“When you sit just sit, when you walk just walk, but whatever you do, do not wobble.” ~Zen proverb

Growing up, I got grief for the fact that my dad was a ‘pencil pusher’.

He was a chemical engineer by training, a health physicist by occupation and a musician by calling. These sorts of things do not lend themselves to street cred in a hockey mad South Western Ontario farming town. My dad enjoyed his ‘wus’ status so much, he joked about having the weakest grip in the county. My brother and I were not amused.

My dad was, and is, a hell of a hard worker though.

He’s got ridiculous standards in all areas of his life and a great, personable nature to ingratiate himself with those he’s pushing (suggesting is probably more like it, dad is very much about personal direction) to do better. When dad sings, or directs, or plays the guitar, he’s all in. 100%. I can say that because if he’s singing and playing the guitar, you could walk into the room, stand in front of him and say hello and he might not know you’re there. Flow, it’s sometimes called. While I never visited him at work, I got the sense that it was probably much like when he worked from home. If he was working, there was nothing else. You’d have to shake him by the shoulder to get his attention. But if you were talking with him, that was what he was doing. 100%.

He’s got ridiculous standards in all areas of his life and a great, personable nature to ingratiate himself with those he’s pushing (suggesting is probably more like it, dad is very much about personal direction) to do better. When dad sings, or directs, or plays the guitar, he’s all in. 100%. I can say that because if he’s singing and playing the guitar, you could walk into the room, stand in front of him and say hello and he might not know you’re there. Flow, it’s sometimes called. While I never visited him at work, I got the sense that it was probably much like when he worked from home. If he was working, there was nothing else. You’d have to shake him by the shoulder to get his attention. But if you were talking with him, that was what he was doing. 100%.

The reason I was thinking about this…

…is that I listened to Tim Ferriss’s recent conversation with Kevin Kelly, who’s written a very interesting new book called The Inevitable, and Tim mentioned that he’d never seen Kevin messing around on a phone or anything if he was talking with someone. Kevin, having spent a lot of time with the Amish, explained that it was the opposite of multitasking. There’s a Zen quote he referenced that says: “When you sit just sit, when you walk just walk, but whatever you do, do not wobble.” You get 100% presence that way, and 100% is just right for doing exactly what needs to be done.

So what is 100%?

It’s you, here, now: present without competing thoughts about what else you ‘should’ be doing. It’s highly related to mindfulness, since it is your mind, fully engaged. If you’re talking with someone, having a chat, it means you’re listening.

Not just hearing the words that they’re saying, but listening to what they’re saying.

This is not a thing most people do, and their conversations reflect that.

It’s hard to buy into a conversation and really listen or open up if we sense the other person isn’t fully there. But few things are as validating as being honestly, 100% listened to. Imagine the last time you were having a good chat with someone, both of you enjoying the conversation and their phone goes, distracted, they check, they have to get it, you’re left hanging. This is apparently why the Amish don’t have phones in their houses. It can’t interrupt a conversation between two people in each other’s company if it’s way down the end of the field near the road.

The other thing is, if you don’t want to be in the conversation, say so. I know you might think you’re being rude, but if you are in the middle of something or you had planned to do something and someone has just interjected, choose what you’re going to do and, apologize if you feel you need to, but go do the thing you need to be doing.

Some think giving 100% is asking for burn-out,

…but it’s not the intensity of action that brings the stress leading to burnout, it’s the constant, low-grade tension created by the cognitive strain of managing several things competing in your head for attention. The worrying about your prioritization, your interactions, the quality of the work you’re doing, the projects you’re waiting on others for etc. That’s not giving 100%, it’s 13% this and 17% that, 23% that other thing. Odd, isn’t it? We could arbitrarily work out what percentage of your mind various things are taking, but it doesn’t really matter.

If you’re not focused, you can’t guarantee you’re bringing your best game. You won’t be getting better at whatever you’re doing because determined practice needs your whole mind.

It’s that constant switching back and forth that exhausts you and degrades your work.

This is born out by research too. There was that myth ages ago that women were better multitaskers than men. It certainly looked like it. At the time, it occurred to me that I struggled to chew gum, hold a conversation and not trip up at the same time. But subsequent research has shown that the mind is switching between tasks very quickly. Things like walking that we’ve been doing for ages, so long as it’s on unchallenging surfaces, we can do, sometimes literally, in our sleep. They don’t cognitively burden like doing something creative or problem solving. The switching of multitasking releases dopamine, the neurotransmitter that reinforces our inclinations, and this sort of makes your brain, more or less addicted to task switching.

It’s a hypernormal stimulus, basically something that we’d have experienced in the wild, or really up until a few hundred years ago, that we get in much greater quantities or repetitions etc. It makes it harder to do things like think critically or work your way through your taxes.

Multitasking also seems to drop your IQ and spike cortisol.

It’s functionally a lost night of sleep! That’s a heck of a price to pay for juggling things, and it’s even worse for men! The most terrifying part of all that research is that the damage we’re wreaking on our brains by ‘takin’ care of business…’ by ‘multitasking’, may be permanent!

So, it’s obviously not a great idea to be distracted when you’re doing something or talking to someone, but why are we inclined to do it?

Well, being mindful takes more glucose.

That’s pretty straightforward. Our brains are evolved things that aim to run as efficiently as possible, on as few resources as possible, so it’s no surprise that we have habit roll in and automate loads of behaviours. The problem isn’t that the behavior becomes automated, but that we then think we can add value by doing something else at the same time or thinking about something else or… you know the drill. There’s a reason that Zen and other meditation traditions have practitioners ‘watching the breath’ or counting their steps. We’re working against evolution here, using more energy than our genes would like, but our genes evolved to suit small social groups in physically active lifestyles with no smart-phones or email. Everything was here and now, well, aside from the seasons and our preparation for them. Anyway, the meditative practice of paying attention to what one is doing is especially useful in our incredibly distracted and distracting era.

Now, I’m not going to lie to you, being mindful is hard work.

Monks spend lifetimes workin’ on it. The Dalai Lhama hasn’t stopped working on it yet. It’s the hardest thing I’ve done, and I’ll never become completely mindful (that’s not me being down on myself, it’s just a physiological improbability), but it’s incredibly worthwhile.

So that’s all well and good and easy to say, but how do you stop multitasking and just focus?

-Write it down. Write all of the things that have to be done in some kind of system that your subconscious mind trusts. That’s the essence of David Allen’s GTD and it should keep you with an empty, focusable mind.

-Turn your phone off. Not all the time, not when you’re trying to meet up with people etc, but do switch off for periods of focus or playing with your kids.

-Turn off screens when you’re with people.

-Check your email at set times.

-Face people when you’re talking with them, unless you’re walking.

-Use the 3 important things trick to prioritize your day (you know, the thing where you can only get 3 things done today, what are the best ones to do?).

Finally, this list would remain unfinished if we didn’t look at the other side of this coin; if someone’s focusing on a conversation or something, let them focus. A nice little ‘do unto others’ to make you feel good.

 

Do you multitask? What’s your experience with it? Love it or hate it, comment below, I’d love to hear your story.