According to recent research at the University of Washington, immersion in a virtual reality, snowy landscape has measurable effects on both the areas of the brain responsible for pain, and on the experience felt by patients suffering from chronic pain. We see another example of a similar effect in ourselves when we are listening to a song we love or attending to an incoming text message on our phones, and are oblivious to everything going on around us. This is why your teenager really doesn’t hear you when he is texting on his phone. The similarity may not seem obvious on the surface, but both phenomena are examples of our brains’ ability to be occupied with only one thing at a time. In the case of pain patients, the effect is so strong that researchers are working to develop ways to utilize virtual reality as a means to reduce the use of pain medication and manage pain more successfully.
What can this tell us about how to better manage our daily lives, both at home and in our work? Well, perhaps you’ve heard it before, but one lesson here is that multi-tasking isn’t. In other words, when you are attempting to do multiple things at the same time, in fact, what you are doing is switching between tasks moment by moment, sometimes even millisecond by millisecond. The impact of that switching back and forth has a significant and measurable cost in terms of productivity and what some call “being present”. Moreover, there is a lag each time you switch during which your brain has to adjust to the new task, and leave the old one behind. And we often do that hundreds of times an hour. That is a lot of lag.
If you doubt the premise that your brain can only do one thing at a time, try this experiment. Set a timer for one minute. Close your eyes and think of the way your hand feels sitting on your thigh. Keep thinking about it for the whole minute. Every time you think of anything else other than the feeling of your hand sitting on your thigh, remind yourself and go back to thinking of your hand sitting on your thigh. When the timer goes off, try to recall if there was any moment that you were thinking of BOTH your hand sitting on your thigh and anything else. You will see that you could only think about one thing at a time and needed to pull yourself back from each detour in your thinking.
These interruptions are so ubiquitous that we often fail even to notice they are happening, but that doesn’t stop their effect. You know the experience of sitting with someone and trying to have a conversation and an alert sounds indicating a text message arrived. In that moment — even if they don’t check their phone — there is a lapse in focus. For that moment, whether they check the phone or not, they are no longer with you. The lapse in connection has ramifications for our communication as well as for our experience of being emotionally connected to the person we are communicating with. Consider this in your workplace, when you are speaking to a colleague or employee, and your computer or phone periodically makes sounds indicating an email or text message’s arrival. The cascade of momentary lapses of attention ends up altering the meeting you are holding or the communication you are delivering. It is equally costly in our relationships and families.
There are remedies you can apply to stop these small interruptions. You can turn off your phone or mute the alert on your computer. In fact I recommend you do both of those (unless you are a surgeon on call). But that’s not really my point in this post. There is a corollary to this reality that is equally important. Our brains, by virtue of their evolutionary design, work best, when we provide them with the opportunity to be completely occupied with one and only one thing. We are at our most creative, productive, and effective with full concentration on a single task. I know you can think of the exceptions. For example, you may find running more enjoyable with music, or a routinized manual task like folding letters and stuffing envelopes more pleasant while listening to an audio book. Manual cigar rollers had readers who provided audio entertainment while they did the manual task of repeatedly rolling cigars in factories. But these exceptions prove the rule. The brain — at least the executive functions of the brain — works best when focused on one thing. So cigar rollers and joggers execute their respective activities without utilizing their executive functions. The distraction gives their brain something to do instead of feeling bored and experiencing the discomfort of jogging or the boredom of rolling cigars. Just like patients of chronic pain being immersed in a beautiful snowy landscape, the distraction of rocking out to Bruce Springsteen reduces the pain of the last sprint!
For those of us who are knowledge workers, whether writers, artists, computer coders, managers, sales people, executives or the like, this provides some significant guidance about how to raise the level of our performance. Focus and concentration are the bedrock ingredients for high performance. What allows for focus and concentration? A removal of distractions. That means NOT taking calls just because the phone rings. In fact, turn off the ringer and schedule time to return all calls a few times a day. It means not allowing your cell phone to interrupt you with alerts about incoming emails and text messages, turning off the audible alerts on your computer, and dedicating actual time in your calendar to activities that matter. By the way, most activities matter. Eating lunch matters. Responding to emails matter. Writing a new presentation or speech matters. Reviewing the day with your spouse matters. And each of these merits your full concentration and singular attention while you are doing it. Try this for a week and watch what happens. You will be amazed at the difference in your quality of work and likely, your peace of mind.
Let me know.