Conquering Attention Deficit Disorder

multitasking

(Image by altamar)

I decided to wash my car. As I start toward the garage, I spotted the mail on the hall table. I should go through the mail before I wash the car. I lay the car keys on the table, put the junk mail in the trash can under the table, and notice that the trash can is full. So I put the bills back on the table and take out the trash first. Since I’m going to be near the mailbox when I take out the trash anyway, I might as well pay the bills first. I see my checkbook on the table, but there is only one check left. My extra checks are in my desk in the study, so I go to my desk, where I find the bottle of juice that I had been drinking. I’m going to look for my checks, but first I need to push the juice aside so that I don’t accidentally knock it over.

At the end of the day: the car isn’t washed, the bills aren’t paid, there is a warm bottle of juice sitting on the counter, the flowers aren’t watered, there is still only one check in my checkbook, I can’t find the remote, I can’t find my glasses, and I don’t remember what I did with the car keys. [Age Activated Attention Deficit Disorder]

For a software engineer who is also an information junkie, life is equally hard due to attention deficit disorder. In the few minutes it takes to compile code, there is an urge to check Google Reader for updates. While going through blogs like Engadget, which has as many updates per day as the number of times N. Ram bows before China’s Ambassador to India, there is an impulse to skip most of the posts to reduce the unread count. By then Google News has updated and then you are deeply interested in what Nana Patekar did to Tanusree Dutta by which time the compilation is over and you forgot the code changes you made. And remember, the software engineer has not touched his Blackberry till now.

Multitasking essentially messes up the brain. The constant switching of tasks makes us concentrate on the act of concentration instead of the task. Immediately after the task is done, there is no recollection of what was done, like the case of the software engineer who read news during compilation and could neither remember the bug he had fixed nor the news he had read. Multitasking also boosts the stress related hormones and makes us grey earlier than our parents.

Constant multitasking results in the brain expecting you to perform many tasks at the same time. Soon you feel bored when you are just reading news. Eventually you might end up like actress Jenniffer Connelly who said, “I do like to read a book while having sex. And talk on the phone. You can get so much done.”

Before it gets that bad, something has to be done. You can remember fondly of your childhood when there were no iPods, cell phones or 24 hour news channels and delate technology for the distractions, but that does not solve the problem. To kick the multitasking habit effort is required and blogger John Richardson found a simple non-tech way.

Here’s how it works… Set a timer for 48 minutes. Close out all distractions and work continuously for 48 minutes. When the timer goes off, get up and stretch, get coffee, use the restroom etc, in the following 12 minutes. Repeat as necessary. [The Power of 48 Minutes]

There is nothing magical about 48 minutes; you could pick any convenient number. The point is to spent the time focused on the task. As sports psychologist H.A. Dorfman noted, “you have to build a structure of behavior and attitude. Behavior shapes thought. If a player disciplines his behavior, then he will also discipline his mind.” The goal should be to focus on the task, see only the eye of bird as Arjuna did, and let nothing else distract you. As Dorfman says about pitchers, “he should only think about three things: pitch selection, pitch location and the catcher’s glove, his target. If he finds himself thinking about something else, he should step off the rubber.”

In the article about Dorfman, David Brooks mentions, “there were intellectuals who thought the mind existed above the body, but that’s been blown away by evidence.” Buddhist monks will laugh at this confident assertion from the clerisy. According to Buddhist philosophy, sensations constantly arise in our mind which on repetation becomes strong emotion. When the cravings are strong, they over power the mind; we suspend judgement and act on the strongest impulse. Thus when the strong impulse to read news arises, we succumb to the craving unable to stop[1]

If by some means we are able to observe the sensation without reacting, the mind can remain balanced, peaceful and under our control. This control is possible by practicing mindfulness, and neuroscience has shown that mind can act on the brain and through pure thought brain activity can be changed. Through mindfulness it is possible to sustain attention on a task, re-orient the mind to the task when the attention is slipping, and exclude things which are not required for the task through executive control.

This is a problem that affects all of us and as Larry Wall says, “there is more than one way to solve it”, else…sorry, I just went to check news.

References

  1. William Hart, The Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation: As Taught by S. N. Goenka, 1 (HarperOne, 1987).

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5 Comments

  1. VK:

    I have listened to an Intro to Vipassana by him which is quite useful. The book I referenced is a compilation of his talks, with lot of Q&A and is one of the best books on meditation I have read.

  2. @JK: Thanks. I’ve been planning to read up on Vipasana for a while (many of my friends have recommended it to me). Will see if I can get my hands on this one.

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