I had just finished buying a new Doulton water filter replacement and was half-listening to the storeowner brag about a Brazilian prostitute that he frequents on 46th Street. I’ll spare you the juicy details.
It was a late autumn morning on 18th Street near 6th Avenue, and as I waited for my receipt my mind was whirling a million miles an hour around all the things I still had to do before noon. Like over 53 million other people, I am a freelancer and have a freelancer’s existence. My income is dependent on a patchwork, mainly writing films and TV and articles and teaching writing at various universities. Each one of these endeavors is a mini-business, complete with a full organizational chart, whether I pay attention to it or not.
I dashed out of the filter/plumbing shop considering the irony of how such a mild-mannered thirty-something nebbish of a married guy was also so enthusiastically and regularly involved in such seriously alt sexual practices with a host of midtown sex workers, and how I might use this character in one of my stories—as I fairly automatically unwound my earbuds, connected them to my iPhone and fitted them into my ears.
WHAM! When I opened my eyes I was decked-out flat on the pavement. I could feel the mottled, slightly warm street asphalt against my face and hands.
I was going to continue listening to an old Radiolab podcast about an experimental drug that can help wipe out bad memories—I remember this because I was writing a script on the same subject and was simultaneously making a note to revise a passage of what I had written the night before.
I also made a note that as soon as I got home, after I changed the water filter, I had to make sure that a check that I deposited had gone through, and also that I had to quickly answer an email from a distressed student who needed my OK that she wouldn’t be attending class that evening because it was her one-year anniversary of her suicide attempt. All this I was thinking about as I decided to quickly cross the street three cars in before the corner.
Zipping between a parked car and a small van, I darted out to cross the street and…. WHAM! When I opened my eyes I was decked-out flat on the pavement. I could feel the mottled, slightly warm street asphalt against my face and hands.
A bike messenger had smashed into me. Within moments, a small crowd of concerned pedestrians was standing over and around me. Then the bike messenger, carrying his bike on his shoulder, entered the circle and asked me if I was OK. He had a thick accent and said other things that I didn’t understand. Somehow, I was alright. I was helped up by friendly hands as they watched to see if I was really OK or if I was about to pass out.
I was really fine—a bit shaky, but fine—as I walked the ten blocks home. I was trying to work out what had just happened to me. I had not seen the bike messenger coming. I hadn’t even slightly considered that he, or anyone else, would be zooming by. Not even remotely.
It didn’t even occur to me to “look both ways” as I had taught my son to do and as had been taught to me. Why not? Where was my automatic survival attention span? Why did it so utterly fail me? It was obvious that my mental awareness capacity—as I stupidly, without caution, darted into the street between the two automobiles—had been attenuated, compromised, limited. It was a black hole.
The mental impairment caused by speaking on the phone while driving is equivalent to having consumed one drink. And the equivalent of texting while driving is the same as four drinks.
Dumber Than We Think
Numerous scientific studies have been done on the dumbing effects of multitasking. The mental impairment caused by speaking on the phone while driving is equivalent to having consumed one drink. And the equivalent of texting while driving is the same as four drinks.
There are so many casualties and fatalities connected to driving while texting or talking on the phone that the United States government has an entire website devoted to it called distraction.gov. According to their statistics, in 2012 alone more than 3,300 people were killed from crashes related to distracted driving. Another 421,000 people were estimated to have been injured from distracted driving related crashes the same year.
If when I’m talking on the phone while driving I have the same awareness attenuation as if I have had a drink of alcohol, then what about when I’m not driving but doing other multiple things simultaneously? Is that still the equivalent of a drink? And if so, how many additional things do I need to be doing for my awareness and mental capacity to be equal to two or three drinks? Basically, if I’m doing two fairly complex things like driving and speaking on the phone and that’s the same as having a slight buzz, how many tasks must I be attempting before I am considered drunk?
I’m a pretty cheap drinker. Fairly wimpy in that regard. It doesn’t take much to get me tweaked. But in my head, I’m a masterful giant of a multitasker. I can balance the equivalent of twenty cups and saucers in the air while I juggle three whirring chainsaws, wash the dishes, pay bills and talk on the phone. I don’t know about you, but I’m doing/handling/thinking about/being responsible for a lot of stuff daily. I feel like I’m doing all this stuff simultaneously, but am I really?
