Multitasking, Distracted Therapists, and the Digital Carousel

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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?

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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.