“A commitment to deep work…is a pragmatic recognition that the ability to concentrate is a skill that gets valuable things done. Deep work is important in other words, not because distraction is evil, but because it enabled Bill Gates to start a billion dollar industry in less than a semester” ~ Cal Newport.
I’ve been tossing statistics at my son this month about multitasking, distraction, and focus. He, I think, feels like they’re hand grenades. He’s taking them personally as if I’m insulting the things he loves. He loves video games. He loves random videos of ducks quacking to Prince’s "Purple Rain." Not that that exists. In my mind, it would actually be sacrilegious. I’m sure he’d think it was hysterical. I’m not objecting to the things he loves. He has a pretty sophisticated sense of humor and other than when the preteen boy hormones kick in, the things he shows me are really funny. It’s just that I’m taking a hard look at how our habits are affecting our lives. Especially our mental habits. And the more I read, the more concerned I am that we’re changing our minds in ways that aren’t healthy.
Basically, the results of my research say this: We live in a culture that is full of distractions which we both invite and have come to crave. We think we can do more by multitasking and we can’t. We’re losing the ability to concentrate and focus for more than a few minutes at a time. This is causing mostly negative changes to our work, our health, the way our brains function, how we experience emotion, and how we act within relationships.
Even in the midst of writing this episode, I just caught myself somehow watching a video of people being scared by excessively large fake spiders. What? A lost few minutes of life I’ll never regain. Even though I’m hyper-aware of it this month, I’m still struggling with distraction. I am improving though. I thought to wrap up this month, I’d share some of the things that have worked for me as I’ve been putting into practice ideas that I’ve come across. These might be a bit random, but they were either new ideas to me, or I found them surprisingly helpful after trying them.
As much as possible, I’m doing one thing at a time. When I’m not, I’m choosing to multitask intentionally, knowing I’m taking a productivity hit. This means in the car, cooking dinner, working, talking to friends…all the situations I might have previously been multitasking, I’m not doing so anymore. Are there things not getting done because of it? No, not that I’m aware of, except I may be missing out on some videos. Not spider vs. crying child videos, but marketing videos or educational videos. So far, I’m not feeling the loss. And the work that I am doing is better. This is an easy change to make and just requires noticing when you’re multitasking and choosing one thing at a time. This is one of those things that you really should try instead of just hearing me talk about it. Choose a day. Go through it doing one thing at a time. See how hard it is, how it affects your mind, your productivity, and your work.
We have the ability to concentrate intensely for no more than 5-6 hours a day altogether. So, schedule that time when you’re at your best and limit busy work to the best of your ability. Restrict those shallow things more than you think you can and schedule it when you normally feel the least productive. For me that’s between 2 and 4 pm.
Be Hard to Reach.
Contrary to popular opinion, I don’t have to be available all hours of the day. I don’t have to be available to clients, friends, facebook acquaintances and random app notifications 24/7/365. I can limit the ways I’m reached and I can limit the times I’m available to all those people. You are in charge of the use of your time, not random strangers, not your phone, not even your friends.
This has been a game changer for me. It’s a practice to help you learn rapidly the skills needed for deep thinking. The idea is to structure a thought exercise and practice it while doing something physical that requires no thought. So, walking, biking, swimming laps, or running for example. Here’s how to do it.
Downtime is critical to productive concentration. Our minds need the downtime. But, it’s very easy for unfinished business to intrude on our downtime. In order to close the door on work for the day, when you’re ready to switch to home mode, try following a shutdown ritual. This shouldn’t take more than ten or fifteen minutes at the end of the day. It will prepare you to start the following day in a productive manner and will help close the mental loops on work issues. Here’s a sample routine.
This isn’t something I’ve done before and my work location and practices are far from consistent. I do often practice checking my email and schedule, but I tend to never actually intentionally switch work mode off. I’m looking forward to trying this. I think it may save my sanity.
