Sunday, July 8, 2012

Focusing on One Thing at a Time


I have this premise. Multitasking is a lie. Well, kinda sorta a lie. You see, I believe that we can truly focus on only one thing at a time. If that’s the case how is it that I can wash dishes and have a conversation? Or drive and listen to the radio? how about watch TV and clip coupons? Well ... something has been delegated to the realm of habit – maybe even a couple of somethings.

There is a book out called The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. It is a great book. At least the Kindle sample part that I read was great. I really want to get that book, but since I’m on a tight budget I hope to get it for my birthday…this week…with an Amazon gift card.

But I digress. What struck me as I read this book was the idea that habits are formed by repetition and once formed they move to a different area of the brain. As far as I can tell this is what makes it possible to multitask. When you can engage multiple parts of the brain for different tasks you are multitasking.

Since multitasking is basically another term for being ADD, (which isn’t a bad thing), I tend to find that I’m not really focusing in on one task, but sort of splitting my attention. However, one of those tasks is going to win and get the better part of my attention. When that happens, the other task is being relegated to the habit center – the basal ganglia.

All this is fine. It also explains how I’m able to drive the car to work (habit) and think through the tasks that await me at work (focus). This explains why I get to work but don’t remember much about the trip there.

If I were to try to navigate to a new location while listening to an audio book (two completely new activities), one would get my attention and the other would be ignored. Neither of these activities can be handled by the habit center because both are brand new activities not yet formed into habits. And this is why I say that multitasking is a lie. Multiple tasks that require thought and concentration can’t be performed simultaneously.

So rather than claiming that I can multitask, it would be more honest to say that I can function in an environment with multiple interruptions. Function – yes. Thrive – not so much.

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