Flip the Switch

The Multi-tasking Myth

I missed 27 years of a beautiful Japanese maple tree blooming right under my nose. (Read the full story in my last post.) Somehow, though I drove in and out of my driveway at least six times a day, that annual vivid red eluded my view. After asking myself, “What else have I missed?”, I wanted to get to the bottom of my next question – “How did I miss that?”

In my determination to learn to see and experience the life around me, my eyes were opened to two important life lessons: (1) See the why and (2) Grow the what.
For today, let’s focus on seeing the why.

I realized in my Japanese Maple experience that I had a classic case of “change blindness”. Simply put, attention is needed to see changes. Cognitive research shows a phenomenon called “change simultagnosia” whereby “although attention can be distributed to 4–5 items at a time, only a single change can be seen at any moment”.1 This insinuates that our attention information gets pooled into a single collection nexus – an attention center.

I missed the tree because I was continuously and consistently overwhelming my attention center. I was focused on chasing the what, leaving no room to see the why. I was always attempting to multi-task – performing a procedure while listening to the pulse-oximeter, telling a joke, AND checking the strike price of a call option (I can neither confirm nor deny that allegation). Despite science showing pervasive performance costs when multitasking, 2 I can see why it’s so tempting to believe we are the exception. When we have two, three or four things going on, we can somewhat keep progress going in parallel areas when our full physical attention and focus aren’t required. While I can understand the necessity of multi-tasking in the workplace (especially in medicine), my question was this – do we need to multitask life? It was time for a change. I didn’t want to miss anymore “trees.”

Being Present for the Present

They say the hardest part of change is realizing a change needs to be made, but inertia is a difficult force. It feels safer to keep our pattern than it does to change the seemingly successful algorithm of what we already do for a majority of the week. Think about work at work, think about work at home. Multitasking. I called it being always “on”.

The consequences of keeping this pattern can be high. Try not being fully present at your anniversary dinner with your spouse or lunch with a friend. It’ll get lonely pretty quickly. I realized that being always “on” not only was causing me to miss many “tree” experiences, but it was also cutting into my ability to remember the few meaningful things I did experience.

Flip the Switch

I had to find my switch to turn my “on” off. I also needed to recognize when to flip that switch. Believe me, it’s a process. My journey felt a bit like participating in A.A., with 12-something steps and frequent falling off the wagon. But today, I am finally able to appreciate life experiences with “Tourist Eyes”, allowing me to see things just like I was experiencing them for the first time! The key for me was to learn to intentionally turn the switch “off” for moments every day (not just on vacation).

My encouragement and hope for you is that you find your switch. Learn to use it wisely and dive deep into more than just your work – stop and appreciate your Japanese Maple.

Now go outside, get some vitamin D, and open those tourist eyes. Talk soon.


*Terance Tsue MD FACS, as Manager of TTTsue LLC

1 Simons, D.J. & Rensink, R.A.: “Change blindness: past, present, and future” Trends in cognitive Sciences, 2005 9(1):16- 20