I found this really easy and interesting. It’s essentially practicing delayed gratification in small steps. One way I’m doing it is setting a timer for 30-minute work sessions. I’m not checking email, using the internet, or any other app on my phone until that session is done. It doesn’t have to be 30 minutes. It doesn’t even really matter if you do whatever you’re delaying sooner than you’d planned. Unless, like me, you’re killing digital trees in your Forest app when you ditch the plan. Then it matters! The point is to simply practice the art of resisting distraction. Practice choosing focus.
Teddy Roosevelt's Approach
As a Harvard student, Teddy Roosevelt got a crazy amount of things accomplished outside of school work and made good grades, mostly honors, while studying significantly less time each day than his classmates. He had tons of interests outside of school, including writing books. He managed to include all of his interests in his life, including publishing books by blocking out his workday - including classes, workouts, and meals. Then in the leftover time between those scheduled blocks of time, he studied. In the evenings he was free to pursue his projects and interests. That meant that he had far less time than most to hit the books, so the time he spent studying, he had to really double down.
The application for us is to similarly set an artificial or real deadline to accomplish your goal, one that requires you to cut out the fluff. Create a need to work super-intensely, or be faced with not accomplishing what must be done. I heard an interview with the founder of Basecamp not long ago in which he was talking about what happened when he cut the company work week back to four eight-hour days in the summer. Because they had less time, they cut out the things that didn’t matter, the wasted time and still accomplished everything they needed to.
I have a business strategy weekend planned over the holiday weekend. Probably by the time you listen to this, it will be over, or almost over. Three days. Multiple two-hour sessions per day. Fourteen to sixteen hours total to plan the next year of a new business. That might sound like a lot, but there’s a ton of work to do. This is a Teddy Roosevelt weekend with the evenings devoted to mental downtime. I’m excited to see how far I can get by the end of Memorial Day.
I’m going to leave you today with one more quote from Deep Work,
The deep life, of course, is not for everybody. It requires hard work and drastic changes to your habits. For many, there’s a comfort in the artificial busyness of rapid email messaging, and social media posturing, while the deep life demands that you leave much of that behind. There’s also an uneasiness that surrounds any effort to produce the best things you’re capable of producing, as this forces you to confront the possibility that your best is not (yet) that good. It’s safer to comment on our culture than to step into the Rooseveltian ring and attempt to wrestle it into something better.
I know my personality is geared toward the deep, it’s my natural bias. But, the uneasiness felt when stepping out of your comfort zone is still scary. The resistance Steven Pressfield talks about in the War of Art is a real thing.
Social media has turned us all into armchair experts where our love of comfort keeps us curled up with a bunch of empty opinions and a rapidly shrinking ability to create important things. But, I’m not satisfied with that. While I may never win a Nobel Prize, I may never do important things according to the world’s measurements, I’m going to make my time matter. I’m taking control of my attention and doing my part to wrestle our culture into something better. I’d love you to step into that ring with me.
I started a writing project ten months ago. When I started having to produce an article every day, I realized I was having trouble focusing. We tend to believe that focus is like a light switch, we just turn it either on or off when the necessity or the mood strikes us. But the truth is that research is finding that’s not what happens. When we develop brain patterns that impede our ability to focus, when we don't train that ability, when we want to flip that switch on, nothing happens. We live in a world that attacks our ability to focus at every turn. Cal Newport’s book Deep Work says this, “there’s increasing evidence that this shift toward the shallow, is not a choice that can easily be reversed. Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to do deep work.”
The work that pays my bills right now is by nature full of distraction and driven by interruptions. It completely fits Newport’s definition of shallow work. I need to be highly accurate in a distracted environment, so in that respect, focus is important for me, but it doesn’t require sustaining that attention for more than a few minutes nor does it require any type of deep thought. So, I’ve found that I’m out of practice at thinking. How can that be? We think all the time, right? Our minds run and run and run. We react, we plan, we socialize, we talk, but how much of that is really thinking?
