The Multitasking Myth

We can only pay attention to one thing at a time. For years, you have heard that we all need to multitask and you may have convinced yourself that you can do it it pretty well.

It’s not so bad to listen to music while you work – a distraction, but minimal. But add in checking your email and messages, watching a video on Facebook and all suffer.

The push to multitask is being reversed. We all know now that anything else you do while driving hurts your focus on driving and can be deadly. Listening to the radio, singing along or talking to a passenger may be tolerable distractions, but texting, looking at a screen for your audio settings, looking at the sites as they are passing, reading signs, studying the GPS map, drinking or eating, and fumbling in your pocket or pocketbook for your ringing phone are all very dangerous.

More and more research shows this to be true: We all like to think that we can multi-task and do all the tasks well, but we can’t. And when it comes to paying attention, who is better, men or women? Turns out, neither.

Here is a simple attention test. Watch this short video of two basketball teams, one wearing black and the other in white, passing basketballs between them and count the number of passes made by the white team.

Recent neuroscience research tells us that rather than doing tasks simultaneously well, what we might be good at is just being able to switch tasks quickly. But that stop/start process in the brain wastes time and degrades our focus on both tasks.

When you watched the video, how may passes did you see? Actually, the researchers didn’t care much about that part of this experiment known as the “gorilla test.” Psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons created the video to see how many people saw a woman wearing a gorilla suit walk onto the scene, thump her chest several times and then walk off. She is there in the middle of the video for about 9 seconds but only 50% of viewers spot the gorilla.

Why? Because when you are told to concentrate on one thing, your mind tends not to see other things. You were counting passes from one team and paid less attention to other things.

The video is not proof of our inability to multitask, but the psychologists call this effect “inattentional blindness.”

Daniel Simons says:
“Indeed, most of us are unaware of the limits of our attention—and therein lies the real danger. For instance, we may talk on the phone and drive because we are mistakenly convinced that we would notice a sudden event, such as a car stopping short in front of us.
Inattentional blindness does have an upside. Our ability to ignore distractions around us allows us to retain our focus. Just don’t expect your partner to be charitably disposed when your focus on the television renders her or him invisible.”

This shift in our attitudes toward multitasking probably tracks with an increased interest in many forms of mindfulness training, and an increase in the number of people identified as having attention deficit disorders. We know our attention is lousy. We are easily distracted. And most of us want to do something about the problem.


Things Undone

It is really getting to me how many things I have undone. It doesn’t help that I am big on making To Do lists. I need those lists to keep track of things, but they also act as reminders of what I have not gotten done.

And lots of things never make it to the lists. The books waiting unread and the stack of books with bookmarkers in them that are partially read. Magazines unread. I even started to tear out articles that I wanted to read so that I could recycle the rest and have less confronting me. Now, I have a wire basket full of torn out articles.

monkeyMy mind is always wandering. The abbot at a Zen monastery that I used to attend told me that I have “monkey mind” – a mind that is like a monkey hopping about from limb to limb in the jungle.

Usually, we can blame a lack of concentration on being too busy, feeling stressed out or being overtired. But lately I have been less busy, not very stressed and better rested and it hasn’t helped the attention or the To Do lists.

I’ve tried things. Yeah, medication. That was a bust.  I tried meditation and mindfulness and ways to increase my awareness of the world around me. I really do try to pay attention whether I’m typing something for a blog post or on one of many rambles through the woods.

I was a kid in a time when there was no such diagnosis as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). You were just a kid in school who was talked too much and didn’t pay attention. Later, the term “hyper(active)” come into use, but it was often diagnosed as a kid who ate too much sugar.

Symptoms? Impatience, distractibility, forgetfulness, impulsiveness, and having trouble finishing tasks.

Sounds like you? Go rate yourself on the World Health Organization’s Adult ADHD Self-Report Scale. If you get a high score, you go go to a doctor and get some meds. You can try cognitive behavioral therapy. You might find that focused attention meditation helps.

It’s easy for me to hide my deficit of attention. Actually, a lot of friends and co-workers have said “I don’t know how you get so much done.”  So, why do I feel so much is undone?

There are plenty of self-help pages to tell you why we can’t focus and how to boost your brainpower and ways to keep your mind sharp and even the right kind of breakfasts that jump-start your brain so that you can handle a brain-power workout.

I know that I’m supposed to shoot for at least 30 minutes of cardiovascular activity three to five times a week. My walking doesn’t cut it because I am so distracted by passing sights and sounds that my speed is inconsistent.

I see these phrases like how to “reboot” your brain, as if it was a laptop and all you needed to do was hit the power button. You need to “rewire” your brain. Focus, organization, time-management and follow-through. Life as business practice.

A diagnosis of ADHD is a nice thing to blame instead of blaming your own inadequacies that make it impossible to get organized, to stick to a job, to keep an appointment, to concentrate. But it doesn’t make things get better.

I actually have found blogging and setting myself deadlines to write here and on a few other blogs to be a great focusing exercise. But this post is done. Time to click “submit.” Then I can focus on my breath and jump from limb to limb like the good little monkey I have always been.