I knew the world was in trouble about 20 years ago when I watched a psychiatrist (yes, a psychiatrist) talking on two telephones at once, one in each hand, held up to each of his two available ears.
God help him if he had more hands and more ears and more phones.
Its called multitasking and, trust me, you can’t do it as well as you think. At least, unless you are in the smaller than 3% of the population that some researchers believe are “supertaskers.”
For the most part, scientists have looked at the negative effects of multitasking on concentration and focus, the way it tends to increase stress, and the addiction-like stimulation that attaches to computers and other digital devices. Is it a wonder that so many children are diagnosed with attentional problems? Some researchers suggest that their brains (and ours) are increasingly being rewired to the point of having our concentration drawn away from its original target by novel, but irrelevant information and other distractions.
The result? Impatience, fatigue, and a fragmentation of lived experience.
Think about it.
How many things do you really concentrate on to the exclusion of just about everything else?
My guess is, for example, that you do lots of things while watching TV: listening to music (sometimes turning off the TV sound of a sporting event you only want to see), holding a conversation with your child or spouse, reading a magazine, eating, text messaging someone, etc.
This becomes so routine, so normalized, that we are not particularly aware of how many things we take-on simultaneously and the fact that none of them capture our full attention. Later, if asked to recall what we did, we just might have some trouble. And a person who really wants to talk with us while we are preoccupied with all the other things I mentioned, will find himself frustrated or, at least partially, ignored.
When was the last time that you really savored a single bite of food? If you were heavily involved in conversation or on the computer you probably didn’t.
When was the last time that you really drove your car in a mindful way? Felt the vibration of the car on the road, the tactile sensations produced by your body against the seat and your hands on the steering wheel, the variegated sky ahead, the differing sounds of the other cars, the changing shapes and shadows on the highway, the slight alteration in position and muscle movement when you pressed on the brake? No radio, no CDs, no texting or talking on the phone, no conversation of any kind, no day dreaming; just you and the machine and the highway.
When was the last time you listened, really listened and watched your conversation partner? Focused intently on the tonal quality of his voice, his inflections, the changing expression of his face, the way he used his hands, the volume of sound he produced, when he took his breath, not to mention what he was saying? Or were you distracted by other sights and sounds, your own sense of impatience; and the chatter going on inside your own head wondering what to say next, when you needed to get home, how soon you could eat, or the presentation you had to make the next day.
Is it time to slow down? I know, you might feel that you can’t. But is multitasking really making you more productive? Is it enhancing the quality of your life? Or, to paraphrase Wordsworth’s comment long before the computer-age: “Getting and spending (and surfing), we lay waste our powers.”
As a therapist it is essential for me to pay attention to what my patients say and don’t say, how they look and how they move; small changes in their facial expression, tone of voice, and mood; the hint of a tear coming to their eyes, the crispness and energy of their gait. And, if I do this, they will usually be freer to be open and trusting; and more prone to validate their own feelings — think of their words and emotions as having value, because someone else does.
I must bring my own intensity and focus, be in-the-moment with my patient, mindful of everything related to him; and certainly not preoccupied, day dreaming, thinking about my next meal, worrying about some other patient, or texting another individual while I half-listen to the person sitting across from me.
Although not always perfectly successful, I try to be an enemy of routine.
You would not and should not go to a therapist who does less than keep this kind of focus. So why would you live so as to fragment your own focus by doing so many things at once that almost nothing fully engages you and produces your own personal life satisfaction?
I imagine that you are reading this on a computer that you own. But might it not be just the other way around? Might it be that the computer (and other digital distractions) “own” you?
What would your life be like if you practiced, more and more, being in-the-moment, attentive to just what is present at that time and place — making a living-space for yourself so that you can really live — not just plow through the day in its attention-absorbing, mind-sucking, soul-deadening, endless haste over things that won’t matter to you in 10 minutes or 10 days or 10 years?
You can start so simply. Just one bite of food, savored for color, texture, the sensations on your tongue, the taste and aftertaste — slowly.
The news on the radio or TV or AOL will wait. The “Vice President in Charge of Looking Out the Window” will take care of the weather. The CD or downloaded music can be accessed at another time. The incoming text message is almost certainly not that urgent. The phone can be turned off.
We hear lots about traffic accidents caused by ADHD teenagers, who are driving, texting, talking to the person in the passenger seat, combing their hair, putting on nail polish, listening to the radio, and conversing on their cell phone, all at once.
Why would one want to be an only marginally less distracted, fragmented (and dangerous) version of that person? Out of touch with the world and oneself?
A few years ago I saw a cartoon that looked something like this: a middle-aged couple, obviously married for many years, were sitting together. The husband was trying to read his newspaper and watch TV while his wife talked. Then the husband spoke: “I’m sorry dear, but I was distracted and missed what your were saying. Can you repeat everything you’ve said since we got married?”
The above image is of “Harmonica Frank” Floyd, who is seen playing two harmonicas, one using his nose and one using his mouth. He also was reportedly able to play the harmonica and sing simultaneously. Today we would call Frank a “supertasker.”