One Thing at a Time

In this age of distractions, attempting to focus on one thing at a time can be surprisingly difficult.  A recent article in the New York Times cited a couple of studies demonstrating the pitfalls of so-called multi-tasking.  Are you listening to music while you read this?  Or maybe someone is talking to you.  Or you might be in a crowded or noisy environment where a loud noise could take your mind away from your reading. This may seem like a minor thing, but according to these studies multi-tasking can “double the number of errors made in assigned tasks”.  In fact, it turns out, by trying to do more within the same period of time, you actually accomplish less.

Interestingly, I was able to actually prove this to myself while I was reading the article.  Any of you who read online news have probably already noticed that advertising peppers the page you are reading from.  Advertisers actually count on your inability to resist distraction. About half-way through the article a little video appeared at the side of the page. Despite my best efforts to focus on the article, the lure of the video was unavoidable.  Without even realizing it, I found myself glancing over to the movement.  The sound was turned off so I don’t even know what the video was about but as soon as I realized that I had been sucked into the distraction vortex I had to laugh. I couldn’t help but wonder if the author of the article was aware of the irony.  Stanford professor Clifford Nash, who was part of a research team that published an article on this subject for Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, calls this being a “sucker for irrelevancy”.  Isn’t that the truth!

The problems with multi-tasking don’t stop there.  People who multi-task may think they are maximizing accomplishments, but according to a study conducted at the University of California, Irvine, multi-taskers are actually less productive.  In fact, distractions make the original task take about 50% longer “compared to focusing on one task through to completion before starting the next one”.  Furthermore, it turns out that multi-tasking actually depletes your neural resources contributing to the mental exhaustion you might feel at the end of each day. As the Times article points out the “term ‘brain dead’ suddenly takes on a whole new meaning.”

There are other factors that contribute to being easily distracted or having difficulty focusing on one thing at a time.  These include stress and lack of adequate sleep.  But the constant noise of our 24/7 world makes avoiding distractions especially difficult.  Try and picture the last time you were in a noise-free, media-free environment for any length of time.  Many of us have become so accustomed to constant noise that we have actually developed what could be considered an addiction. Admittedly, this is true for me.  Not only do I run a fan at night year-round for “white noise” to sleep by, but I also confess to being a long-time radio junkie.  Until very recently when I stopped wanting the constant bombardment of news, I used to have the radio playing as “background noise” all day long.  Some people use TV for the same purpose.  My husband and I have lived without commercial TV for the past 10 years so I have managed to eliminate that noise from my daily life.  But as many of you know I am now a podcast addict so I guess I’ve just substituted one form of distraction for another.

This is where yoga and Pilates come to the rescue helping me to learn how to focus my attention on one task at a time.  The Times article refers to “monotasking” as a “21st-century term for what your high school English teacher probably just called ‘paying attention.'” Those of you who follow this blog will probably recognize learning to pay attention as a benefit of mind-body movement modalities.  As I’ve noted in earlier blog posts getting injured is often a direct result of not paying attention.  According to psychologist and Stanford lecturer Kelly McGonigal, author of The Willpower Instinct , monotasking is “something that needs to be practiced”.  There’s another term mentioned frequently on this blog: practice.  Think about it.  Given the obstacles, it’s not surprising that learning to focus on one thing at a time requires practice.  But the benefits are worth the effort.  It turns out that monotasking “can also make work itself more enjoyable.”

Still it’s not easy to concentrate one’s focus.  As a typical “Type A” personality I can definitely attest to that.  However, I know how much yoga and Pilates have helped me learn how to practice.  And every day presents new opportunities for practice.  For example, throughout the day I will often find myself starting one task and suddenly remembering something else that draws me in another direction.  When this happens I have learned to remind myself to finish the first thing first.  I may even have to say it out loud to myself:  “Finish this first!” If I need to I can make a physical note (that is, write it down) of the “something else” so I won’t forget to do it when I’m done with the first thing.  This is just one example of how I have learned to practice.

Years ago, I remember taking a time management course. The instructor talked about the things that need immediate attention vs. the things that have the appearance of needing immediate attention.  The latter are usually distractions.  When you’re in a yoga or Pilates class and putting all of your attention into connecting your mind with your body you will probably find that there is no room in your head for anything else. But still your mind may try to pull you in another direction.  This is the siren call of something having the appearance of needing your immediate attention.  When this happens, remind yourself that the other thing will still be there when you are finished with the task at hand. This is your chance to practice.  The more you practice the better you will get at remembering to put the practice into action.  Then you just might find that whatever you’re engaged in actually gets done more efficiently and may even be more enjoyable.

