Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Cluttertasking during the Olympics

As I’m writing this post, the TV is on in the background. I often find myself doing things like this lately, but last night that I realized something was wrong. That is, I was having trouble just watching the Olympics without doing something else. I was playing solitaire at the same time. Part of the evening, this worked—after all, I didn’t feel much need to actually watch all of the downhill skiing, so I just used the commentary to cue me into the times I really wanted to look at the screen.

The problem came when I started watching figure skating. I really wanted to watch this event. But I found it hard to put down the laptop and just watch. I had to unglue my eyes from my game when it came to the key performances. I realized it was a bad thing.

This doesn’t always happen to me. When I’m completely healthy, it usually doesn’t, so when it does happen, it usually tells me something is wrong. Last night it was because I was tired and full of nervous energy at the same time. I couldn’t focus on the Olympics or anything else involving more brainpower. Nor could I focus on just the game. I needed lots of stimulus to keep me going until I could figure out what was bothering me and simultaneously tiring me out.

I know I’m not alone. One of my friends told me last week that only surfing the Web can keep him awake when he’s sleep-deprived. And another of my friends shares my predilection for solitaire as a cue to examine what’s wrong internally. And I don’t think we’re the only ones.

While this sort of thing--I like to call it "overtasking" or "cluttertasking"--has been made easier by the portability of laptops, I don’t think distracting ourselves is a new problem. I used to play solitaire the old-fashioned way when the TV was on. And even in the silence with no technology, there are ways of blocking out thoughts we want to avoid. In the olden days, they used to have drugs and alcohol for a similar purpose. :)

If anything, technology seems to be a healthier way of dealing with avoidance. But it’s still something to keep an eye on. If I catch myself doing it, I usually follow it up with some analysis to try to figure out what’s going on. It’s important not just for my emotional health, but also for my creativity. Staring blankly at one screen while vaguely listening to another isn’t exactly the way to stimulate my ideas. Watching TV or movies can help build on my ideas at times. And playing mindless games like solitaire can help me to think through things. But not this particular form of watching TV mixed with solitaire. At least it didn't last night.

So, keeping that in mind, I think I'm going to post this so I can watch the Olympics. I think I'd like to actually watch the downhill skiing tonight.

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