This morning, I was answering a question my therapist asked. Well, “answering” might not be the correct word to describe what I was doing. I was telling a story that was kind of related and would eventually end up answering the question. He gave me a rather impatient look. (Don’t worry. He wasn’t being rude. I’ve been working with him for a long time. I knew exactly what it meant and found it rather funny, not offensive.) I stopped and said, “In a nutshell….,” and attempted to make the answer more concise. He soon commented that it seemed more like a coconut shell. And I laughed. And I started trying to answer the question more directly then. I had to start again a couple times. At one point he asked me if I even remembered what question I was supposed to be answering. Um, nope.
I often think about multiple things at once. One of my friends occasionally comments on my ability to participate in more than one conversation at a time. Emerson Eggerichs, in his Love & Respect video series, says that women think in spider web formation, jumping from topic to topic and still knowing exactly what’s going on all points. I considered myself to be an expert at that, and I considered that to be a good thing.
I have a lot of different interests. I have multiple activities occurring simultaneously, so my calendar is usually full. My schedule mirrors my thought patterns. If you and I were sitting down having a conversation, I would probably change the subject often and then end up returning to my original topic. I get distracted by my thoughts often, and sometimes I completely stop talking because I forget what I’m talking about. (If you’re laughing while you’re reading this because I’ve done this to you, it’s okay to admit it. I won’t be offended. J)
I used to think having so many different interests and being able to have so many things going on at once was a good thing. It made me more interesting and knowledgeable and productive.
But I’m wondering now if it is a curse more than a blessing.
Because, all too many times, I end up getting lost in the middle of it. I forget my purpose. I forget why I’m here. I busy myself with minutiae and miss out on the really important things.
As much as we want to convince ourselves that we are multitasking superstars who can do it all, we’re not. Our brains weren’t wired that way. There is always some multitasking going on in the brain. The brain puts routine tasks on autopilot, so to speak, so we can focus on the important matters. It does this naturally and automatically, without our conscious thought. But when we keep adding more and more things to the task list, we get weighed down.
In the book Scarcity, researchers Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir explain this with the analogy of bandwidth. When too many devices are running on the same network, the speed slows down because all the bandwidth is used up. For humans, it does more to us than just slow down our mental processing. It can cause fuzzy thinking, impaired logic, fatigue and more.
I get caught up in details or distracted by something or weighed down by my schedule, and I miss out on what’s in front of me. There have been a few times in the last few weeks when I realized that I was getting caught up in unimportant details surrounding my son’s 18th birthday and missing out on him himself. I had planned three separate birthday celebrations, worked on restoring order to our house after our remodeling project, and made sure everything was going to be ready for our guests who were coming to celebrate his birthday. I realized two days before his birthday that I didn’t have any idea what I was going to give him for his birthday. By the time I got everything else I had put on my list completed, I didn’t sign his birthday card until right before I handed it to him. I snapped at him right before one group of guests arrived, being more concerned about my house than about his well-being at that moment. Ouch.
He’s 18 now. He lives at home, so I still have daily opportunities to pay attention to him. But he’s 18 now. Those days are dwindling. And if I’m not careful, I’ll miss those opportunities.
This morning, in my therapist’s office, I realized that all of the details that I thought were so important, and all the rabbit trails I kept taking, were temptations to avoid the issue at hand. The reality, the finally answered question, was an uncomfortable one. But it was one that I need to face.
And it was probably one that I would have continued to avoid if I hadn’t been challenged to stay focused.
How many of the items on my “Things I Do” list are there because I would rather be distracted than face the truth? How many of the items on your list are there to distract you from what is uncomfortable?