Celebrating Sameness

We all began as children

This morning I listened again to one of my favorite podcasts:  “The Biology of Spirit“, an interview with Dr. Sherwin Nuland from the weekly radio program “On Being“.  I could easily fill this space with inspirational nuggets from this talk, but there were a few ideas that are particularly relevant to the kinds of topics we discuss in this blog.  For example, Dr. Nuland talks about some of the things that are universal among all human beings.  First, there is the biology. We are each constructed of approximately 75 trillion cells. Each one of those cells experiences an estimated 4 million cell divisions per minute.  Since it’s “impossible for the DNA to replicate perfectly each time, little mistakes are made.” That’s where the DNA repair molecule comes into play.  “It travels like a little motorboat up and down the DNA molecule. It finds errors, snips them out, corrects them, and puts the right thing back in there. This is the ultimate wisdom of the body.”   Think about that for a moment.  It’s quite a concept. All of this is happening without our even noticing and most of the time dangers are thwarted and equilibrium is restored.  The human body is truly amazing!  We abuse it in so many ways and yet it still works so hard for us. So often we tend to focus on its shortcomings when we should be marvelling at how much it does right.

Having spent his professional career dealing with ways in which things go wrong, Dr. Nuland has developed “an enormously healthy respect for normal”.  He describes what it’s like to be “in surgery and you look inside an abdomen and realize how many things could go haywire and they don’t. . .  everything is just humming along beautifully, nobody is running it.”  How incredibly miraculous!  And this is true of all of us – regardless of race, religion, country of birth, political views, background, what we look like to each other – whatever differences you can think of, these are ways in which we are all the same.

It’s not just physical.  Dr. Nuland also reminds us that “pain and response to pain is a universal thing, it helps explain so many things about others, just as it explains so much about yourself. . . .It teaches you a sort of understanding.”  Recently I was talking with my family doctor about how my own pain has given me a new understanding of what it’s like for other people in similar circumstances.  We may not want to think about negative emotions or sensations like pain, or sorrow, or even guilt or embarrassment but it can be comforting to recognize that these are universal experiences. The fact is we all – yes, all! – feel these things at one time or another. Fear of people who seem different from us may lead us to make judgments. We think that such a person doesn’t have feelings like we do. Or perhaps that person doesn’t care about the same things we do. But chances are if we really got to know that other person, we would find that their fears and concerns are similar to our own and in the end they want the same things we do.  It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from or what you believe, we all want to feel secure, take care of our families, have a safe place to live and enough to eat.  These are universal qualities.

Similarly, we often feel as though our own suffering is unique. It tends to keep us isolated. We become reluctant to make our feelings known for fear that we will be rejected by others as somehow deficient. But one of the eternal truths of life is that everyone suffers in one way or another. The epigraph, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle” is mentioned during this interview.  When we take that dangerous leap of bridging the gulf of fear that separates us, we learn that everyone has a story and no one escapes its scars. It can be comforting to realize that no matter what we experience, there are billions of others who are or have experienced the same thing.  Dr. Nuland says, “You know what everybody needs? You want to put it in a single word? Everybody needs to be understood.”

As human beings, Dr. Nuland theorizes, with the capacity to process information in a unique way we seem to have an “awareness of the closeness of chaos”.  He thinks this is partially because of the complexity of the biological processes that are constantly occurring within every one of our cells. But it also could be related to our awareness of our own fragility. Despite our unwillingness as a society to address the finite nature of our existence, we are reminded daily that nothing lasts forever. Still all of our biological processes are geared towards detecting and attempting to eradicate threats to survival. In fact, even the ancient Greek philosophers “without knowing anything about cells or anything about how the body really worked, [understood that] we live in chaos and seek the reassurance of stability.”  We all seek harmony, order, and integrity as well as unity and predictability. Predictability is elusive, though, so most of us construct a series of habits, routines and patterns that make up a comfort zone.  This can become so familiar that we find it difficult to let go even when change might be in our best interests. As uncomfortable as pain or obsessional thoughts might be they are the devil we know.  Dr. Nuland puts it this way: “They represent a sort of comfortable familiar thing that I could come back to. It’s almost as if they represented family. And it’s hard to give those things up.” Part of that is fear of the unknown. If I let go of this feeling, what will replace it? Change also means loss.  Maybe its something we’re better off without, but we don’t know that until we get to the other side. It takes a leap of faith to believe that the other side will be OK.

At times of change, we would all do well to remember all of the times in the past that we have weathered a change that forced us out of our comfort zone.  Everyone reading this can probably think of a time in their lives when this has happened. In most cases the change has at the very least been a learning experience, but also it has probably brought about unexpected results which never could have been anticipated ahead of time.  I know this is true for me.

So if you’re contemplating making a change in your life, or if a change is being forced upon you due to circumstances beyond your control, it might help to remind yourself that there are many other people who are now or have experienced the same thing you are going through. Dr. Nuland says, “The brain has a way of evaluating what is best for the organism.” Although we as humans sometimes ignore what we know is best and manage to rationalize choosing another direction, we also know that “when we choose what is best for the organism, it will usually make us feel really good.” It might also help to remember that no matter what is changing there are a zillion other people faced with the same choices and experiencing the same dilemmas as you. Try remembering that each person you see has the same 75 trillion cells that you do and each one of them is engaged in the process of survival just like you.  We are all part of the big club of human beings.  There is comfort in belonging.