The power of focus!
There is a terrible commercial that begins with a guy in a suit sitting at a tiny table with a group of toddlers. He asks them, in a sing-song voice, if it is better to do one thing at a time or two things. They smile and sing back to him, “Two things!”. I have no idea what the man in the suit is selling and the toddlers are buying because by this point I have located the fast forward button. But there is something about that so very American assumption that multi-tasking is the holy grail (when I worked in the corporate world, some employees had three computer monitors!) that (as my gran would say) sticks in my craw.
Keep going! Keep busy! Be productive! Sell, sell sell!!
I was out to lunch with my uncle recently and realized an hour into our intense and wonderful conversation that I’d forgotten about my cell phone while we talked. My phone is, of course, not really a phone. It is instead my calendar, my database, my link to home, clients, colleagues, facebook and google. It is rarely out of my sight and yet in sitting without it for a chunk of time I had experienced a conversational depth that is rare for me these days.
Why is that, I wondered?
I was willing to make that trade-off (less smartphone for more depth) but I also wanted to understand my experience. Did my brain interact with the focused conversation in a different way from ones in which I am a distracted participant? And, maybe more importantly, was this a one-off or could I intentionally replicate it?
Well, of course there is a ton of research on this topic. My favorite that I’ve read so far is an extremely well-written article that made me rethink my relationship with my phone as well as how I approach most tasks and/or conversations! The author, Christine Rosen, writes about how our brains are wired to focus intently on one task at a time if the goal is to remember the event later and/or digest and learn from it. During multitasking, the part of the brain used for learning new skills (the striatum) is activated rather than the part of the brain used for storing/retrieving (the hippocampus). You can read the full article HERE.
That constant starting and stopping involved in multi-tasking means that anything experienced while distracted is not processed in a way that allows us to learn from it nor is it very accessible later. She also writes that it takes most people about 25 minutes to recover from an interruption and refocus on the original task. It could be that in twenty or thirty years our brains will figure out a way to handle multitasking better, but our brains as they work now, perform better when focused on one interaction at a time.
Not to denigrate the skills, training and education I bring to the counseling process but here is proof that a vital part of what works is the dedicated time & space the appointment creates. For fifty or sixty minutes, once a week, we tune in and pay attention. We turn our cell phones off. There is no television playing in the background. No kids begging for our attention. The hum of my sound machine ensures that noise from outside doesn’t penetrate the space. Our only focus is the relationship that is hurting. Our only goal is to make it better.
This is one reason I am not a big fan of online counseling. I understand the benefits for those living in a remote location or unable to leave their homes for a physical appointment. However, for clients without those constraints, I believe research shows the increased staying power that a focused environment can provide for the therapeutic process. We humans are wired to best absorb and process experiences and information when fully tuned in.
I encourage you to try this out if you don’t already. Turn off all devices next time you spend an evening with your partner or spouse. Leave your cell phone at home one day when running errands or lunching with a friend. Watch TV without your ipad simultaneously going. Or just notice how often you are distracted. How many other things did you do while reading this article, for example? It is tough to shift this habit of multi-tasking under the onslaught of technology and online connection but the payoff is worth it. After lunch with my uncle, I felt energized and creative. Our friendship felt stronger and more connective. And for the rest of the day I was more present in each interaction.
So go for it! Focus!
Brenda Fowler, MA
June 21, 2013