Did you know that traffic fatalities rise dramatically on tax day? A study released this week shows there is a 6% increase in traffic fatalaties on April 15, tax day: http://www.theblaze.com/stories/tax-day-deaths-why-do-car-crashes-jump-up-on-filing-day/ 6%! That’s the same increase over the daily average as occurs on what previously was thought to be the most dangerous driving day of the year, Super Bowl Sunday, where excess drinking and too much sports aggression seem to be the cause. Apparently on tax day we’re so stressed from the complicated forms and having to hand over our hard-earned cash that we don’t pay attention to our driving. Accidents, terrible catastrophic ones, happen. A 6% increase is about the same as on the worst driving day of the year, Super Bowl Sunday (we can chalk that increase up to excess drinking). Death and taxes–that unavoidable combination again!
But what is avoidable is increased deaths because of taxes. That is the whole point of Now You See It and the discussion of attention blindness. We don’t know what we don’t see–we don’t even know that gorilla exists. Right now, all our culture’s attention is focused on how we’re distracted because of technology–cell phones, email, the Internet, and so forth. But that’s a smokescreen. Sure, those things can be distracting but what really taxes our brain is, well, stuff like taxes.
And that means that, when we have something stressful we’re doing (like taxes) we can be aware that it will literally blot out other things, we won’t see danger when we need to. So the stress of taxes is compounded by the stress of forgetting to pick up the dry cleaning or backing into a post or, given that 6% rate, even far worse things. Why it is great to have scientists warn us about our worries is that makes us pay attention in a new way and we can build in ways to protect ourselves from the consequences. That’s also true of technology. If something is driving you to distraction, be glad! That means you are aware of it. You are seeing the gorilla. And that means you can pay attention differently to that gorilla. It’s no longer invisible. You’re no longer vulnerable. You can find the right tools, partners, and methods to address it in practical, helpful ways. Until you “see it,” you are vulnerable. Once you realize that distraction is your friend, that it makes you aware of a problem, and that, once aware, you can address the problem, you can sail (or drive) more safely through the road.
I first figured all this out four or five years ago when I was researching Now You See It. I grew weary of sterile, lab-based studies of attention that made grand pronouncements about how we live in the world based on results of some “subject” looking at a neon-colored bubble on a computer screen and being interrupted by some other neon-colored geometric shape (an arrow, a smiley face, a stick-figure of a scantily clad gal, etc). Those timed test conditions never quite felt enough like real life to convince me that “multitasking is bad for us.” Of course, the more distracted you are the less likely you are to be able to focus. But is texting really the most multi-tasking thing we do in our lives? We live in the real world where lots is coming at us at once all the time. A doodle distracts me but so does the overdue light bill, a sketchy result on a lab test, my kid being kicked out of school, losing my job, looking for a new apartment . . .
That’s why I left the lab and the “studies,” and began chatting up insurance adjusters. I figured they would have a better sense of what really causes accidents. What they told me over and over was what they learned from people’s stories about their accidents. Someone filling out a claim wouldn’t just rant about the guy behind them not stopping in time, but they would preface it with some story like, “I was already having a lousy day, a fight with my husband had me so upset and then the jerk behind me forgets to put on his brakes . . . ” As more than one kindly insurance adjuster noticed, on another day, Mary might have looked in her mirror, seen the car behind her coming too fast, and stepped on the gas at the right moment to avoid a crash–and probably wouldn’t have even been aware that she did it. We don’t see our habits when they are working for us. We just do them. Automatically. That’s what a “habit” is. But what is automatic when you are paying attention is either an annoying “distraction” or it can become an outright accident.
I prefer the distraction. And my advice on that score is, when you are feeling distracted, think of it as your subconscious telling you that the conditions for a smooth-sailing day aren’t right. Relax. Breathe in. And take some time to think about what is distracting you, why, and how it can get you in trouble if you don’t either solve the problem or build your own distraction into everything else that day. If it is too much media that’s making you jumpy, then go for a walk after work–without any devices! If it is taxes or a fight with your husband, you can’t avoid stress from those but, please, be aware your brain is multitasking and look both ways and then look again, before you pull onto the highway.
Death and taxes may not be avoidable. But the whole point of Now You See It is to help us find the best way to be aware of what we’re not seeing about the stressors in our life in order to minimize their impact. That’s why you have to drive more carefully on tax day. It won’t make filing taxes any easier. But it just might save your life.