“Consumerism” has several (and often contradictory) definitions. One of those explanations is the selfish and frivolous collecting of products, or in other words, economic materialism. Generally, in our culture, we engage in consumerism without much thought. We’re culturally biased to consume and consume. Most of us, even those critical of economic materialism, readily engage in the psychological and mental equivalent. We allow a constant barrage of input into our minds. We consume and consume. We lunge after any new tidbit of information without thinking about it. We actually go further than just allowing it, we invite, encourage and enable it.
One study from the University of California-San Diego indicates that people are inundated with the equivalent of 34 Gb (gigabytes) of information every day, which if you were a laptop, would overload you within a week. Good thing we’re not laptops, right?
According to Tech 21 Century, the main effect of information overload is that the human attention to focus is continually hampered and interrupted. We talked about that last week. American psychiatrist Edward Hallowell says we’re so busy processing the mostly superficial information we’re receiving from all directions that we lose the ability to think and feel. If you think that’s an exaggeration, studies that indicate that the way we are currently training our brains to think, the constantly disrupted mental state we’ve come to accept as normal, is hampering our ability to feel empathy for others in addition to other deeply felt emotions. Brain plasticity doesn’t only result in positive changes. It results in negative ones as well.
A constant barrage of stimuli has become the norm. While we might intellectually understand and agree that it has a downside when we see a news headline, read a blog post, or listen to a podcast like this one, we’re remarkably apathetic in applying that information.
I learned some things about myself when I started my writing project last summer. I mentioned that I learned that I’m out of practice at thinking. That’s true. I also learned I’m good and bad at different types of thinking. As much as I loved my college freshman small group philosophy course, I’m no philosopher. I’m not good at teasing out the ramifications of complicated problems. And, I’m not the research scientist that can spend twenty years digging deep into a very specific question. But, what I am good at is taking information that’s out there and applying it in practical ways. That’s the essence of this podcast, me applying available information to improve my life, and maybe yours if you apply it too.
We have so much information available to us. We’re overloaded and overwhelmed with information. But we aren’t strategic about what we’re paying attention to and we aren’t applying it for our own benefit. Recently, I heard it put this way in the context of business development. People don’t need information, we have more than enough information. People need transformation.
According to Maura Thomas, attention management is the most important skill to have in the 21st century. She believes that people should stop worrying about time management and focus on attention management. The ability to control distractions and stay focused is essential.
As I’ve been thinking and reading about attention, I’ve noticed mine more and more. Just that act of noticing has begun to change the way I move through life. It’s changing the decisions I’m making and my awareness and control over my own experience. We’ll talk more about the transformation of our thought patterns next week, but this week, I want to encourage you to do three things. I want you to pay attention to three things.
First, pay attention to the information coming at you.
Where is it coming from? How are you responding to it? This might be external information like that coming from friends and family, media sources, or your environment, but it’s also internal information. It’s about eight in the evening as I’m working on this podcast and all the sudden I became uncomfortable in the skirt I was wearing. Before I knew it I’d set my laptop aside and had stood up to change into pajama pants. Right in the middle of a thought. I became uncomfortable and before I knew it, not even a second later, I was on my feet. What I should have done was notice that I was uncomfortable and finish my thought or finish a section of work and then get up to change. That’s internal information. Information comes from all around and inside of us. Begin to notice it as it comes and how you respond to it.
Pay attention to your ability to focus.
How long are you staying on task? When you set yourself to a task, any task, it could be cooking dinner, reading a book, or talking to your spouse. How long before your mind looks for a distraction? How long before you find yourself thinking about a conversation with your boss as your spouse tells you about his or her day? How long before your mind wanders off to the weekend when you’re supposed to be writing a work report? How much brainpower are you able to harness and how long can you sustain it?
Pay attention to where your attention is.
