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Snakes on a Brain (Multitasking Series, Pt 2)

snakes on the brain [1]
Akiyoshi Kitaoka’s rotating snakes, featured on the cover of the Journal of Neuroscience


Last month I began a series on multitasking with a post called Monotasking: The Forgotten Skill You (and I) Need to Re-Claim, ASAP [2]. Since then, I’ve continued my study of time and mind management (because that’s really what we’re talking about here) and interviewed multitasking expert Dr. David Meyer, Professor and Chair of Cognition & Cognitive Neuroscience, at the University of Michigan. I spoke with Dr. Meyer for over an hour, and we covered a lot of ground, some of which I’ll share with you here today. One of my first questions was simple on the surface but a little knotty in reality:

What, exactly, qualifies as multitasking?

Does multitasking mean complex multitasking? Simple multitasking? What about these words from the world of business: switchtasking and background tasking and continuous partial attention? James Scott Bell referred to present-moment multitasking, then serial monotasking in comments last month. Bob Bois mentioned Monkey Mind.  For our purposes it doesn’t really matter what you call it. If you’re trying to do more than one thing at the same time for much of your day, this is for you. (Serial monotasking is safe, James. That’s actually an ideal way to work.)

When I asked for your feedback last month, for you to reveal your primary reason for multitasking, most of you said you multitask because you can’t seem to shut it down; it is like a compulsion. Only a few of you said you multitask because you’re good at it. Others said they had to multitask to stay on top of things. I’m going to leave that latter group for later, and not just because it’s alliterative. This month let’s talk about what might be behind the compulsion. Right after we talk about Keith.

The Curious Case of Keith Cronin

Our very own Keith wrote in comments last month:

I’ve earned a living for decades as a true multitasker – playing drums professionally. Drumming requires each of your four limbs to do something different – usually directly related, but sometimes not. And many drummers also sing while they play: task number five. It’s essentially like rubbing your belly while patting your head – while riding a unicycle and whistling.

Jealous of this skilland especially of the unicycleI was eager to bring up Keith’s situation with Dr. Meyer. Here’s what he had to say about it.

First of all, [Keith] might just be performing one task—the task of music production. I would suggest that for this drummer, learning came into play, and he essentially learned to perform the overall task of music production through a lot of practice. If you practice enough with certain kinds of tasks you can combine them so you just wind up with one task; these things become integrated. The tasks for which this is possible are the ones that don’t conflict with each other physically or mentally.

Makes sense, no? There are plenty of tasks that you can do concurrently without effecting the outcome because they don’t conflict with each other physically or mentally. Writing while walking on the treadmill. Listening to an audio book while driving or running. Cleaning the kitchen and talking on the telephone. And on and on.

Natalie Hart had something wise to add about Keith’s situation, too:

As a drummer, you may have limbs moving in different ways while often singing, but you are so incredibly in the present, which is the thing that multitasking attacks: the present moment. You’ve got to be locked in with the bass player, listening for cues from the other musicians, keeping that beat steady, but all flowing with that present moment — you lose the present moment and you lose the beat. Ooh, that’d be a good mono-tasking slogan…

Lose the present moment and you lose the beat. I like that, Natalie. Keith’s very much present when he’s making music, or to use one of our oft-used writerly phrases, he’s in the zone. Wouldn’t it be nice if each of our limbs could help us further along in our manuscript, each taking care of a scene or chapter? But alas. Language is tricky territory, becauseas Dr. Meyer stressedthere’s really only one language channel in the brain. This is why we can’t read articles while writing (unless our task is to copy), or type scenes for two novels at once, or draft emails and talk on the phone at the same time–at least not efficiently. And how often have you “lost the moment” in a scene, lost a perfect phrase, lost the direction of the plot, all because you were pulled away by…something.

Snake!!! Or maybe it’s just Twitter. 

I mentioned last month that when I first fell into an obsession over this subject, I collected pages upon pages of research. One of the articles I read highlighted differences between voluntary and involuntary attention. It’s fairly obvious, I’ll grant you. Voluntary attention is intended action along the lines of “I’m going to read the news now/walk the dog/make dinner/write a book.” Involuntary attention is attention we can’t help but give.

It is the swerving car in front of us. It is the crying child. It is the snake on a plane.

[pullquote]A vivid illustration of the power of involuntary attention is provided by watching a young child experience his/her first snake in the wild. It is as if everything else in the world has disappeared. For this very reason, the strength of an innately fascinating stimulus constitutes a potential source of severe distraction such that an accident could readily occur. (- Stephen Kaplan and Marc G. Berman [3])[/pullquote]

These distinctions have been around for a long time; they were mentioned in contemplative texts several thousand years ago. “The point of a lot of meditation practices is to get control over your attention and direct it, as opposed to letting it be captured by external forces,” said Dr. Meyer.

