Running Your Life Around Divorce: Your Landscape of Commitments

Divorce creates temporary uncertainty. Human beings need stability to concentrate and be effective. Neuropsychological research has shown that short-term memory is much more limited than one might imagine. A normal human memory can only store seven bits of basic information at any one time. Add any more, and you will start to forget things. Your subconscious, however, won’t forget that you need to remember something, and this will add to your anxiety.

The process is similar to what happens to a computer when you overtax the Random Access Memory (RAM) on a computer. If you store too much in RAM, the computer will slow down, make mistakes, and lose efficiency. Likewise, when you clog up your mind with too many unfinished commitments, it’s easy to become sluggish, depressed and demotivated.

Fortunately, some exercises can help you meet this challenge. Here’s one approach that you might find resourceful. Cordon off three or four hours, and spend that time writing down everything that’s on your mind about any commitments that you’ve made about anything – large or small. These can run the gamut from:

  • Get more food for the dog.
  • Finalize the divorce.
  • Clean up yard after storm.
  • Hike the Appalachian Trail.

Do a “brain dump” of everything that’s on your mind about all areas of your life. You might think that your list might number in thousands of items. But most people only generate a few hundred items. You will find, perhaps to your great surprise, that just the act of writing down these things in an objective form – on paper or on the computer – will give you an immediate energy boost and stress relief. You will see that there is actually an end to all the “stuff” that you have set out to accomplish. It’s not an infinite list.

In his books Getting Things Done and Making It All Work, bestselling author David Allen fleshes out more details of this organizational philosophy. Very briefly: once you go through this brain dump phase, Allen recommends that you process your commitments. Go through each one of your line items and you ask yourself two questions about them:

  1. What am I trying to accomplish about this item?
  2. What is the next physical step in the real world that I would take, if I focused just on handling this challenge right now?

For instance, maybe you wrote on your list “do something about dad.” When you process the list, you will have to get clear about the “something” that you want to about dad. Maybe dad’s been more than usually forgetful recently; you worry that he might be developing dementia. In that case, you create a project along the lines of “resolve worries about dad and dementia.” The very next step might be to call your Uncle Phil to discuss what to do next. Just answering those two questions for every item on your list should give you an enhanced sense of control and perspective. Lingering unfinished commitments will no longer lurk in the back of your mind, and you’ll free up your mental resources.

It’s hard to feel good about what you do, unless you know what you’re not doing. The goal here is not to create a massive, scary to-do list but rather to relieve your brain of the need to be the bookkeeper of your stuff. You do not need to implement this system in its entirety to reap the benefits. But the main point is that you want some system – ideally, that’s external and written down – to track the diverse issues that you face.

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