Begin to notice what you’re thinking about and when. I ran across a whole new world this week. Mental athletes. They compete in mental competitions all over the world. The competitors might be memorizing random shapes, words, names and faces, the shuffled order of a deck of cards or a string of numbers. They might be performing calculations or solving mental puzzles. Daniel Kilov is a memory athlete able to memorize a shuffled deck of cards in less than two minutes. When he spoke at TEDx Canberra, he said that most failures of memory are failures of attention. Your goal doesn’t have to be memorizing a deck of cards in a few minutes, though that would be a fun party trick. But if you want to improve your thinking, your brain function, your memory, the first thing to pay attention to is whether or not you're paying attention to your own life.
There’s a lot highlighted by the work by Cal Newport, Maura Thomas, Edward Hallowell, and others that bothers me. One of those things is this. If I, as an individual, lose my capacity to do deep work, and deep work as defined by Newport is “the ability to perform in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit”. If I lose my ability to focus, concentrate and work intensely over a period of time. I’m negatively impacting my own life and potentially my ability to care for my family.
But if, as a culture, we lose the ability to do deep work, we lose a critical skill for our species. We lose the ability to solve tough problems. We lose the ability to create deeply meaningful works of art. We lose the ability to expand our knowledge. We as a people, lose so much potential. Potential to create. Potential to learn. Potential to solve problems. That's a disturbing loss. We aren't solving the problems plaguing us now very well. I'm certain we'll continually have more.
Darren Hardy says, “The first step toward change is awareness. If you want to get from where you are to where you want to be, you have to start by becoming aware of the choices that lead you away from your desired destination.”
My goal today is to make you aware and encourage you to pay attention to your own habits and choices. Let’s talk next week about how to respond to that awareness.
Let’s jump right in with statistics today. Inc. Magazine says that we’re spending an average of just 1 minute and 15 seconds on a task before being interrupted. Other statistics say that it takes 23-25 minutes to get back on track after an interruption. To put it another way, Dr. Gloria Mark, from the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California, found that average information workers are interrupted every three minutes. If you do some super-high-level complicated math with me, that comes out to about 20 times every hour.
Research shows that we typically don’t return immediately to the task that was interrupted, either. We usually tackle two other tasks before returning to the original one. Most of those twenty-time-an-hour interruptions are very minor. About four of them every hour are more serious interruptions. If you’re paying attention to how all those numbers work together (and why would you, that’s why I’m here), the interruptions, the being sidetracked, the time to get back into what you were doing…you’d realize that there’s no way we’re completing our work.
And yet, things do get done. Studies looking at that question found that first, we do push many tasks off until later. And second, we do actually complete tasks, but they’re being done more quickly than they should be and with more mistakes.
Those are all work-related statistics. But, the same thing is happening to us at home, in our cars, and at the dinner table. I’m fairly certain no one will argue with me when I say that we live in a world full of distractions. With the advent of cell phones, we now have many of those distractions in our hand at all times. A study commissioned by Nokia showed that users check their smartphones an average of 150 times during a waking day of 16 hours. With more high-level math, I figure that’s every 6-1/2 minutes.
This is what we think of when we hear the word distraction, and these are a big deal. They affect our productivity in work and happiness in life.
But, they’re not the only kind of distraction we deal with.
External distractions are typically what come to mind when someone says the word “distraction”. Co-workers stopping by your desk to talk about last nights devastating seventh-game loss in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Yeah, I don’t want to talk about that. Now you’re stuck reliving it with every acquaintance that sees you in the hallway.
The phone ringing.
A loud sound from the next room.
The dog sticking his cold nose against your leg.
The really awful music playing in the coffee shop where you're working.
Your boss calling you.
The constant notifications on your phone.
These are all external distractions.
What can you do about them? How can you control external distractions? To some degree, you can’t. But, you do have more control than you think. When you need an uninterrupted span of time, Unplug from browsers and phones. Turn off all the notifications on that phone. Lock your door. Stop checking email. Put your headphones on. Put a sign on your chair, your desk, or your door that says you’re busy, please do not disturb unless you’re on fire.
Remember, your technology is for your convenience. Your phone is available to you so that you have access to people and services when you want that access. It’s not there so that anyone can hijack your time and attention whenever they please.
