According to MIT neuroscientist Dr. Earl Miller, the human brain can’t multitask. Through neuroimaging, he and his colleagues have shown that multitasking isn’t doing two things at once. It is, instead, your prefrontal cortex—the part of your brain involved in focus and decision making—switching between tasks and inputs rapidly. This back-and-forth, stop-and-start approach not only kills productivity and creativity, they find, but it also causes unnecessary mistakes. Other research shows that those who think they are good multitaskers, in most cases, are instead good at deluding themselves.
What does this have to do with first responders? A lot. For one thing, making a mistake as a first responder can have dire consequences. Mistaking a cellphone for a gun, for example, or administering an incorrect medication in the field might mean the difference between life and death. Discernment in real-world situations that are often uncertain and quickly evolving is often referred to as situational awareness. This skill is, rightly, prized by first responders.
Clearly, true situational awareness requires attention and focus. The challenge for today’s first responder is the proliferation of events, devices and preoccupations vying for that attention: Radio traffic, in-car computers and smartphones, of course, but also increasingly complex roles and relationships within their communities. They have never had more to contend with or more roles to play. It’s not just first responders: We are all regularly inundated with information, choices and various stimuli vying to attract or distract us. Social media is just one example.
Dr. Eric S. Toner defines situational awareness as understanding what is going on around you, with an emphasis on actionable information. Recall John Boyd’s OODA Loop (observe, orient, decide, act). You are either “in the loop” or “out of the loop.” OODA requires a constant appraisal and reappraisal of what’s going on in the theatre of action. In other words, it requires relaxed and focused attention on the world around you.
Given the stakes of your work as a public safety professional, what are you to doing to enhance situational awareness and reduce multitasking in a world increasingly consumed with distraction?
The challenge for today’s first responder is the proliferation of events, devices and preoccupations vying for that attention.
Decide what matters. Below 100 is an incredibly successful initiative to drive down preventable law enforcement deaths in the line of duty. One of its tenets: What’s important now (WIN)? Football great Lou Holtz is credited with this concept and instructed players to ask themselves this question routinely–and with great success. What warrants your primary attention now? What can wait? If it can wait, let it.
Cut down on clutter. There is advantage to technological minimalism in this busy world. Do you need Facebook on your phone? There may be an excellent reason for it but evaluate these decisions on their merits rather than reflexively accepting new stuff in your life. Moreover, can you reset the perimeter so as to minimize outside interference with the crime scene or fireground? Can you delegate responsibility to, say, the PIO or peer support lead and instead focus on your work?
Accept that some things are out of your control. First responders in particular like to fix situations. This is good and natural. But some things you can’t fix, remove or change. You might want to, but it’s not possible. Some patients will be difficult. De-escalation techniques, in some cases, will not work. There’s only so much you can do. So instead focus your energies into what you are able to control.
Practice concentration. Cultivate a hobby you enjoy, like drawing or soccer. Or simply focus on a habit, such as brushing your teeth, putting on your shoes or doing dishes. The idea is to simply concentrate on the task at hand and enjoy the pleasure of it completely. As your ability to concentrate improves, bring this practice into the world and make a point of being present, aware and relaxed in what it is that you are doing, on and off the job. Another word for this: Mindfulness.
Focus Is Good for Us
A final reason to cut through the clutter and focus on what matters in life is that studies show it makes us happier. The co-author of one such study, Harvard’s Dr. Daniel Gilbert told the New York Times, “I find it kind of weird now to look down a crowded street and realize that half the people aren’t really there.” Instead, their minds are wandering (anxieties, guilts, daydreams), and it’s affecting their wellbeing.
Don’t let that be you. You’re a first responder and we need you to be present to do your job well. We also need you to be happy. Focus up!