I had an inspiring conversation with a friend and collaborator this week that explored story arcs. Before the major tension rise in a story, there can be a small event that yields a taste of things to come. A small tilt of the axis that opens the door, even if only briefly, to an entirely new world. These small moments happen outside of storytelling and live in our daily interactions, but we miss them when we try to be too productive.
Even the most ground-breaking theoretical physicist hasn’t figured out how to create more time. The finite daily allocation of time is 1,440 minutes. What is attention but active use of time? Can you create more attention? Potential is rooted in transforming information to knowledge and knowledge into wisdom, unpacking crazy ideas and having the courage to attempt them. How can we maximize our potential and the use of our 1,440?
Optimization of time can be a tricky endeavor. Sharing minutes between multiple tasks is the quickest way to lose focus and awareness. I used to live a multitasker’s existence thriving on my perceived ability to keep many plates spinning at once. Every minute was spent battling incoming calls, emails and texts all while careening between meetings layered with ambiguously defined agendas and even more clouded goals. I was always on and accessible. The measure of my success was in the number of tasks I completed. I soon realized that I wasn’t really accomplishing anything. I was missing opportunities to see the quiet connections between things. I didn’t have the slack in my system to notice these curious threads that hadn’t even had a chance to emerge.
WHAT GETS IN THE WAY?
Multitasking is the scattered oscillation between tasks to the detriment of the individual task. It doesn’t help us pack more into each of those minutes, it decreases the potential of them. We may think it’s a critical puzzle piece, but it’s more like a distracting enemy of the creative process. According to author Dave Henshaw, multitasking is actually an illusion. We are really just switching between each task instead of balancing them all in a parallel process. The main thing to understand with multitasking is that the perceived efficiency, which may or may not be there, comes at a cost to quality. Neuroscientist Earl Miller has a theory aligned with Henshaw. You aren’t managing many tasks at once. You are quickly changing focus between multiple tasks. What about airplane pilots? Football coaches? Short-order cooks? How many things can the human brain handle before quality suffers? Some say that the human brain is the ultimate parallel processor, which is a computer science reference that means splitting the workload over different processors working simultaneously on the same computer. Are microprocessors in computers comparable to neurons in our brains? Neuroscientist Harris Georgiou completed a study in 2014 that used an fMRI to map the equivalent of CPU cores in the human brain. One of the outcomes determined that the human brain uses groups of neurons to handle processing tasks. Unlike computers, we can’t dedicate individual neurons to a specific task. Even segmented into groups, these neurons are not great at handling tasks simultaneously without sacrifice to quality. Maybe multitasking is a myth?
That’s a lot of science. What does it mean for me? Instead of multitasking, I focus on batch processing non-creative tasks into scheduled pockets of time that don’t conflict with my most creative times of the day. The morning is usually reserved for creative tasks like writing, developing ideas, crafting pitches or framing musical demos. As the day moves along, my cognitive energy declines making afternoons perfect for less creative work. My days don’t always work out that way, but I use that framework to drive my schedule. It’s not about cramming more tasks into the same minute, it’s about intentionally dedicating those minutes based on cognitive energy stores. Intention and awareness will reveal new threads to chase down and explore, and if you don’t create
Being multithreaded is the ability to process a variety of perspectives while maintaining malleable foundational knowledge. We all have a knowledge base built from our experiences, but why draw hard lines in the sand when seeking the truth? Curiosity serves as the pilot leading you through strange new places. It extends possibilities. It amplifies crazy ideas. It increases the chance of a random connection between seemingly disparate things. It expands the flavor of the soup, the sound of a symphony and the chapter of a book.
Patterns emerge and connect different disciplines on a daily basis.
Consider math and nature. The number sequence 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55 … unwraps the secrets to the construction of the world around us. These numbers show up in the petals of a flower, the sections of a divided apple, sunflower seeds and pine cones. 1.6 is the result of dividing any number in the series by the preceding number. Also known as the golden ratio, it is often represented as the mathematical expression of beauty.
What about neuroscience and philosophy? On one hand, an electrical process starting in our brain flowing through our spinal cord to the local nerve endings can generate muscle movement. In the same three-pound collection of gray matter, the mysteries of its own existence remain unsolved. Waypoints from both worlds connect as researchers monitor the brainwaves of Tibetan monks to understand how these electrical signals impact awareness and consciousness.
In Pierre Schaeffer’s path to musique concrete, traditional music and the physics of sound collide as he applies rules from one discipline to another for experimentation.
Many of us avoid this world because it is not a safe or comfortable choice. We want to be experts. Our ego feeds our desire to know all the answers. Lack of security also breeds fear, which could easily silence the most exciting crazy ideas. Since kindergarten, we have been molded to be experts that transition to the next layer of specialization. But our world is connection and interaction. It is not an infinite series of independent and unrelated events obediently tracking along a linear path through space and time. It is a constant cosmic interplay that creates as much as it performs.
TILT THE AXIS FOR ACCESS
We are creatures driven by patterns and shortcuts seeking to optimize our existence. These patterns become so mechanical that we live in repeating loops that can limit our potential. When I feel myself falling into particular patterns, I find ways to change the game. Just as the muse rewards discipline, commitment, and dedication, new worlds will open when you explore without expectation.
- Read a book on a subject matter outside your comfort zone. I struggled through the Philosophy Of Mathematics by Bertrand Russell, but it led me to a greater appreciation for numbers, patterns, and logic.
- Back your car into parking spots. For me, this did two things. First, I stopped being so concerned about the effect that the extra 15 seconds had on the other car in close proximity. Second, I was creating a new neural pathway.
- Be the rookie in the room. Jump into rooms where you are not the subject-matter-expert. Use your ears rather than your mouth. It’s not as fun as knowing all of the answers, but it is way more valuable.
- Speak another language often. You don’t have to be fluent or even remotely proficient. That will come with experience. Find people to help you. I have two friends in the gym that are Spanish speakers. I made a rule that Spanish is now our only communication medium. Do I sound silly sometimes? Most definitely. Is it worth it? Absolutely. (Gracias Kathy y Michael Kummer)
- Use your powers for good. If you have expertise in a domain, use it to help someone without expectation. Actions like these build awareness and connection. They can also be the catalyst for the next crazy idea.
- Create slack in your system. Go for a walk. Lose yourself in music. Meditate. The best ideas happen when you aren’t thinking about them.
If you maintain an oversubscribed existence constantly flailing and spinning uncontrollably in an attempt to test the limits of gray matter parallel processing, you won’t be able to hear the quiet voice that leads you to your next adventure. Multitasking forces you to move with such distracted velocity that these connections won’t register on your radar. Being multithreaded provides a small glimpse into an undiscovered world. It’s up to you to be aware of it and have the courage to take action.
TEST – try this exercise in the Myth of Multitasking:
Earl Miller Lab @ MIT – http://millerlab.mit.edu