Obviously, there are some situations which you can’t control, but more often than not, you can drastically reduce external distractions by setting and communicating boundaries.
External distractions are only part of the puzzle, though. Surprisingly, studies find that external distractions don’t explain many of the distractions we experience. They’re actually coming from inside of us. An internal distraction might be a sudden urge to check the weather. Again. A need to make a non-critical phone call right now, stopping what you're doing for a candy bar, texting a friend, or checking to see how many likes we have on our last post—even though we just looked a moment ago and we’ve received no new notifications since then.
We’ve trained ourselves to be constantly receiving input. Our brains get a shot of dopamine when we see a text notification and that encourages us to do it again. Yes, the chemistry is against us. But, we also have created those habits. I realized last week that I’m automatically reaching for my phone at stop lights. On a 12 minute drive. I don’t need to look at my phone on a twelve-minute drive. And yet I’m habituated to pick it up whenever I stop. I also have a habit of turning to it when I have any break in activity or input. We head straight for our phones when the stream of input stops.
We avoid the hard things by distracting ourselves. This isn’t only the hard stuff like relationships or work problems, though it includes those things. It’s also things like silence. Being alone with our own thoughts. Or, dealing with failure. Fear can send us straight to distraction because it’s so much easier.
And I just hinted at another reason we distract ourselves. Avoidance. We’re avoiding pain, fear, work, effort, people, or our own inner monologue. Distractions keep us from hearing, seeing, or feeling things we’re uncomfortable with. And we spend an awful lot of effort to stay comfortable.
Eliminating internal distractions is trickier than external ones. Breaking and reforming habits, training our brave muscles to not live life out of fear and learning to be willing to feel discomfort are a lot more difficult, are a lot harder work than locking a door or turning off phone notifications. But, they also have a higher potential to create a distraction-free life.
When we think about distraction, we’re often thinking about productivity. But, there are other things we get distracted from.
We are constantly being pulled away from the present. We let texts, emails, and social media interrupt and distract us from conversations we’re having now. We let worries and anxiety interrupt and distract us from experiences we’re having now. We let the television or YouTube distract us from the people next to us. Whether we’re intentionally using distraction or allowing it to happen, it’s one of the most destructive forces to our presence in our own life. It’s choosing that a social media post from someone you barely know is more important than the conversation you’re having right now. It’s choosing that a fear or worry about something that might happen is more important than what’s actually happening. It’s choosing that what’s happening on a screen is more important than the real world around you.
I’ve had a parenting crisis develop in the last few days. I have some tough choices to make that affect my son and his summer plans. He had a piano recital last night. It was really hard to set aside the worry and the trying to figure out what to do, but that performance of his would never happen again. The decision didn’t need to be made last night, I needed to sleep on it anyway. So, letting worry and anxiety distract me from the evening with him made no sense. It wasn’t easy to set aside that distraction, but it was worth it.
Distractions from the present kill happiness, damage relationships, and inhibit life experiences.
There’s one more type of distraction I want to mention today as well. Distraction from mission. Do you have a mission in life? A purpose? Do you have roles you want to succeed in, like parenting or your career? Do you have goals you want to achieve?
I had a pastor friend once who used to say that sheep don’t typically choose a big adventure and get lost. They nibble themselves lost. They notice a patch of grass next to the path they’re on and pause to take a few bites. Then they look up and see another bit of enticing green a few steps away and they step over and nibble that. Doing that a few times without paying attention makes it really easy to look up a half hour later and realize you have no idea where you are.
You’ve nibbled yourself lost.
While my pastor friend was talking about sin in our lives, the analogy has served me well in a lot of other situations. It applies to distraction as well. One distraction easily leads to another and before you know it you’re lost.
If you’ve ever started reading an online article about the upcoming political summit in Europe and 20 minutes later realized you were now watching a YouTube video about talking to baby animals, you’ve experienced this phenomenon.