The mind plays tricks on us. In fact, it’s fairly basic how our attention works: The mind can actually only focus on one thing at a time. Even though it feels like we’re focusing on more than one thing simultaneously, we’re not. We are, however, rapidly bringing numerous thoughts into view and focusing on each one, singularly. It’s like your computer’s desktop: Even though you might have multiple windows open, you are only using one at a time.
One of the big tricks our minds play on us is that while we’re fairly successfully multi-tasking, zipping from one activity to the next, we believe that we’re actually smarter and more competent. We feel good. The literal act of multitasking makes us feel smarter and more competent. But in reality, numerous studies have proven that our attention and capacity for each activity is diminished and we’re less competent.
In other words, while multitasking, we’re measurably dumber. But we feel cooler and more masterful. It’s like a drug—and has a nearly identical effect on our brain chemistry: the releasing of dopamine. I like the feeling of accomplishment, even checking off the tiniest things on my “to-do” list, like “put the file away.” That’s why so many of us will add things we’ve already done to our “to-do” list—simply to get a rush from checking them off! That tiny sense of accomplishment releases a shot of dopamine—the exact same phenomenon that occurs when you snort cocaine.
Suddenly, I realize how much I thrive on the chaos and sensation of doing (or thinking I’m doing) numerous things at once. But then I get overwhelmed and nearly paralyzed.
Perhaps the real question for all of us then is: What is so painful, so uncomfortable and so daunting about committed attention that we lose huge portions of our waking hours involved in endless distraction, often trivial, simply to avoid it?
Alone With Our Thoughts
I would love to do less. To do one thing. Well OK, maybe two or three things. After all, boredom kicks in fairly quickly when you’re so hooked into always being overly stimulated. We are talking literally about being addicted to this sensation, exactly in the same chemical way that one can be addicted to alcohol, drugs, sex, eating, gambling or nearly anything that one can derive pleasure from. I admit it, I’m addicted: I pride myself on getting everything that I need to get done… done, completed, finished—even if along the way my attention is scattershot. Staying focused is my mantra, but it’s a non-stop battle.
I have been meditating for decades, and it hasn’t gotten easier to do. As my life has gotten busier, I bring a more jam-packed, crazy-busy brain to my meditation practice. Meditation is about focus, being present, stilling the mind. Or at least trying to, anyway. What new meditators don’t realize and get discouraged by is how little of the time meditating is actually spent being focussed. It is instead mostly spent mentally drifting away from that which you’re attempting to focus on. Once you realize that you’ve been drifting, the idea, the “practice,” is to return to your focus. Meditation is about enhancing that mental muscle that helps us return to our primary focus, over and over again. Which sounds a lot like what happens when I’m either multitasking or struggling to focus on a single thing. I easily get distracted and then… return to what I was concentrating on.
Unfortunately, when I’m struggling to stay focused on a project and my attention wanders to every clickbait, email, text, call, interruption, hunger, obsession, etc., I’m not consciously trying to be present or calm my mind down. On the contrary, I’m simply trying to complete my various tasks with the least amount of emotional pain and discomfort. So, if I secretly stop to add some stupid things to my to-do list in the midst of trying to focus, and I do this in order to just as quickly check them off and feel a moment’s sensation of relief, then that’s what I’ll do. But I’m increasingly realizing that that’s not a good thing, not a good practice, and clearly not efficient.
I’m obviously not alone. Perhaps the real question for all of us then is: What is so painful, so uncomfortable and so daunting about committed attention that we lose huge portions of our waking hours involved in endless distraction, often trivial, simply to avoid it.
For me, someone who actually loves being in the zone of writing—a place that is timeless, non-linear and all-encompassing, the answer seems to be an innate fear of giving up agency. I feel similarly about going to sleep. I’ll do anything so that I won’t have to lie there awake; so that I don’t have to face the complete surrender of consciousness to slumber. And I love sleeping, sometimes. But, be it sleep or a great writing project, or basically anything that just requires my full attention, there is an entire protocol—a ritual of sorts—of avoiding and procrastinating until I somehow either finish in piecemeal or I’m subsumed into the zone, like into a wonderfully warm pool.
But getting into the zone is usually a hard-won reward. Mostly, I’m semi-tipsy like a drunken hummingbird, flitting from flower to flower, flapping my wings a million miles an hour… lest I face slowing down to a stop, and have to deal with my raw, sober, essential self in a world with limited control.