Sensory overload and distraction not only cut against safe driving, as I wrote last time, but also against any kind of problem solving, including those kinds of problems I train people to solve, those that arise in connection with conflict resolution, negotiation, consensus building, and effective communication.
In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, Daniel J. Levitin of McGill University explains that:
Our brains have two dominant modes of attention: the task-positive network and the task-negative network…The task-positive network is active when you’re actively engaged in a task, focused on it, and undistracted…The task-negative network is active when your mind is wandering; this is the daydreaming mode. These two attentional networks operate like a seesaw in the brain: when one is active the other is not… This two-part attentional system is one of the crowning achievements of the human brain, and the focus it enables allowed us to harness fire, build the pyramids, discover penicillin and decode the entire human genome. Those projects required some plain old-fashioned stick-to-itiveness… But the insight that lifted them probably came from the daydreaming mode.”
The human brain also has a part that acts like a switch between the task-positive network and the task-negative network. But forcing the brain to switch too often is tiring and disorienting, working against the task positive network’s ability to solve problems as well as the task negative network’s ability to daydream the inspirations for those solutions.
As Levitin puts it, “Every status update you read on Facebook, every tweet or text message you get from a friend, is competing for resources in your brain with important things like whether to put your savings in stocks or bonds, where you left your passport or how best to reconcile with a close friend you just had an argument with.”
I was pleased that he included the last example, how to reconcile an argument, because that’s right up my alley.
Levitin suggests several ways to help our brains creatively solve problems. First, schedule and control all that competing chatter. For example, don’t leave your e-mail and social media open and pinging at you when you are focusing on a task. If you hear these pings, even if you don’t stop what you’re doing, your brain, having heard the ping, is now diverting some of its resources to wondering who sent you a message and what they said.
Second, schedule and take regular breaks from task orientation to things that allow your mind to wander. Include short breaks, such as little naps or walks, as well as longer breaks, such as work-free vacations that include mind-wandering down time.
I would add that we also want to turn off the pings during these break periods. It is just as important not to compete with mind wandering as it is not to compete with task orientation, because both contribute to the most creative solutions to the toughest problems.
But what if your boss encourages, or even insists, that you multitask? I suggest you do an experiment. First, work on a project with pings turned on. Record how long it takes you to complete the project and rate the quality and creativity of the result. How well did your work address the goals of the project? Did your work have “bugs” in it that you had to go back and fix? How much time did the fixes take? Worst of all, were there bugs you never caught and fixed?
Now, work on a similar project in scheduled times segments of thirty to fifty minutes without pings. Schedule and take mind-wandering task-negative breaks. You can do “mindless” things during these breaks, things that you want to do anyway, such as brushing your teeth, listening to calming instrumental music, or taking your daily walk. Also, schedule specific times to attend to your e-mail, your text and voice messages and social media.
Again, record how long it took you to complete the second project. How many minutes of scheduled task focusing? How many total days? And again, rate the results for quality and creativity.
If, as I predict, you performed the second project better, more creatively, more efficiently, and/or faster, present your boss with a copy of your experiment results along with a copy of the Levitin article.
And, for your own personal projects, particularly those that involve reconciling a difference with another person, remember that you are your own boss. So be a smart boss.Don’t treat yourself like a servant who has to jump every time a bell rings. Schedule times to focus, without distraction, on applying the skills you’ve learned through my writings and classes to prepare for the conversation. Schedule, and take, chatter free, mind-wandering breaks. Schedule and take other times to attend to your messages.
Likewise, when you are ready to deal with the other person, sit down and speak with them face-to-face, ping-free. Take mind-wandering breaks, for example, to the restroom or to freshen up your coffee.
Inspired by Levitin, I turned off my email and phone while composing this article. I completed a first draft in less than an hour. Then, I checked messages. After than, I took a task-negative break while applying some moist heat therapy to my leg. Finally, I polished the article in about forty minutes.
I accomplished everything I would have otherwise. I spent no more time than if I had left the email and phone on while writing–probably less time, but the time was structured differently. Plus I felt more alert while writing, more inspired with ways to improve the article, and more pleased with my end result.
Let me know if your experiment works out as well as mine did. I’m betting it will.
 “Hit the Reset Button in Your Brain,” http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/10/opinion/sunday/hit-the-reset-button-in-your-brain.html?_r=1