Not that I’ve ever done that. Nope. Definitely not.
On a larger scale, this happens with our lives and our goals as well. If you aren’t paying attention, if you don’t have a practice that keeps your goal or life direction in front of you, the distractions of life will creep in and you’ll nibble yourself off the path you want to be on.
A classic book of psychology was published in 1890. In it, William James wrote, “My experience is what I agree to attend to.” That statement is still true today. Maura Thomas, who is said to be the most oft-cited writer on attention management, says it this way, “Your attention determines the experiences you have and the experiences you have determine the life you live. Or said another way: you must control your attention to control your life.”
This month as we talk about our attention, realize the point is not just to be more productive at work. The reason our attention matters is that what we pay attention to prospers. What we pay attention to creates the life we live.
So, as I close this episode today, think about these two questions:
What are you paying attention to? And, how much are you allowing yourself to be distracted from it?
I’m hungry for productivity. I want ways to get more done in less time. We all do. Time is one of our most limited resources in the day and age. The are thousands of articles, books, systems, workshops and products geared toward making us more productive. One of the things we all do to get more done is multitask. Whether it’s geared toward increasing work output or just that we’re afraid we’ll miss something if we don’t, we tend to multitask our way through life.
We listen to podcasts or television while we cook. We scroll facebook while we watch Netflix. We talk or listen while we drive or walk. We listen to a webinar while we answer emails. We email while we’re in a meeting. My son watches or listens to YouTube while he plays games on his computer. And he’s not alone.
Dr. Clifford Nass, a psychology professor at Stanford University, says (and I’m quoting from an interview on NPR), “the top 25 percent of Stanford students are using four or more media at one time whenever they're using media. So when they're writing a paper, they're also Facebooking, listening to music, texting, Twittering, et cetera. And that's something that just couldn't happen in previous generations even if we wanted it to.”
Lest you think this is just a new media problem or a bash technology episode, it’s not. This quote, “To do two things at once is to do neither.” Wasn’t said by a 21st-century researcher. It’s attributed to Publilius Syrus, a Roman slave in the first century B.C. Obviously, this issue of multitasking has been around long before smartphones. I routinely walked around with an open book in front of my face reading when I was a kid. I know this has always been an issue for me. Let’s take the lid off though and see how effective it actually is.
First, I need to say that you can go ahead and consider yourself a fantastic multi-tasker. You absolutely are. Supremely talented even. Because you’re breathing, moving, walking, reaching, digesting your lunch, doing all sorts of things that are involuntary and second nature while you’re accomplishing tasks that take more thought.
It’s the more complex tasks, the ones that take more thought that tend to trip us up, though. We think we can do several of those at the same time. But, we actually can’t. I mean it might look like I’m listening to a podcast and cooking a new recipe for dinner, but I’m actually not multi-tasking. I’m switch-tasking. My brain is doing only one of those things at the same time. It’s switching back and forth between the two tasks. It’s doing so pretty quickly, but it’s only actually processing information from one of those activities at a time. If I really think about that, I know it’s true.
If I’m doing something I don’t use a recipe for, something like a stir-fry, where I’m just chopping vegetables and not measuring, reading a recipe or following a real instructional list, it’s much easier to listen to something and cook. There’s a good chance I’m more distracted than I think I am though because I’ll routinely forget to include something I’d intended to.
If I’m following a recipe, though, it’s much tougher. I’ll re-read. I’ll lose track of where I am, I’ll realize that I’ve either done one or the other thing. I’ve either read and understood the recipe or I’ve listened to the audio. I’ll often miss audio while I’m paying attention to the recipe or have to re-read the recipe because I was paying attention to the audio.
Generally, a loss in productivity or forgetting to put the mushrooms in a stir-fry just means dinner takes a little longer to cook and I have mushrooms for an omelet in the morning. But, that loss of productivity is a bigger deal at work.
Conservative estimates are that we have a 40% loss in productivity when we multitask. We might think we’re being more efficient, but we’re not. A 40% loss. That’s a big deal.
