Multitasking, Distracted Therapists, and the Digital Carousel

multitasking3

I knew the world was in trouble when, about 25 years ago, I witnessed a psychiatrist talking on two telephones at once: one in each hand, held up to each of his two available ears. He was standing in a parking lot dodging cars all the while.

God help him if he had more hands, more ears, more phones.

His behavior is called multitasking and, trust me, you can’t divide your attention as well as you think. At least, unless you are among the 2.5% of the population some researchers believe are “supertaskers.”

Scientists report negative effects of multitasking on concentration, productivity, the way it tends to increase stress, and the addiction-like stimulation attached to computers and other digital devices. Some academicians tell us our brains are being rewired by dazzling digitals — our focus distracted by novel, but irrelevant information. Might a therapist’s rewired brain be less capable of listening to you?

Even for non-counselors, the effects of multitasking are serious: impatience, fatigue, and a fragmentation of lived-experience. Error rates go up, speed of performance goes down. You have created a traffic jam in your brain.

Think for a moment.

How many things do you concentrate on to the exclusion of everything else?

My guess is you do lots of activities while watching TV: listening to music (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, etc.

This becomes so routine, so normalized, that we are unaware of how many duties we take on incompletely. We switch from one to another, hardly noticing. Time is spent reorienting ourselves as we move between tasks, slowing progress. By attempting to do more than one thing at a time, we increase the amount of time taken on all the jobs so targeted.

When was the last time you savored a single bite of food? You didn’t if you were involved in conversation. If you check your mail every time your phone pings and answer each ring, you will find not only compromised focus, but electronic seduction away from the people you love, the music that could move you, and the joy of witnessing your child’s first step.

Have you ever driven in a mindful way? Felt the vibration of the car, the tactile sensations produced by your body against the seat, the variegated sky ahead, the sounds of the other cars, the curious shapes and shadows on the highway, the slight alteration in position and muscle movement when you press on the brake? No music, no speaking, no day dreaming: you and the machine and the road, alone.

Do you really listen to your conversation partner? Focus on the tonal quality of his voice, his inflections, the transforming expression of his face, the way he uses his hands, the volume of sound he produces, when he takes his breath, and the emotional weight of his words? Or are you distracted by other sounds and sights, a sense of impatience; and the chatter going on inside your head wondering what to say next, when you need to get home, how soon you can eat, or the presentation you must make tomorrow?

512px-human_multitasking_spp_1772_logo

My job as a therapist was to attend to what patients said and didn’t say, to detect the tiniest quiver in the voice, the slight raising of an eyebrow, the hint of a tear coming to the eye, the crispness and energy of the gait, the bouncing of a knee. And, if I did this they were usually freer to be trusting and prone to validate their own feelings — think their words and emotions had value because another person thought so.

I brought intensity and concentration to be in-the-moment with my patient, mindful of everything related to him; not preoccupied, day dreaming, or worrying about someone else. If a therapist half-listens he should be paid half the fee.

Though I was not always successful, I tried 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 (with only occasional lapses). Why then fragment your own attention? By doing many things at once you sacrifice full engagement and satisfaction with any one of them.

I do understand, especially for moms, you don’t always have a choice. I do understand that attention to one thing is often a luxury. All the more then, we must slow down what we can control for as little or as much as it is, battling a world driving us to speed up.

I imagine you are reading this on a computer or phone. You own these. But might it be just the other way around? Might it be the computer (and other digital distractions) “own” you?

How would your life be different if you practiced being in-the-moment, attentive to what is present at that time and place — making a living-space in your head so you can really live — not plow through the day on an attention-rotating carousel: a mind-sucking, soul-deadening, endless haste over things that won’t matter to you in 10 minutes or 10 days or 10 years?

Starting is not hard. Take one bite of food. Savor for color, texture, the sensations on your tongue, the taste and aftertaste — slowly.

The news on the radio on TV or online will wait. If World War III starts you will know. The “Vice President in Charge of Looking Out the Window” will monitor the weather. The downloaded music can be accessed at another time. The incoming text message is almost certainly not urgent. The phone can be turned off.

Difficult choices are required. Some things must be cut from your life. The incoming stream of electronic flotsam can be consulted only after a longer stretch of time has elapsed: first 10 minutes, then 15, longer and longer. Mindfulness meditation, if you make it a practice, will improve focus and joy in the things you love. One task and only one task must be the only thing you take on for, say, 45 minutes before a break or switching attention.

A few years ago I saw the following cartoon: a middle-aged, long-married couple were sitting together. The husband was reading his newspaper while his wife talked. He 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?”

Really.

The logo is called Human multitasking DFG Priority Program Logo as created by Sppteam. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons. This essay is a revision of one I posted some years ago.

11 thoughts on “Multitasking, Distracted Therapists, and the Digital Carousel

  1. Interesting piece. When I was employed, I was the quintessential multitasker. The nature of my job required it and I, frankly, loved it. I was once called an “adrenaline junkie” and that was quite true. There was something enlivening about having to be on your toes and yet juggle so many demands and I knew I did it well. I miss it.
    “How would your life be different if you practiced being in-the-moment, attentive to what is present at that time and place — making a living-space in your head so you can really live — not plow through the day on an attention-rotating carousel: a mind-sucking, soul-deadening, endless haste over things that won’t matter to you in 10 minutes or 10 days or 10 years?” Well, I have been trying to do more of that sort of thing. They say it’s a good thing but I think it only calls to my mind the things that have changed, the things that I miss. There are lots of spaces in my days now. Rather than technology, I tend to fill them with reading. I drift from chore to reading to chore to reading and maybe an occasional stroll to a social event or out to the coast. Frankly, I’d rather be multitasking. It feeds me more.

