We adapt in many ways to get more efficient in one area, but sometimes at a cost in another area of our lives. Have you weighed the cost and benefit?
I recently had my annual eye exam, and the doctor informed me that a problem I had at my last check up was gone. I, of course, had no idea what problem she was talking about, so either it was not a big enough deal for that doctor to tell me about it, or I was too busy focusing on my vision being all messed up by the various drops they gave me to be able to process what I was being told.
Regardless, the problem, which is clogged oil ducts, had resolved. She explained to me what the impact of it is – your tears and general lubrication of your eyes lacks oil, so it evaporates faster than it should, leaving you with dry eyes. Then she explained the causes of it, with the most common being the human ability to adapt aspects of our involuntary nervous system to make us more productive. She asked if I have to read or stare at a screen a lot for work, which I obviously do. The brain is apparently so smart, it reduces the frequency of blinking so you are able to take in more visual information without as much interruption. This amazing adaptation increases our productivity and comprehension, but comes at the expense of having dryer eyes.
This got me thinking about other ways that we adapt from our old behaviors to make us ‘better’ or more efficient. Then I started to wonder how often we pause, reflect and think about whether the cost of these adaptations is greater or less than the benefit they afford us.
One great example is multitasking. There is a lot of research and many articles coming out about how multitasking is worse for outcomes (achievement, comprehension, quality of work, relationships) since we may get multiple things done, but we get them done to a lower standard.
Think about the classic one of being in some conversation while also being on your phone. Whether it’s a one-on-one conversation, phone call or in-person group meeting, trying to interact and contribute to that interchange while also going through emails (or social media feeds, perhaps more accurately) usually leads to lower attention to at least one of those tasks. We are often not great at noticing this in ourselves, but we can spot it instantly in someone else if they’re doing it to us.
Try having a deep conversation with someone when their head is down and the attention is on their Facebook or Instagram feed. Think about the last email you sent with important information asking for some input or decision to someone in a meeting only to get back, “OK,” or, “Yes.”
Do you feel like you mattered? Do you feel like the person took in what you sent them and really considered it? Did their one-work response actually respond to what you sent?
The answer to each of these questions is also a one-word response, “No.”
Here, multitasking may have allowed for two items on that person’s to-do list to get crossed off, but certainly not crossed off well-enough.
Now, I’m not saying all adaptations are negative on balance, or all multi-tasking is bad. What I’m saying is that we need to consider the trade-offs. If my eye doctor told me I ran the risk of going blind as a result of blinking less and drying my eyes out, I surely would make active decisions to stop staring at my computer for long stretches. If your child comes to you crying, you can put away your phone and give them your full attention.
To do this takes a conscious effort and a willingness to ask whether the choice you’re making for the sake of productivity is a net positive in your life or a net negative. Like self-care decisions, think about the bigger picture and whether being faster at one thing only means you got faster at moving in a direction you don’t want to move in across many things.