Focus lessons from a dog (Part 1)

by Dr. Anthony Paustian, the author of A Quarter Million Steps: Creativity, Imagination, & Leading Transformative Change

If you’re like most people, odds are you’re swamped - so much to do, so little time to do it. We wade through our days trying to balance ever-growing responsibilities, and when we do them simultaneously, we feel more productive. We call this “multitasking,” and we believe the better we are at it, the more effective and efficient we will be. We tend to view multitasking as a positive, frequently sought-after attribute. In fact, as many of you read this, you’re likely responding to text messages, checking emails, eating lunch, reacting to app notifications, and thinking about the rest of your day at the same time.

But multitasking is a myth. Sure, you can chew gum while walking, listen to music while vacuuming, eat lunch while reading, or fold laundry while talking on the phone. But these activities don’t require higher-order, problem-solving skills or much brainpower of any kind. Psychologists who have long-studied the concept of multitasking have found that the brain is unable to focus on more than one higher-order function at a time. When people multitask, they actually shift their attention from one thing to another at fast speeds, and each time they switch focus between tasks, their minds must cope with the new information.

What is actually occurring is “switchtasking.” According to Earl Miller, a professor of neuroscience at MIT, “People can’t multitask very well, and when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves . . . Switching from task to task, you think you’re actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time. But you’re actually not.”

There are several reasons for this, but one is that similar tasks compete to use the same parts of the brain. For example, talking on the phone and writing an email are nearly impossible to do concurrently because of what neuroscientists call “interference.” Both tasks involve communication skills and contend for similar space in the brain. Multitasking doesn’t actually make us more productive; in fact, the quality of our effort suffers. Another major downside to multitasking is the negative effect it has on our stress levels as we try to balance a multitude of simultaneous activity. As a result, we feel overwhelmed, drained, and anxious.1

So why has multitasking become so important? It hasn’t always been this way. I can remember a time not too long ago when people were pretty content doing just one thing at a time and living much slower lives. What’s different? I believe the answers can be found by looking at two distinct yet interrelated aspects of everyday life: technology and our level of happiness, the latter of which will be addressed in my next post.

When I was in high school, personal computers were barely in their infancy. Way too expensive for the vast majority, PCs with any real productive power were only found at the corporate level. Some high schools and colleges were beginning to use them, but for the most part, the average person still had little to no personal contact with a computer. Cell phones didn’t exist, let alone anything remotely resembling today’s power-packed smartphones.

In other words, by today’s standards, people were pretty disconnected. To communicate, you either made a call from a bulky telephone connected to a wall, talked face-to-face, sent letters, or fired up your CB radio (if you were born after 1980 you may need to ask someone older about this).

The lack of accessible personal technology resulted in a slower life; one that required more planning and coordination to maximize productivity, stronger interpersonal skills, and greater levels of patience.

Current technology demands an entirely new context: one where people spend less time planning their days since most things can now be done on the fly; one where the need for interpersonal skills between people continues to diminish as a larger percentage of our communication is now virtual; and one where expectations of “instant” are now the norm. Be honest, after you send a text message or leave a voicemail, how long are you willing to wait for a response before feeling frustrated . . . even a little?

This change in thinking - especially for younger generations who only know this type of thinking - combined with the ubiquity of personal electronics has resulted in daily expectations of immediacy and convenience. Ultimately, we feel like we’re doing more in less time, and thus create and perpetuate the concept of multitasking.

Unfortunately, while technology has definitely become more capable, our minds still basically work the same. And the result of this ongoing pursuit to do more in less time is ultimately the diminished quality of our efforts with increased levels of stress and anxiety.

I own a beautiful liver and white springer spaniel named Sydney. Sydney does four basic things in life and never at the same time: eat, play, poop and sleep. You can’t ask for a more simple life, and despite that, she’s happy. And she’s always present in the moment.

We need to be more like Sydney and simplify our lives and stop trying to do everything simultaneously. Research has shown that our mental energy related to decision-making is finite, and once depleted, the quality of our thinking begins to dramatically suffer. As average people, we tend to spend a large percentage of our mental energy on relatively meaningless stuff that really doesn’t have any real impact on our lives, good or bad, like streaming through countless posts on Facebook and watching television. Once our brain has used its energy, we tend to miss the relevant stuff and other important details necessary to be more successful, creative thinkers within the limited time we are given.2

Studies of very efficient people show they rid themselves of distractions and the unnecessary, miscellaneous choices that deplete mental energy. They frequently eat and meet at the same places; they turn off their smartphone app notifications until they’re ready to see them; they stop dwelling on things that occurred in the past and don’t obsess on things that might happen since it’s impossible to actually do things in the past or future; they frequently wear the same clothes (think Steve Jobs); and they remove the clutter that surrounds them.3

To illustrate the power of simplification, consider the high school equivalency GED exam, which has been around for over 70 years. Recently, the exam shifted from paper to a computerized format. Unlike the paper version, where multiple questions along with multiple answer slots were all visible at once, the computerized version removed the clutter and only showed one question at a time. The passing rate on the computer exam rose to 88 percent, compared with 71 percent for the paper version (a 17 percent increase).4

Being at our creative best requires gas in the mental tank, gas that will only be available if we aren’t going full throttle every day. Be like Sydney. Simplify your life.

Practice Challenge: Keep a journal consisting of one full week’s worth of decisions. Document any and all decisions you make from the most mundane (e.g., what clothes to wear, what food to eat, etc.) to the most critical and important (e.g., financially-related, strategic, etc.). Following the week, look back through the list and determine which decisions could become routine with little or no thought given to them. Predetermine how those decisions will be made ahead of time and shift your focus towards those most important. You should feel a greater sense of energy when addressing them.

1Hamilton, Jon. Think You’re Multitasking? Think Again. (October 2, 2008) Retrieved October 28, 2015, from the NPR website: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=95256794
2Vaughan, Michael. Know Your Limits, Your Brain Can Only Take So Much. (January 24, 2014) Retrieved October 28, 2015, from the Entrepreneur website: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/230925
3Bradberry, Travis. How Successful People Make Smart Decisions. (October 7, 2015) Retrieved October 28, 2015, from the Forbes website: http://www.forbes.com/sites/travisbradberry/2015/10/07/10-tricks-successful-people-use-to-make-smart-decisions
4Building the Educated and Employed Communities of Tomorrow. Retrieved December 28, 2015, from the GED Testing Service website: http://www.gedtestingservice.com/uploads/files/9bce820a49287fec1febad56e98bccef.pdf

©2016  Anthony D. Paustian

PaustianLargeHeadDr. Anthony Paustian is the author of four books including his most recent, A Quarter Million Steps. For more information, please visit his website at www.adpaustian.com

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