Brainfarts — silent but deadly
In an NPR article on multitasking, Earl Miller, a professor of neuroscience at MIT, is quoted as saying, “People can’t multitask very well, and when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves.”
Despite growing scientific evidence that multitasking is a myth and that trying to do two or more things at the same time results in doing none of them with full efficiency, we live in a world where our mental capacity is pushed to the breaking point.
As workforces shrink in Corporate America, it’s expected that every person who wasn’t mercifully laid off handle more and more projects at the same time and deliver them perfectly executed. It’s a stupid notion — an unrealistic expectation that leads to job dissatisfaction — and one of the great lies in the workplace today.
On a daily basis, and more precisely, from moment-to-moment, I am usually working on two or three projects that should require my undivided attention to complete competently. At the same time, I am fielding emails, phone calls and dealing with other distractions that make the juggling of detailed information resemble a quixotic challenge.
Recently, and I believe as a result of more than three and a half years of working in this type of insane and unrealistic environment, I’ve begun to make uncharacteristic mistakes on the job. For the last two months, I could not figure out why the errors in my work suddenly spiked and why I felt so helpless to get them under control.
And then two days ago, I had a massive brainfart.
I’m not talking about a small short circuit where you realize you weren’t listening to someone for a few minutes while you thought about what to buy for dinner. I’m talking about an iMac, “Spinning beachball of death” freezing of the frontal lobes that forces you to hit the rest button before you can do anything else.
Sadly, because of the level of overload in my mind, when my brainfart occurred, I didn’t even stop to reflect upon it. It happened and all I thought was, “Huh. That’s going to cost me a lot of money.” And then I just kept right on going.
It wasn’t even until the next day that I took the time to think about what may have caused the colossal thought seizure and where it ranked in my own pantheon of mental flatulence. To date, this most recent cranial hiccup ranks as one of the top three in my life.
My first brainfart, as a result of simultaneously over-processing way too much information, occurred when I was 10. I was walking home from a school carnival, my mind filled with fantasies about Elizabeth Szabo’s legs, my four consecutive rides on the Tilt-A-Whirl, and creepy carny people.
Before heading up the hill towards home, I stopped at the candy store and bought a couple of packs of candy cigarettes for the road. As soon as I hit the street, I cracked open a pack and started chewing on my minty, fake smokes.
I’m walking. I’m chewing. I’m thinking about the carnival. I’m walking. I’m wondering what it would be like to kiss Elizabeth Szabo. I’m reaching for the candy. I wonder what time it is. I have to spit.
At the exact same time as I pull my arm up to check the time, I hawk a huge loogie on my own watch. Before I can check the time, my Timex is covered in a sticky mixture of saliva and crushed Chesterfields. Not long after, my shirtsleeve is covered in a sticky mixture of saliva and crushed Chesterfields. It was 4:15.
Now it’s 1988. I retire to the bedroom and quietly slip into bed with my girlfriend. Outside the door, I can hear the sounds of her roommate doing dishes with her boyfriend. The notion of making love while others are a mere few feet away is thought-provoking.
I’m kissing. I’m roaming. I’m being roamed. I’m filled to the gills with chianti. I start thinking I could do this forever. I hear laughter on the other side of the door. I want to say something romantic but nothing comes to mind. The lasagna gave me heartburn. I need a Tums.
“Will you marry me?” I ask.
I immediately realize I should have taken a few moments to think about this broad-stroke a statement. As luck would have it, I would have the next 16 years to think about it over and over again. Which brings me to last week.
I was about to get in my car and start my weekend. I had endured yet another high-stress week of work — this time with the flu as my companion.
As I open my car door, I am looking at a three-foot square concrete pillar, which is right next to the passenger side of my car.
I load my things into the car. I check my email one last time. I think about the commute in the rain. I cough. I wonder where my ID badge is so I can get out of the parking structure. I question whether I made that last change to the PowerPoint deck I was working on. I think about what I should have for dinner. I cough. I’m 65 percent sure I made the change to the deck.
I put the key into the ignition, fasten my seatbelt and crank the wheel hard to the left to get out of the parking spot. The car moves about 18 inches before there is an incredible crunch and a slight jolt. I look out the passenger window to see the concrete pillar I have just hit. I pull the car forward. I get out. I glance at the damage, which is substantial. I note that the side view mirror was not ripped off and is still functional. I adjust it, get in the car and drive away. On the way home I hardly even think about the self-inflicted damage that is a result of my overworked, overstressed mind.
I still have not bothered to inspect the side of my car since the brainfart. Because I know exactly why it happened and there just doesn’t seem to be a point in torturing myself with one more unpleasant thing to think about.
I can do that on Monday while I’m working on two other things.