of other examples that can simplify your life and slow down the pace to a reasonable degree. Learning to delegate, saying no, and practicing mindfulness are just a few others. The key is to recognize that there are ways to fight the scourge of feeling overwhelmed and maintain your well-being during the tough times. When you do, simplicity and its benefits will emerge.

Louis Bezich, senior vice president of strategic alliances at Cooper University Health Care, is author of "Crack The Code: 10 Proven Secrets that Motivate Healthy Behavior and Inspire Fulfillment in Men Over 50." Read more from Louis on his website 

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