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Seth Slater M.F.A.

The Secret Life of the Multi-Tasking Mind

How to achieve peak performance when it comes time to focus

Imagine for a moment:

You’re a neurosurgeon all gowned up, standing under bright lights. Your patient is prepped and lying before you. Your scalpel hovers mid-air when . . .

Your cell phone rings.

You can probably handle it, right? So go ahead. Reach for the phone. And make the incision. No need to put anything on hold. It’s only brain surgery, after all.

You can just text a quick message while working: “Meeting with cliant right now, doesn’t seem talkative, probably won’t take long, wanna do lunch?” Go on. Do the smiley face pictogram thing with the semicolon and parenthesis. You drive a convertible Corvette, after all, right? Gotta have flair. ; )

Oh, great. Now look what happened. You’ve misspelled “client.”

And the patient? What patient? Oops. Uh, yeah, well, that can sometimes happen – but it can be fixed, no problem. Nine times out of ten.

Naturally, most of us would forego texting under such conditions. And yet, many of us cling to the belief that multi-tasking under less strenuous circumstances is somehow a boon to our productivity.

A startlingly interesting research finding suggests that dividing our attention doesn’t necessarily make us less effective task masters – but that we don’t multi-task in quite the way we are accustomed to imagining.

According to an April report in the Journal of Neuroscience, multi-tasking in its most effective form takes place well below the level of consciousness. Whenever we attempt to focus on a task, say a crossword puzzle, the brain simultaneously does two things. First, and predictably, it amps up the voltage in neural circuits involved in solving crossword puzzles. At the same time – and here’s the breakthrough discovery – it also dials down the dimmer switch on everything else, the distractions of, say, a booming stereo and a nearby conversation.

In other words, our brains don’t enable multi-tasking in the conventional sense; they actively discourage it. The paradox, of course, is that the brain is multi-tasking internally precisely so that, outwardly, we can concentrate on one thing at a time.

To achieve peak performance, we should reform our multi-tasking ways. In today’s world, that’s often a tough pitch to sell, even though it comes as no surprise to some of the most effective task masters among us.

No one raises the bar on achievement quite as literally as a dolphin trainer.

In the early stages of shaping a high-vaulting leap from a show stadium pool, groups of dolphins are often asked to swim over a metal bar placed on the bottom of their tank. Swim across the pool (and over the bar) to a trainer with a bucket, and restaurant-quality sushi snacks await.

When the bar is raised (but still completely submerged), suddenly the dolphins want to play. They gather on either side of the bar, some above, some below. They invent a few games, blow a few bubbles, have a few laughs.

Eventually, they make their way to the patiently waiting trainer – who delivers fish rewards only to those animals who swim over, rather than under, the bar. When they all catch on, the bar can be raised again. It doesn’t take long.

Why not?

Because the one necessary condition for reward – swim over the bar – has been communicated to the dolphins. In trainer parlance, a clear contingency of reinforcement has been established. Importantly in the world of training, only a single contingency is identified during any one training session.

Later, after the bar has been suspended mid-air and the animals are consistently vaulting over it, the dolphins will be asked to concentrate on other aspects of the final show stadium routine. Swim with speed. Leap together. Spin before landing. Each phase of training focuses on just one contingency. Single-task targeting rather than multi-tasking is an important key to success.

If the dolphins make mistakes in other areas while various behavioral links in the chain are being learned, they are usually the result of the animals’ attention being momentarily diverted elsewhere.

The careful trainer, much like the benevolent brain of the mentally-focused crossword puzzler filtering out nearby distractions, helps the dolphins focus on the immediate task at hand by simply ignoring competing stimuli.

Good teachers, trainers, and coaches have long intuited what cutting-edge neuroscience is now telling us about how to achieve peak performance when it comes time to focus. In a world that so regularly places demands on our time and attention, we can be kinder to ourselves by heeding generations of wise advice from our elders. One thing at a time, first things first, and easy does it really do get us there in the end. And we’ll likely be more productive and successful along the way.

Copyright © Seth Slater, 2014


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Seth Slater, M.F.A., is a former dolphin trainer for the U.S. Navy and currently teaches creative writing at Cuyamaca College.


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