When my daughter was learning to drive, I insisted that the radio always be off. However, when I drive I blast The Ramones and even sing along! What a hypocrite, right?
Well, no. At least, not in this case.
The saying goes that when it comes to love - the more you give, the more you get in return. When it comes to attention, though, it’s quite the opposite. Attention is finite. You have limited processing resources and your attention is what you spend your mental capital on. Sometimes it's your choice, and sometimes it's done unconsciously and involuntarily.
Our brains have two processing systems. System 1 is the fast, subconscious, non-thinking system that takes little mental energy to do its work. System 2 handles stuff we have to think about and allocate more mental resources to.
Tasks that get executed repeatedly can be transferred from System 2 into System 1, depending on their complexity. Then they can be performed with little mental effort and attention because they become etched in our subconscious. Walking, chewing, and brushing your teeth are System 1 tasks because you don’t have to think about them. So is routine driving for an experienced driver.
I'll Buy That
Attention is the currency we use to pay for our mental tasks and we have a limited amount at any given moment. It's like a bank account in that you cannot spend more than you have. System 1 tasks require little or no expenditure, while System 2 tasks require a significant amount.
Reciting the alphabet – System 1. Reciting the alphabet backwards – System 2.
Going back to the driving example, an experienced driver can perform most driving functions with little or no thought - System 1 tasks. So I can drive and groove to my tunes at the same time. Neither task requires much of my attention. A new driver, however, needs all of her attention focused on the new skills she is trying to learn. Diverting even a small amount of mental energy away with distracting music could be detrimental to the task at hand, which is primarily to keep her dad from having a heart attack.
Hold That Thought
If while driving I need to suddenly focus my attention on a new thing, such as merging into heavy traffic, my brain will automatically re-allocate its resources to the more urgent task and away from the other task. So if you are a passenger who is talking to me at that point I’m probably not going to hear you. Sorry about that!
Likewise, reading this blog while listening to your spouse talk about his or her day is probably not going to work very well either and could also get you into trouble.
This is bad news for multitaskers!
To Switch or Not to Switch
Dave Crenshaw is awesome. He is a business coach and author of The Myth of Multi-tasking: How “Doing it All” Gets Nothing Done. He makes some outrageous claims such as:
- multitasking is worse than a lie
- multitasking wastes time
- multitasking wastes money
- multitasking increases errors
- multitasking causes stress
- multitasking damages relationships
"Multitasking" here refers to attempting to do more than one task that requires focused attention. It’s a lie because what is actually happening is switchtasking. (Note that doing a “mindless or mundane” task that uses little or no mental resources while doing something else is possible and actually does boost productivity).
Stopping the Madness!
Some of the steps you can take to overcome this Invisible Mind Block are:
1) understand that your attention is limited and cannot expand to handle more tasks
2) eliminate interruptions as much as possible to increase singular task focus
3) dedicate time blocks for answering email and returning phone calls
4) create a work environment that has as few visual distractions as possible
5) Consciously decide which prioritized task you will work on and for how long
6) Delegate tasks when possible to increase productivity and reduce the desire to multitask
Above all, give deliberate focus to the important things in your life – the things that align with your values and your goals. Just remember to do them one at a time.