I recently read an interesting article on multitasking. The author quotes William James, the 19th century "father of American psychology," as saying:
“Everyone knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought.”
I was fascinated by the idea that in 1890 everyone knew what attention is. I'm not sure we know what attention is now. Or maybe we know but we don't give that knowing much priority. We certainly don't pay a lot of attention to how we use our attention. So often we just let impulses and stimuli of all kind grab our attention as we jump from a task, to checking our phone, to a conversation, to some kind of interesting and stimulating "content." (It seems we're besieged all the time with "content.")
And then James goes on:
“Focalization, concentration of consciousness are of its essence. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.”
This passage really struck me. Withdrawal. How important it is to turn off the surrounding stimuli so we can focus. It seems to me that when we sit down to attend to a task we rarely take this preparatory step. We focus harder on the task, but it doesn't occur to us to withdrawal from everything else. What if we miss something important?
She goes on in this well written article to talk about how we may be becoming physically addicted to the stimulus of the new and and interesting little things. And that what seems like "multi-tasking" - doing multiple things at once - is really always doing one thing at a time, but in the blur of switching rapidly back and forth between multiple activities it seems to us like we're doing them all simultaneously. And the more things we're doing, the more we're switching and dividing attention. And this has a cost.
Then a few days later I experienced that cost directly.
I was getting ready for one of my weekly overnight trips to teach in Seattle. This particular trip involved a few variations on the what's been typical of late. Equipment for a new class starting Tukwilla had to be loaded and thought through. A meeting at the Port of Seattle. Another meeting with colleagues. For each step I wanted to be sure I'd have what I need. These overnight work trips to Seattle are working out fine but if you're 100 miles from home and you forget something....
And so my mind was full of these logistical details and there was a time count down running. My first meeting at 2:30pm. It's usually one-and-a-half hour drive, allow two or two-and-a-half. Calculating that: leave at noon ideally, 12:30pm is okay. A few errands still to do, some packing. And inevitably running a little behind. Recalculating the leaving time, rethinking each step of the journey. Do I have everything? Do I still have time for that last errand at Fred Meyer? Realized that I could skip that errand, go on the way home the next day. A little feeling of elation about being flexible there, not being too dogged. Adjusting to reality. 12:30pm now, that's still okay right? Recalculating the timing. Again. Did I need 20 yoga mats or 30?
You get the picture.
Finally on the road a little after 12:30pm looking down I see I'd better get gas. And a desire for a coffee to sip as I drive arose. Is there time for both? I remembered that there's a Cruisin' Coffee right next to the Skagit Casino Gas Station. Then another happy thought: we have 1/2 off coupons for Cruisin' Coffee! Great!
Pulling into the gas station, again my mind on the time. I have a bright idea. Go to the pump on the right side and just walk across the driveway there to get the coffee while the gas is pumping. (I know...it made sense to at the time). So I get the little lever on the gas pump in the right position, grab my coupon on go over with my favorite travel mug. The coupon's still good! Awesome, $1.25 for a 12 oz. latte. Nice. This is all working out.
I get back in the turn turn the key and start to drive away.
What was that? Looking back something looks wrong. Side view mirror. A kind of snake-like object on the ground. The gas hose. I had not pulled the nozzle out. I had not completed the action of pumping gas. Multi-tasking. My attention had not made it back to that task in progress, the next task of "drive to Seattle" was much more compelling. Attention divided too many ways.
Oh dear. Standing behind the car. Watching the mind process this sight. A sight I'd never seen before. Feeling everything shift. Would I make it to Seattle at all now? Tightness in the chest, elevated breathing. A mild fight or flight reflex which landed on flight. Is anybody looking at me? Would they notice? I'm reminded now of the research that suggests that the pre-frontal cortex shuts down a bit when the stress response engages. But in this case it kicked back in soon enough: no you can't just drive away.
It all worked out - turns out gas pumps are designed to handle this eventuality and there's a coupling with a built in valve to prevent gas spills. And in the end I even made it to my first appointment in Seattle exactly on time.
But wow, the power of attention. There was no longer a gas nozzle in my car in the world my mind was maintaining. Driving away made perfect sense. KA-CHUNK.
To watch me telling the whole story to the mindfulness class the next day, including the surprising response of the gas station manager please follow this link to the video. [I'm told it's pretty funny to watch!]