Have you heard of the Marshmallow Test? A marshmallow is put in front of a young child. The child is told that they can get the single marshmallow if they want to, but if they wait they will be given two marshmallows instead. Walter Mischel, the scientist who designed the test, discovered that successfully waiting instead of breaking down and eating the one marshmallow was correlated to such things as SAT scores and BMI and a bunch of other things later on in life. Waiting for that second marshmallow is a skill transferable to a lot we care about.
What I care about isn’t getting two marshmallows instead of one. Rather, what I’m trying to do is stop eating marshmallows altogether. Like Mischel, I don’t much care for the things. But unlike him in the Colbert interview, I find myself eating them all the same. If I pass by a bowl of candy, whether I’m hungry or not, whether I like the candy or not, the odds are I will eat one. And around this time of year, that’s not a hypothetical. For the next few days, there will be bowls of candy everywhere.
And once the Halloween candy is gone, there will be pumpkin pie left over from Thanksgiving. And then this happens:
All told, that’s two months of constant opportunity to snack. Inconveniently, it happens at about the same time as my cycling, my main calorie-burning activity, starts to taper off for the winter. Not a good combination.
The question I ask myself frequently, while taking a bite of that Milky Way bar that I’m not really enjoying that much anyway, is, ‘Why can’t I just say no?’ Daniel Goleman, in his book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence gives an interesting possible answer; it’s multi-tasking.
I’m a sucker for multi-tasking. Give me a chance to take care of many things at the same time, and I’ll take it. It makes me feel so efficient, and so productive. Goleman points out just one little problem with multi-tasking: technically speaking, it doesn’t exist, or at least not the way we think it does.
Goleman tells us that our mind is actually broken up into two parts. First,there’s the back of the mind, which is in fact unconsciously attending to many different things all at once. It’s keeping us breathing, and making sure we don’t miss that hidden step, and considering how we feel about that strange interaction with a friend, and putting together a rough draft of a blog post, and a thousand other things, all at the same time. It’s kind of like we have a bunch of little minds, all busy on their own projects all of the time. That’s all going on at the back of the mind.
The front of the mind decides what of all of those busy little back of the mind projects we’re going to give our focused attention at any given time. The back of the mind is like a classroom of students, and the front of the mind is the teacher, deciding which student to call on. And the key is that the front of the mind can only call on only one thing at a time.
When we try to get the front of our mind to multi-task, it fakes it, by switching really quickly from one back of the mind thought to another without time, consideration or thought. That quick switching is really unsatisfying, and really tiring. It takes a lot of effort to take the focus off one thing and on to another. And our mind is making all of that effort for nothing, because no idea really gets its due. Imagine that the teacher in the classroom has only one microphone, and runs from student to student, hurdling over desks and skipping down aisles, take the mic away from one student mid-sentence to dash across the classroom to another, only to do it yet again. That’s what we’re asking our mind to do when we try to multi-task.
This effort makes us tired, and irritable, and stupider than we would normally be. We make bad decisions, like unthinkingly grabbing yet another Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup.
The key to getting out of this mess is not to try to shout down all of the voices. The scolding voice telling everyone to quiet down is just one more member of an already overcrowded, noisy classroom. It only adds to the cacophony. Instead, we have to slow things down.
What we need when our mind is overstimulated and overtired is something engaging enough to capture the attention of the front of our mind, and soothing enough to help it quiet down. Nature, including our own bodies, is full of such things: the sound and feel of our own breathing or our footfalls, the light falling on the leaves of a tree, the breeze moving the grass, a flame, waves. There’s a reason why we like candles, and campfires, and sitting by the ocean. These are natural antidotes to the stress that comes from the attempt to multi-task.
So, if you find yourself eating one too many slices of pumpkin bread, take a bike ride, or a jog, or even just a 10-minute walk around the block. Watch the wind blow the fallen leaves, or take a glance at a slow-moving cloud. Ask yourself at the end of the walk how you feel; your answer will probably be kind of nice, calm, a little more yourself. And, the next time you pass the snack table, you’ll find yourself able to resist.