I heard a version of that question from Suzi just the other night. We were watching the news on TV. She had her tablet. I had my laptop open and two cellphones (personal and work) on the arm of the sofa next to me. She had said something to me right when the anchor was making an important point in his story and my personal phone signaled I had received an email. Here’s the thing, I couldn’t tell you right now the important point the anchor made (or even what the story was about), the email turned out to be junk that I deleted, and, worst of all, I didn’t get what Suzi had said. “Hello, are you there?” I was 0 for 3.
How To Multitask Effectively
You Can’t. (vocalize that punctuation mark, “period”) I know you disagree with me because multitasking one of your special skills. But, the truth of the matter is that “multitasking” is about computers running multiple programs at the same time. We are not wired like that. We can only give our attention to one thing at a time. We can switch back and forth rather quickly, but one thing at a time. Rapid switching actually produces a kind of brain chemical high that can become addictive. That brain chemical high makes it understandable that people like to believe they are multitasking.
The sad truth is that the same brain chemical high also reduces cognitive function, attention, clarity of thinking, and decision-making proficiency. That means we miss more when we’re “multitasking.” We miss important details that can lead to mistakes of all kinds. What’s possibly even worse, we miss what people are saying to us.
How To Converse Effectively
Be Present. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in the car alone with one of my children (all over 20) sitting next to me and they’re on their phone. The conversation goes something like this:
Me: “Where are you?”
My child: (pause) “Huh?”
Me: “Where are you?”
My child: “I’m right here” in a what-do-you-mean? tone of voice.
Me: “We’re here together in the car but, your mind is wherever that person you’re texting or that video you’re watching is .”
My child: “But dad, it was important. OK. I’m done.”
Me: “Hello, nice to see you.”
Yes. I’ve really had that conversation. The point is, you can be present physically and literally a thousand miles away in your mind. That does not make for good conversation. What opportunities are we wasting when we are not present?
Jim Elliot (if you don’t know who he was, Google him and the movie “End of the Spear”) said, “Wherever you are, be all there.” I want to do a better job of taking that advice. That means I’ll have to put down (and probably silence) my phone(s), physically turn my body toward what- or who-ever I’m being present for, and consciously travel back in my mind to where my body is.
Be Focused. Getting present is one thing. Staying present is a matter of focus. When you adjust the focus on your camera, the image you see through your lens comes into clear view. Our phone cameras have autofocus, our brains don’t. We have to consciously, intentionally put our sustained attention on what we’re doing. Studies show that our attention spans are shrinking because of all the information available to us. I’m so bad. In many conversations, someone will bring up a question or something we don’t know and I’m quick to grab my phone and say, “Hey Google, What’s …?” The answer is right there. Maybe it’s better to live in the question for a while.
Let me recommend an exercise that has proven to increase presence and improve our ability to focus. Call it whatever you want but try it. Set aside 2 – 5 minutes every day, step away from all the distractions. Leave your phone on silent in another room. Don’t be near your computer or TV or radio. Close your eyes and be silent. Practice paying attention. You can focus on your breathing, or the thoughts that come to your mind (just notice them, don’t follow them), or the sounds you hear around you. You can even mull over a meaningful quote.
Like physical exercise, repeating that exercise daily will strengthen our ability to make ourselves present and to focus. Let’s find out what we’ve been missing!