I’m a professional mind reader, but that’s not my true superpower; it’s paying attention.
In high school my debate teacher asked us to try a simple experiment: think of something boring for 2 minutes. We picked a door knob. He started the timer and within 4 seconds it seemed like my mind had pinged from one thing to the next so fast I wasn’t thinking of anything even remotely resembling a door knob.
“Monkey mind,” he said when I asked him what the hell happened.
I’d wager you have a serious case of monkey mind, too.
Did You Drink the Kool-Aid?
See, there’s there’s cult of multitasking. People think they’re good at doing several things at the same time, but the research doesn’t back it up. It reminds me of a quote my sweetie shared with me when she said when she was going to train for a triathlon:
Why be good at one thing when you can be shitty at three?
She gets it.
Multitasking is a myth. You can’t do it. You think you can, buuuuuuut you’re actually awful at it. Not only are you awful at multitasking, it means you’re substantially worse at the two (or more) things you’re trying to do.
I say “trying to do” because you’re half assing two things instead of whole-assing one thing, as Ron Swanson says.
3 Negative Results
1. Say Bye to Your Mental Reserves
You’re not actually doing two things at the same time. Instead, you’re rapidly switching from one task to the other. Every time you go from one to the other and back again, you’re wasting precious mental resources that are focused on the task of switching and not on executing.
This is a lot of energy expended with no tangible benefit.
2. More Time Wasted Equals Less Time Available
Since you’re spending all the time switching back and forth, you’re spending less time on the task at hand. This means that the task time you would normally spend on a single task is spread over more real clock time.
This is the complete opposite of efficient. Plus, if you’re looking for that “flow state” feeling where you’re in the groove, that takes (at minimum) about 20 minutes to get into. How long are you on task before you switch over to check text messages? I’d say every .5 minutes? Not nearly long enough to bring out your best work.
3. Your Thinking Is Bad, And You Should Feel Bad
Since you’re doing a lot of unnecessary work when you’re constantly switching back and forth, you fool yourself into thinking you’ve done more work than you have. Your brain says, “I’m super tired from all this work, and since feeling tired is the result of hard work I must have worked really hard on these two things! Yay me!”
And it’s lying to you! Your brain is conveniently editing out all the time between those tasks spent daydreaming, acclimating to the other task, or whatever other thing it’s doing that’s not productive focus.
OK Mr. Doom & Gloom. What Do I Do About It?
The good news is, like most human things, distractions exist on a spectrum. They range from barely there to BIG FRACKING DEAL.
At the BFD end of the spectrum is texting someone while you drive. Not good. Don’t do it.
At the Not A BFD end of the spectrum is just the awareness that you might get a text from someone. You’re not actually acting on anything, but that thought is occupying space in your brain meats.
Just the fact you could do something is on the slippery slope of eating away at your attention.
This is why so many people swear by browser plugins that limit the websites you can visit during the time you want to be productive. How often have you gotten tired of Facebook, close the tab, and then immediately open a new tab to check Facebook?
Install any number of browser extensions to break that automatic behavior loop to improve your focus.
Turn off your notifications on your cell phone when you want to be productive. And I’m not just talking about putting it on stun. Really, truly, turn off all forms of notifications. Or, better yet, put it on silent and then put it in another room.
Constraint vs Restraint
The more you engineer your environment to not even tempt you in the first place, the less you’re likely to engage in the tempting behavior.
This is the nature of constraint.
If, however, you’re relying solely on your willpower, you’re relying on restraint, and that sucks. Not doing the thing never feels as good as doing the thing.
There are only so many cupcakes I can say no to before my restraint wears off, and I give in. Compare that to not even having cupcakes around in the first place. First is restraint. No good. Second is an environmental constraint. More good.
Practice Makes Permanent
The more you practice focusing on one thing at a time, the better you get at controlling your attention. This is the way to tame the monkey mind.
One of the greatest compliments I got was a from a friend of mine who I met at a science conference. He told me a couple years afterward that he was impressed with how I was able to completely focus on our conversation instead of constantly looking over his shoulder for “more important” people to talk with. (You know the deal; the networker who is constantly on the prowl for the higher status person to glom onto.)
The fact that I was completely 100% attentive & present impressed him so much he booked me to speak at a science conference he organizes in California.
Not only will practicing your focus improve the quality of work at your job, but it will improve the quality of relationships you can build when people feel like you’re actually totally present.
You can’t do it. Stop trying. Start using your superpower of sustained, singular focus instead!
Need help? I can help you with that. Let’s chat!