Actually, the news is worse than that. Studies show that multitasking results not only in the 40% reduction in productivity, but also higher cortisol or stress levels, up to a 10 or 15 point drop in IQ (that’s more than smoking weed by the way), more mistakes, decreased memory function, higher anxiety, impaired creativity, an inability to reach or maintain a flow state, and an inability to process visual input.
So, I suppose, if you have more productivity, creativity, and IQ than you need, or if you could use more stress, mistakes, and anxiety, I’d say, go ahead. Multitask to your heart’s content. But, for the rest of us mere mortals, we need to seriously re-think some habits and approaches to our work.
Here are several suggestions for reducing multitasking.
Block out specific time for single activities. Spend a specific amount of time on one task. Be ruthless. Do whatever you need to do to not switch tasks. This will be really tough, but, it does get easier with practice.
Batch process activities. Rather than return phone calls as they happen, set aside time to do them all at once. Rather than choose your meals for the week during each day, choose all your meals for the week at a specific time on Sunday evening. This is an efficiency practice. A productivity hack. But, the relationship to today’s topic is that you’re doing only that thing at that time. By batching them together you don’t have the start-stop time that your brain needs to end one task and start another. You don’t incur the productivity losses that switching tasks causes.
Do not leave your inbox open all the time. Choose a twenty-minute window to do all your email. This is batch processing and blocked out time all at once, but email is such a major offender in the realm of multitasking, that it’s worth calling it out.
Eliminate your phone and laptop notifications. Turn the sounds off. Wean yourself from those little red circles or the sounds that trigger a reach for the phone every single time someone wants to share a piano-playing cat video with you.
And lastly, let’s talk about driving for just a moment. I could spend an entire episode here, but I’m not, You already know this. I’m just going to remind you and point a few things out. Distracted driving is deadly. If you wouldn’t drive drunk, don’t drive distracted.
From distraction.gov comes this statistic: Five seconds is the average time your eyes are off the road while texting. When traveling at 55mph, that’s enough time to cover the length of a football field essentially blindfolded.
It’s not just texting, being on social media, or checking email. It’s talking on the phone as well. The University of Utah published a statistic that says that “Using a cell phone while driving, whether it’s hand-held or hands-free, delays a driver’s reactions as much as having a blood alcohol concentration at the legal limit of .08 percent”
If you’re like me and have said that talking on a cell phone is no different than talking to passengers, well, we’re wrong. Studies show that conversations with people in the same vehicle are markedly different and less distracting than cell phone conversations due to the behavior of both the passengers and the drivers in those conversations.
You might be thinking right now, “This whole episode doesn’t apply to me. I’m really good at multitasking.” I’m here to burst your bubble. Are you Ready?
The Stanford psychologist I quoted earlier, Dr. Clifford Nass, says,
The research is almost unanimous, which is very rare in social science, and it says that people who chronically multitask show an enormous range of deficits. They're basically terrible at all sorts of cognitive tasks, including multitasking…we have scales that allow us to divide up people into people who multitask all the time and people who rarely do, and the differences are remarkable. People who multitask all the time can't filter out irrelevancy. They can't manage a working memory. They're chronically distracted.
Plus, people who think they are good at multitasking generally have a lower capacity for simultaneous thought. They’re actually less good at it than people who consider themselves less skilled. So, if you’ve been thinking all along that you’re the exception, the odds are overwhelming that you’re not.
I wish I’d done this experiment last week, but I didn’t. I ran across an article by Peter Bregman in The Harvard Business Review detailing a week-long experiment on himself. He tried to completely eliminate multitasking and see what happened. I’m going to quickly summarize the six things he says he learned.
I think that’s really interesting. It’s not a generic study. It’s a real guy with a real family and real work projects who surprised himself by bearing out the results of the science.
Could you do it? Could you go a whole week without multitasking? Could you go a day? One car trip?
I challenge you to try.