Dr. B's Blog

One molecule at a time

The concept of mindfulness is often referred to when initially helping clients with feeling overwhelmed - with work, family, emotions - to help them control and manage their thoughts and feelings. The concept taught during DBT skills groups often revolves around doing one thing in the moment. Technically, this is called the skill of "one-mindfulness" when teaching the Core Mindfulness section of DBT. During teaching, we often refer to multitasking In Real Life like we do when we try to multitask on a computer.

The metaphor goes something like this: before we could multitask, focusing on one window at a time made us more productive. Or rather, we maintain that computers are not able to be as efficient when multitasking because they get bogged down with too many programs open.

That was the way things were back then. We walked both ways, uphill, in the snow, to school and we liked it, darn it!

As a power computer user, I always found this analogy to be lacking. Well, as a power Mac computer user, I found it to be lacking. I'm typing this article on a computer that weighs less than 3 lbs. with a processor that is "slow" by many standards with probably 20 applications open. And my computer isn't slowing down at all. (For those interested, this is what I'm using.)

The truth is, I like multitasking on my computer. As a "good" "mindful" person, I've felt guilty about that. I admit it, it always drives me crazy to see someone use a full screen view on their Word document, with big white borders on the sides (my eyes hate to see all that white screen), or even worse, with text stretching across the length of their computer's widescreen monitor (how does that make for comfortable reading?). It always struck me as a waste of valuable screen real estate to make a window actually full screen. Modern computers have advanced windowing systems and memory management specifically so we could multitask. How could technology be so focused on giving us the ability to multitask if the act is inherently inefficient?

I couldn't reconcile my view on being one-mindful and its importance in developing a sense of balance with my avid use of multiple windows and applications on my computer. That is, until I read an article by Lukas Mathis about how we are incorrectly equating multitasking on a computer with multitasking in real life.

However, the argument that multitasking on computers is bad because humans can’t multitask is flawed. It uses the word «multitasking» in two different ways, but implies that the two kinds of multitasking are somehow the same thing. They’re not: a task (or an app) on a computer, and a task performed by a human don’t map to each other one-to-one. In fact, a single task performed by a human can easily make use of several applications running concurrently on a computer.

(Ed. note: emphasis mine)

Computers and programs are like single atoms. Well designed apps do one thing and do them very well. The idea I'm proposing is that we be mindful one molecule of behavior at a time. In chemistry, a molecule is the smallest unit of a compound that still retains the properties of that compound. Nothing added and nothing taken away. You can't have a molecule of water without 2 hydrogens and 1 oxygen atom. No one would claim that H2O is anything other than one thing - a molecule of water. Similarly, many of the complex tasks we undertake as humans involve more than one atom of behavior but can be grouped into molecules of behavior. Within the molecule of writing, there's typing, reading, cutting, pasting, etc. There isn't, however, listening to music, watching YouTube or responding to emails. Those are impurities in your compound.

One molecule of behavior at a time.

So, while multitasking for computers is a desired state, it's not in humans. We're more complex than computers and necessarily work on the molecular level. There. In one article, I solved my cognitive dissonance of having 20 applications running at once (and liking it!), justifying how I can be mindful while doing it and proving we're better than Watson. That's a trifecta if I ever read one!