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Seeing the Forest and the Trees

Expecting people to multitask is akin to saying: I don’t care how well you do it, just get it done.

The impact books have on our lives is not limited to the words written between the covers. Some books inspire new thoughts and send us to unexpected places. Follow me Down the Rabbit Hole in this recurring segment.

On the surface, What the Robin Knows by Jon Young is a book that teaches deep bird language. It is, and it also teaches awareness and the practice of paying attention. The second teaching was less obvious while reading through all the chirps and plurri kliwi plurri kliwis of the text. If you’re wondering, the latter call is a robin song written out.

Not for everyone. I can honestly say I didn’t retain any specific calls.

Yet, somewhere between all the technical detail, my brain opened up and started paying attention to the sights and sounds around me. There was a shift in how I observed the world. Dr. Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World would say that I changed how I attended to the world. This changed my experience, brought in the bigger picture, and produced connection. In fact, this McGilchrist clip On betweenness, music, and how we attend to the world reminded me of the quote Young includes in his book twice in which a San Bushman explains how he builds connections with all aspects of creation, starting with seeing and really recognizing each individual.

I began to see how making connections with the natural world could be a path towards belonging. This path is a wide detour away from the inward journey toward fulfilment and discovery that has come to dominate the idea of belonging in mainstream modern life.

Mainstream in so apt a metaphor for the hectic schedules that are the norm. I imagined myself being swept away in the current of a large, rushing body of water, unable to be still even if I wanted to. On the rare occasion that stillness presented itself, I forgot what to do with it, my body sensing the echo of motion. I named the stillness boredom, an itch demanding to be scratched, a drive to continually be doing or achieving something. Fixated on the details, unable to see the forest for the trees.

Image by Cookie the Pom on Upsplash

See what I did there? Birds live in trees. Details.

How could I not fixate on the details? There are so many to manage these days. As a teenager in the 90s, I was indoctrinated in the concept that women can “have it all”—a balance between career and family. It sounds good on the surface, but in practice it materialized as women being expected to pursue a successful career in addition to excelling in traditionally female roles. The Harvard Business Review article Executive Women and the Myth of Having It All shows that married and high-achieving women still carry the bulk of household responsibilities, with 9% or less of husbands taking on primary care or responsibility for things like childcare, cooking, and cleaning. Add on the extra expectations that have been piled onto parenthood, such as extracurricular activities, playdates, school involvement, and the the minutia required to ‘parent’ as a verb rather than a noun (something we do to our kids rather than be for our kids).

That’s a whole other rabbit hole, but if you’re intrigued about the verb/noun difference of ‘parent,’ check out the Hidden Brain episode What Kind Of Parent Are You: Carpenter Or Gardener? with Alison Gopnik, author of the book The Gardener and the Carpenter.

Extra tasks and higher expectations make the prospect of work-life balance seem like a fantasy. Yet, the misbalance of workload between sexes is justified by another oft quoted misconception: women are better at multitasking. The truth is, the human brain handles multitasking the same regardless of sex. Which is to say, not well. The name itself is misleading, as explained in the Science Alert article Women Are Not Better at Multitasking. They Just Do More Work, Studies Show. The brain isn’t doing many things at once, but rather rapidly switching back and forth between tasks in a state of constant interruption and refocus. The busiest people seem better at multitasking probably because they’ve practiced more.

This busyness is also rampant in business. Managing multiple tasks, holding multiple roles, and constant technological connectivity is more common. Interruptions are inevitable, monopolizing time and mental resources. The New York Time article Brain, Interrupted referenced a study that found “… a typical office worker gets only 11 minutes between each interruption, while it takes an average of 25 minutes to return to the original task after an interruption.” To add insult to injury, the work quality after an interruption was poorer to boot.

Expecting people to multitask is akin to saying: I don’t care how well you do it, just get it done.

On a personal level, I sensed that I didn’t do my best when focussing on more than one thing. And still, it seemed like the normal thing to do.

We’ve become a multitasking obsessed culture. Cars come standard with Bluetooth so drivers can take phone calls while on the road, despite the fact that using handsfree devices does not eliminate distracted driving. Nor does it allow people to listen wholeheartedly to their phone conversation. Neither task is done as well as it could be.

Knowing all that, I don’t talk on the phone while driving.


At least, not as much as I used to.

When driving in my Bluetooth-ready vehicle I occasionally talk to my family on the phone. Sometimes a half-hearted conversation seems better than not connecting with loved ones at all, though it leaves me feeling somewhat unfulfilled. I squeezed them in to the time I had available, but at the cost of being somewhat distant. Figuratively now as well as literally.

It doesn’t stop there.

Catching up on the news while cooking dinner. Paying the bills while watching a movie. Drinking coffee while driving to work. Mentally planning tomorrow while reading books to the kids. Folding laundry while waiting on hold. Gathering the kids’ school things while brushing teeth. Listening to podcasts while walking the dog. Reading a book while standing in line at the store.

There is so much that needs to be done and so much more that I want to do. This doubling up seems like an easy solution. Kill two birds with one stone and all that. Except that the quality of the task matters. If everything is done half-heartedly, what does that mean for my existence? Am I living a half-life? Is this treadmill of never-ending tasks dissociating me from reality?

Which brings me back to the birds. Young’s book was a nice reminder that there is value in simply sitting and paying attention. When I did, it nurtured my broad awareness so that my subconscious could be paying attention even when my conscious was focussed on another thing. It’s why I now notice the birds and their warnings where I didn’t before.

Then I remembered something I learned long ago, though I don’t remember where. A bird can focus their attention on pecking a seed, all the while maintaining awareness of their surroundings. To neglect one task over the other would be fatal. Though natural predators aren’t as great a concern to humans these days, is equivalent neglectful behaviour detrimental to our own survival?

This is what I thought when I pictured myself pecking away at my phone, oblivious to the things around me.

Eat or be eaten.

I tried to adopt the bird model of multitasking—focus on one conscious task while my subconscious focused on everything else. I went for a walk without my phone, then later listened to an audio book while sitting on the couch. I cooked dinner—just cooked—or sat down for the 10 minutes it takes to drink my morning coffee and watched the birds outside my window. At first, I felt uneasy, as though there was something I was forgetting to do. And at the same time, I felt expanded, free from the subtle yet constricting stress that accompanies doing everything at once.

It felt good. Like I was seeing the forest and the trees.

Is that what the robin knows?

Does busyness leave you feeling dissociated from your life? Does focussing on one thing at a time increase your enjoyment of even mundane tasks? Does multitasking seem to improve or worsen your work-life balance?

We’d love to hear from you. Send us an audio comment to have it included on the podcast. Simply find a quiet place, record a voice memo, and email us. Or you can leave a voicemail message at 1(416)900-8603.

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