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Simplicity: The Fine Art of Doing Just One Thing

The Overwhelm of our High Tech World

We’re obsessed with our modern technological world. And what’s not to love? I mean, what did we do before Google and Amazon? Or cell phones, texting, and desktop publishing? These are incredible tools that I LOVE, that bring me knowledge, convenience, and joyful expansion of what is possible. But there’s another dimension of our tech-y world that I personally wrestle with, and that I see all around me: how our relationship to these amazing devices and technological realms distract us—leading to fatigue, over-stimulation, disconnection, excess stress, and an alarming loss of proficiency and efficiency at everything we do.

How do we fine-tune our connection to these helpful tools to manage the mind clutter that overwhelms us, sucks our energy, and makes us, well, less smart? It’s all in the fine art of doing just one thing.

We Are Not Multi-Taskers

Our beautiful brains were designed to focus on just one thing at a time—we’re serial taskers, not multi-taskers. Our brainpower can be mind blowing but neuroscientists tell us (as does our practical wisdom) that in spite of our huge capacity to learn and comprehend, we were not designed to multi-task—as we divide our attention between multiple tasks our efficiency and accuracy fall off precipitously no matter how seemingly simple the tasks are.

We Don’t Know Our Own Limitations

To make matters more interesting and complicated, studies from numerous disciplines show we’re really bad at self-assessment of our competency—at most things. And, not only are our self-assessments inaccurate, we consistently over-rate it. We think we’re better than we are—at everything!

Driving to Distraction

Let’s talk about this in the context of driving. Yes, I’m going in…diving into a subject that NO ONE (on the streets) wants to acknowledge as a problem. I bring it up and get blank stares, or “I only talk hands-free,” with the vocal inflection that makes it clear that EVERYONE knows it’s okay—why do you even bring up such a non-issue?

Most of us know by now that texting and driving is not only dangerous but plain stupid…it’s more than that—it’s hubris and recklessness. We all know it. It’s scientific fact and a big fat DUH.

But how about the form of vehicular communication that most people I speak with on the subject think is perfectly safe: hands-free cell phone use?

Studies show that drivers who both drive and talk on their cell phones are as impaired as drunk drivers. And it doesn’t matter whether the phone is hand-held or hands-free. The priority of one’s attention goes to the conversation no matter what. Driving speed slows, awareness of one’s surroundings falls off, and accidents increase.

And, as expected, drivers’ self-assessment is quite poor. People think they drive just fine while engaging in a phone conversation, even when they are not.

Driving is an especially unique challenge in that in many respects it’s already multi-tasking. How many of us have had the experience of not remembering our drive for many miles when we have been deep in thought or engrossed in conversation? How many near misses have we experienced when our attention was diverted for just a second?

Now, throw talking on the phone into the mix. Studies show that our brains prioritize the phone conversation over attention to our environment. This means our responses are delayed, we are less alert, and we are much more apt to make mistakes. It is currently estimated that at least half of all car accidents are related to the distraction of cell phone use, and this is likely an underestimation. This has become a huge public health problem.

Truth Talk

Let’s talk truth here: who is always the one cutting us off in traffic, driving too slowly, changing lanes without looking, or driving generally recklessly and thoughtlessly? The one talking on their phone. Sometimes the person is so intensely engaged in their conversation—face in full grimace, arms waving, voice emanating from the car—that I don’t know how they have enough neurons reserved for identifying traffic signals. Point is, they don’t.

How about cell phone use in other social settings? The slow inattentive people in the grocery store line or walking down the street all seem to be texting or using their phones. Why do people need to chit chat while grocery shopping? Ignoring the check out person who is providing a service for them is just rude. People can’t just shop or just walk or just interact or just be fully present to the situation they are in? I can’t tell you how many parents I see talking on their phones in the school pick-up line. What, miss those precious few moments of transition when our children seem to blurt out what is most important to them as they pile into the car after school?

And furthermore, it’s annoying to be on the other end of the phone when the person I’m talking to is driving or otherwise occupied. You don’t think I can tell that I don’t have your full attention? Please call me back when you can be fully present to me.

Our divided attention makes us dumber, more stressed, less efficient (we actually lose time and not the other way around), and we miss out on the important stuff. Our full presence to the task at hand, the conversation, the true connection is compromised by our inability to unplug and do just one thing. If I had chitchatted on the phone instead of talking with my kids those many years of commutes from school and back, to soccer and tennis tournaments, to and from college, I would have missed out on priceless conversations—learning their music, hearing their stories, and having opportunities to know my children in a deeper way. These are the things that can’t be rushed and demand our full attention.

Driving while talking on the phone is just one piece of the overwhelming problem of too much distraction and not enough focused engagement with what is going on around us. The problem of multi-tasking is three-fold:

  • Our performance at everything suffers (in spite of our perception to the contrary).
  • It’s stressful—our stress systems know when we’re multi-tasking and are activated as a way to support us—leading to overwhelm.
  • We miss out on the important stuff while our attention is tethered somewhere else—the interactions with our family and friends, with our own thoughts and feelings that we must switch off in favor of what we’re focused on.

The Fine Art of Doing Just One Thing

If we put our phones and tech devices away and focus on our driving, on our food selection, on our interactions with our families, with the people we meet in the course of our days, and on our own thoughts, we become more Present: life becomes simpler, easier, and fuller. By doing just one thing.


American Psychological Association. Driven to Distraction: Driving and cell phones don’t mix. 2006.

The National Safety Council. Distracted Driving Research: Learn, Share and Help End this Deadly Epidemic. 2017

The University of Utah. Drivers on Cell Phones Are as Bad as Drunks. 2006.

DL Strayer, et al. A Comparison of the Cell Phone Driver and the Drunk Driver. Hum Factors. 2006 Summer; 48(2): 381-91.

American Psychological Association. Why We Overestimate Our Competence: Social psychologists are examining people’s pattern of overlooking their own weaknesses. 2003.

Deane Alban. The Cognitive Costs of Multitasking. Be Brain Fit.

Karyn Shanks. Mindfulness articles.

Karyn Shanks MD


Karyn Shanks, MD, is a physician who lives and practices in Iowa City. Her work is inspired by the revolutionary science of Functional Medicine, body-mind wisdom, and the transformational journeys of thousands of clients over her twenty-eight year career. She believes that the bones of healing are in what we do for ourselves.

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