I lie to myself almost every day. It’s not a hurtful lie (you’re not good enough) or a hateful lie (you’re better than those people) or even a lie of laziness (that pot just needs to soak). The lie I tell is the most modern of propaganda. It’s about productivity.
I tell myself: You can multitask.
You can give your best to that project while simultaneously carrying on that Facebook conversation. You can edit that radio script down to the second, between addictive looks at Twitter or Vine or whatever platform has captured your attention this week. You can do it. A well-crafted sentence in this paragraph, a witty comment beneath that status update. You can make it work.
Multitasking is a myth. The more scientists understand the complex workings of our brains, the more they’ve begun to warn us about our addiction to performing multiple tasks at once. We think we can handle it – tweeting during our kid’s soccer game, Facebooking at work, texting while driving – but we’re fooling ourselves.
The human brain doesn’t multitask. Not really. Yes, it keeps our hearts pumping and our cells reproducing simultaneously. And some of us can walk and chew gum at the same time. But when presented with more than one mental undertaking, the brain becomes a switchboard.
It concentrates on one job at a time, transferring attention from task to task. We focus like a spectator at center court for a tennis match. The quicker the switch, the more information the brain must process, encode and remember. This activates more neural pathways, sending packets of communication from neuron to neuron. And as fast and efficient as our brains are, they reach a limit.
Distraction overload. When overload hits, our brains start filtering the input. Rather than taking in too much, our brains screen out information that otherwise would catch our attention. We start to miss stuff.
We miss our kid's first goal. We miss that important deadline. We miss that red light. Multitasking has consequences. It triggers cognitive blindness and impairs performance – and it happens so quickly that most of us don’t realize it.
In Amarillo, the most prominent example of this is related to the controversial new laws about cell phones and distracted driving. Regardless of the politics behind it, the science is clear: Using a phone at the same time you use a car makes you a worse driver.
I’m not here to argue for or against that law. I know my easily distracted brain can make me a bad driver. What I’m wondering is whether it’s making me a worse husband or dad. In my pocket I carry an iPhone. I use it as an actual telephone about two percent of the time. For the rest of its digital life, I employ it to play word games against my wife, Aimee, to browse my kids’ Instagram feeds, to send a quick text to my sister in San Francisco, to carry on conversations with friends across the United States.
My phone connects me to the important people in my life in ways few of us ever imagined. My phone also distances me from the important people in my life in ways I never imagined.
Because when I am with a real, live, warm-blooded person – on the couch with my kids, watching TV with Aimee, at dinner with friends – and I hear my phone chirp with a new notification, then my undivided attention has just gotten divided. I have stopped being fully present with that person.
The moment my attention turns to my phone, my brain switchboard lights up. I try to multitask. And that’s when I miss things. I don’t hear my son, Owen, saying, “Dad, watch this!” I don’t hear my daughter, Ellie, explain the scarf she’s tying or my wife’s question about my day.
Doctors in Taiwan have begun to diagnose a condition called “iPhone Addiction Disorder.” Phantom phone vibrations are a symptom (me: guilty). And whether it vibrates or not, I open my phone regularly, without prompt, just to see what’s happening on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram.
When I do, I set aside my family in order to engage with this five-inch marvel of technology, glass and electrons. I tell myself I can scan my phone without neglecting them.
I am a liar.
The ancient Christian season of Lent is one of penitence and fasting. From Ash Wednesday (Feb. 13 this year) to Easter, believers remember the sacrifice of Christ on the cross by denying themselves something they will miss. Coffee, perhaps. Chocolate. Or (gasp!) Facebook. Then they replace that void with something positive, like volunteering, prayer or reading.
Don’t worry. Wretched as I may be, my devotion was not deep enough to completely abandon my iPhone during Lent (though last year I did give up the iPhone game “Words with Friends”). However, I’m becoming more aware how gripped I am by technological distraction, how for all its benefits, online connectivity has major drawbacks, and how important it is to unplug.
I need to set aside my phone on a consistent basis. So Aimee and I decided that, from 5 to 9 p.m. – from the end of my work day until the kids’ bedtime – we’d be phone-free. At least through Lent. Possibly beyond.
It hasn’t been comfortable. I’m striving to fill the iPhone-shaped void with something positive. Perhaps the people I share life with might have some ideas what that could be.
by Jason Boyett
Jason is an Amarillo native and the author of several books, including O Me of Little Faith and the Pocket Guide series. He blogs at jasonboyett.com.