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    • Thanks, JT. Perhaps you are a “supertasker.” Perhaps you haven’t found a new niche, one that might be more satisfying or equally satisfying. I suppose with some digging I might unearth some other possibilities, but that is something for you to consider if you care to. In any case, I hope you do find whatever will nourish you as much as you were filled by work. It is a hard place for many men to occupy, so you are not at all alone in this. Take care.

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  2. Thank you for this. I know I don’t multitask effectively — I don’t even like to hold conversations while I drive. Having so many simultaneous demands — as we all do — requires ruthless prioritization (I don’t do that optimally, either, but that’s another issue). So many people think they are good at multitasking, but when I have to pick up the pieces after them, I’m not so sure.

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    • You are welcome, Nina. It is refreshing to read that you don’t believe you are a great multitasker. Much like driving (I suspect), if you ask people if they are above average drivers, more than 50% say yes, which is (of course) impossible. Your need to pick up the pieces is surely typical of responsible people who work with those who overestimate their abilities. Thanks for your comment.

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  3. A very relevant topic for our times, Dr. Stein. I miss the days when my sons and I chatted about our day, events, people in our lives, and more. These days, when we go out together, I have to compete with their shiny screens for attention. It’s a real communication killer 😦

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    • Thank you, Rosaliene. I agree entirely with the doubled-edged role of technology, on personal communication and much else. On the downside, readers here might want to take a look at what you’ve written on the subject of climate change. Well worth the time.

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  4. a soggy Good Morning Dr G – spring has sprung off and I’m sitting in a lukewarm rain puddle – right now I’m eating breakfast, leaving a comment for you, trying to complete a spread sheet for work, answering the phone and I think I might just have located a Pokemon out on the greenbelt – pretty impressive for the world’s only female who didn’t get the multi-tasking gene at birth
    most of my multi-tasking goes on inside my head – my brain is a Super Processor turbo charged and revved to the max by too much coffee and my own Mad Hatter genetic make-up – I devour huge chunks of unprocessed data and hunks get hacked off and assigned to the locales of remember dog food, directions to the office, shopping list, where to find the phone, that’s a nice tree, where’s the dog, fight and flight, dangers, unsafe, avoid the dodgy dude in the blue hat, how to turn on the computer, eat, too much noise, that song wants me to dance in the rain drops, don’t fall over your feet in the gym, answer the phone, avoid the truck and the kids on the bus, reading one book or two books or three, resonating stuff, deep stuff, I wonder how that got done or sorted or found stuff, watch the washing machine go round stuff, run, deal with the friend in crisis, deal with my crisis – all the time, every day, minutes used up with this chaos – and I end up trying to type with the cereal spoon and answering the mouse instead of the phone and I totally forgot the dog food yet again
    yes Dr G you are right we all need a calmer, lower tech, stress reduction type of lifestyle but all that noise and chaos does help to keep the monsters at bay – a barrier of noise and busy that they bounce off of and I can avoid the obvious and go hide in the mess
    and I’m into the mindfulness stuff, totally – just not in the form that my psychologist recommended – her latest brainwave to ease the cheese grater effect of noise scraping against my skin – to build a safe space inside my head where I can flee to and indulge in calm and quiet – a refuge, a haven, a she shack at the bottom of the garden
    so I created this deep aqua mirror mountain pool, lichen and chocolate brown rocks and little fishes that nibble my toes, this table flat rock I can recline on, tummy flat against the sun soaked rock warmth, and I can lean over, chin hanging off the edge and gaze into the depths, rocked into stillness by the wave ripples made by dragonfly feet – and a face appears in those depths whose owner is the author of my distress and my fingers tickle as I gently place them around their neck and I joyfully strangle the living daylights out of them – I think it was the gratuitous violence my psychologist objected to but I cannot describe that wonderful sinking into breath by breath quiet and then topping it off with a murder or two that just wipes out the stress and the hurt – totally centering experience
    and you’re right Dr G the news and texts and the latest offering of Master Chef can all wait – the ocean and a mad free dog chasing seagulls can’t – and that reminds me – dog food!

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    • Wow, Rosie. You may be a supertasker after all! A murder or two on top of a topless to do list is way more then anyone else I know could handle. Thanks for adding some Technicolor words to my day.😀

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    • Rosie, I’m new here but just wanted to say that I really enjoy your colorful comments. You are truly a imaginative writer and poet.

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  5. While I agree that slowing down would be ideal, with a mind that runs full throttle it’s difficult. I am trying to focus my energies on forgiving and accepting what I don’t get done rather than trying to slow down. The mind, the lists, the day to day tumult doesn’t stop, but I have to agree that it’s ok not to get it all done. And forgive myself when I want to take a break. Something doesn’t get done though.

    And, technology has freed my head. It’s created greater connections and more functionality. Sometimes the technology is the lifeline. Would you be able to give all us commenters an hour of your time a week to share your ideas we so enjoy?!?! In person phoneless connection would be way better, but we can’t always be mindful. 😜

    As always, appreciate the grey (as in not black and white) you add to my life. Positive thoughts to you.

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    • Thanks, Al. Your comments have added to my life, as well. For now at least, I think you’ve got as much of me as I’m willing to share, but I’m not inattentive to suggestions you might have for this blog. I do get the humor implied. Take care.

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