By Amy Wood, Psy.D.
Imagine you're sitting in a restaurant booth enjoying lunch with a close friend you haven't seen in a while. You're deep in conversation with this cherished person, feeling extremely grateful to have this precious time together to catch up. You lean in closer as your friend begins to update you on a pressing personal problem, and just then you hear someone in the booth behind you mention the name of a colleague.
You naturally want to keep listening to your friend, but you are now also invested in being alert to any intriguing details that might come from the conversation behind you. You try to split your attention evenly so as not to miss out on anything, but within a minute you feel too distracted to pay sufficient attention to either situation. You decide to let go of the conversation behind you in favor of being there for your friend. And your focus on the person across the table is quickly restored.
Amy Wood, Psy.D.
Amy Wood, Psy.D.
What this common situation illustrates is that it's not feasible to simultaneously give your full attention to two activities each requiring it.
Most of us have experienced such a moment or some variation on it: talking to someone at a party while also trying to make out the lyrics of a song playing in the background, or taking in the audio AND the visual of two separate movies on adjacent televisions on a store shelf.
Technology will save you time if you recognize the limits of the average adult brain
Most of us also know full well that when we dilute our focus like that, we pick up only fractured bits and pieces and don't integrate the whole of anything. That's why smart human beings go to the library to study for exams, turn off the radio when they're watching a complicated movie and minimize interfering noise when they really want to hear what someone has to say.
So why is it that despite having learned the undeniable limits of the delicate human attention span many times over at our age, perfectly reasonable Boomers persist in dividing their awareness between two or more activities requiring complete concentration? Why would a seemingly levelheaded adult routinely read and send text messages while driving, engage in serious cell phone conversation while walking down a busy city street or work on a significant project via laptop while participating in a critical conference call?
Even when widely and repeatedly publicized hard evidence, such as increased emergency room visits caused by texting behind the wheel of a fast-moving car and having a cell phone conversation while negotiating crowded urban streets on foot, shows us that this kind of senseless multitasking doesn't work.
The only way to give up useless multitasking is to make it hard to engage in
Otherwise sensible people act in irrational ways because they want to believe, despite their better judgment, in the false promise of misguided yet popular cultural myths. Though we know better, it's easy to convince ourselves of what we wish were true, that technology saves time by making it possible to wholly engage in two exacting endeavors at once. We don't want to face the truth that technology isn't powerful enough to expand the limited capacity of the human attention span.
Cell phones, Blackberries, computers and other technological devices are wonderful tools for making work and life more efficient, enjoyable, flexible and manageable, but only if we use them judiciously. Judicious use means recognizing that if you use technology in ways that force you to put your attention in two places at once, you aren't saving time. To the contrary, you're wasting it.
Technology will save you time (and your sanity and quite possibly your life, for that matter) if you recognize the limits of the average adult brain. Combining two activities requiring your total attention means doing neither activity well. Many activities, of course, can be blended for greater efficiency without compromising performance. As long as you are applying technology in ways that don't distract you from situations that require your full focus, you're engaging in what I call sensible multitasking.
6 Tips for Sensible Multitasking
1. Carry your laptop with you so you can read and respond to emails, work on projects, read your favorite blogs, and download music and books while you're waiting to board a flight, filling time left by a client who doesn't show up or enduring other delays.
2. Listen to music or a book on your iPod while you're driving, exercising or cleaning the house.
3. Participate in a conference call via cell phone while taking a walk somewhere peaceful and away from traffic.
4. Enjoy casual phone conversation while you're doing the dishes.
5. Fold laundry while you're watching TV.
6. Read and respond to text messages while you're getting your hair cut or standing in the grocery store check-out line.
Now, I realize this won't be enough to convince you to abolish your senseless multitasking behavior. Temptations to disregard the logical reasons why it's impossible to accomplish two challenging tasks at once are everywhere and hard to resist. Even a savvy psychologist who knows more than most people do about what the brain can and can't do falls sometimes.
Despite my education and experience, my need to believe that senseless multitasking works is strong and stubborn - because, after all, life would be oh so much easier if it did work, wouldn't it? Deluded by wishful thinking just like you, I sometimes can't resist reaching for my cell phone when I'm walking from the parking garage to my office in the morning or driving home in my car at night. Just like you, I find myself checking my email and surfing the internet during important conference calls. And just like you, I find it frighteningly easy to convince myself, on those occasions when I simply can't stop myself from dangerously combining two demanding activities in hope that I'll save time that those senseless multitasking emergency room visits will only happen to "someone else."
Pushing my brain uncomfortably beyond what it was built to do wears me out, erodes my concentration and steals enjoyment from my life
In a culture that provocatively pushes the fantasy that the brain can do far more than it's capable of, the only way to give up useless multitasking is to make it hard to engage in. You can thwart your impulses to multitask senselessly by putting your Smart Phone in the trunk of your car before you get behind the wheel or by shutting down and zipping up your laptop before you get on a conference call. As with any habit you're trying to acquire, you'll fall off track and go back to your old ways from time to time, but you'll eventually reach a point where the desire to engage in dangerous multitasking becomes less powerful.
What works best to dissuade me from recklessly splitting my attention is recalling the old-fashioned multitasking example from the beginning of this post. To bring myself back to my senses, I remember all my failed attempts to participate in a meaningful conversation while trying to pay close attention to something else.
What strikes me is that every time I've tried to push my attention span beyond reasonable limits, I have gone from feeling calm, centered and comfortable to feeling distracted, disengaged and uneasy - within seconds. What also occurs to me about those times is that once I realize that I simply can't give my full attention to two important endeavors at once, it takes a little while to move back to that considerably more pleasant place of being present in an enjoyable moment.
These two realizations remind me that dividing my attention and then pulling my attention back and redirecting it is a stressful process that almost makes my head hurt. Then I see clearly that pushing my brain uncomfortably beyond what it was built to do is only wearing me out, eroding my concentration capacity and stealing enjoyment from my life. Once again, I comprehend that I will be in a much better position to thrive in a world of constant distractions if I do my best to treat my brain well.