The more forces there are trying to pull at our attention the more likely we’ll experience Directed Attention Fatigue [4]–what happens when the system in place to help protect our ability to FOCUS-JUST-FOCUS is worn down and even fails.

We are no longer in control. Game, snakes.

And by now you’ve guessed that I’m not alluding to real snakes. I’m talking about other things that are attention grabbers, in a 21st-century-at-a-writer’s-desk kind of way: phones that buzz, that rattle like snakes; notifications that pop up and and draw our eyes away from our work; auditory alerts that tell us we’ve got mail, or a new Facebook like or Twitter tag or Google+ follower or Goodreads message. Important, important, important, they say, look at me, look at me, look at me. And we blink. We break attention. We are out of the zone. We have lost the beat. And our brains reward us for that with a dopamine spritzer, because this impulse to attend to quick motions and urgent sounds used to be important to our survival, and so it is reinforced. We have a hard time getting back to the work that matters, too; the effect of that dopamine spritzer can delay our ability to refocus [5].

Things that make quick motions and urgent sounds are sometimes still key to our survival, of course: the scream of a 3 a.m. fire alarm, a skidding car one lane over, an actual poisonous snake on a trail… Responding quickly to these sorts of things can still save lives.

There’s irony here, though: The response once relied upon to save us is now the response at least some of us can name in the wrongful death of our attention spans. More irony: Our faux-snakes are often like favorite pets, exotic beasts we’ve purchased for a premium. We dress our smart phones in pretty plastic covers. We give them a seat at the table. At other times we keep them warm, in our hands, in our pockets. Maybe we even let them sleep beside us at night like a spouse. They have it made. We forgot to buy a crate.

The Writers’ Task Pyramid

Dr. Meyer agreed that it’s important to keep the faux-snakes off the brain, and deal with them in a controlled manner. Because they are not real snakes, despite our response to them with their blings and bleeps and rattles and hums; they don’t need to be attended to immediately. We can override the impulse to be derailed by them. More, we can end the blings and bleeps and rattles and hums by turning off the notifications that disrupt our focus. We can put the faux-snakes in a room, and visit them when we’re ready, when we have time, after we’ve finished the tasks we want and need to do, after we finish our pages.

“It’s like eating,” said Dr. Meyer. “You have to choose what you’re going to eat and when, and if you’re intelligent about it, then eating is a healthy part of your life. Tasks are there to be consumed, too, in a way, and you’ve got to know when to schedule what in order to be healthy.”

Maybe we need a task pyramid–like the USDA’s food pyramid [6], but with an emphasis on meditation and sleep in lieu of grains, with voluntary attention tasks of worth stepping in for fruit and veggies, and with less worthy attention stealers slithering into that slim oil slot. No task gorging allowed. Rather we should go at the day one task-bite at a time.

task pyramid

How Not to Lose the Beat

When the time for our interview first arrived, I didn’t hear from Dr. Meyer. I waited fifteen minutes or so, then sent him an email; maybe I had the time wrong. He called right away after that. “I messed up because I was multitasking,” he said, half-groaning, half-laughing. “You should mention that in your article.”

Even the experts fall victim to it–a relief and a caution.

Focus. Such a simple word. So difficult to maintain in today’s world–at least until you recognize the problem and make changes.

I love connecting with others, and my devices make many aspects of my life easier and more entertaining. But after my month of research, I don’t doubt that my fractured attention roots back, in part, to those devices. I spent an hour about two weeks ago going through my phone, my iPad, and my computer to turn off all notifications save emergency notifications. I still check in on things daily, but in my own time, when it’s convenient for me. So far, so good. My ability to concentrate is notably improved; I’ve even read a few novels. I’ve found the beat again.

But I’m not exactly making great headway yet with my to-do list.

Said Dr. Meyer, “This is what we all need to do. Think through your day at the start. Know what your tasks are, and then have voluntary control over your choice of when to do each task. It’s as simple as that.”

Top-down behavior. Be the brain. And never trust a snake; they are damned slow typists and won’t write your next book for you, even if they say they will.

What are your faux snakes? Are they silent and still when you need for them to be? What can you do/have you done to carve out some quiet, distraction-free time in your day? What one thing would you like to change about the way you handle these attention stealers? What one piece of advice would you like to pass along to others? Do you think awareness of the issue, this fault in our stars, is useful? The floor is yours.


No Time to Write? Maximize Your Minutes. (Multitasking Series, part 3) [7]


Monotasking: The Forgotten Skill You (and I) Need to Re-Claim, ASAP [2]

About Therese Walsh [8]

Therese Walsh co-founded WU in 2006 and is the site's editorial director. She was the architect and 1st editor of WU's only book, Author in Progress [9], and orchestrates the WU UnConference. [10] Her second novel, The Moon Sisters [11], was named one of the best books of the year by Library Journal; and her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy [12] was a Target Breakout Book. Sign up for her newsletter [13] to be among the first to learn about her new projects (or follow her on BookBub [14]). Learn more on her website [15].