Barry Carter is joined once again by mental game expert Jared Tendler, this time to discuss the negative impact that multitasking and distractions like email or twitter could have on a poker player's performance at the tables.

Last week, industry-leading psychology magazine Pyschology Today ran a series of features on the destructive role that distraction and multitasking is playing on our lives. They found that attention problems were not only greatly reducing our ability to perform, they also were a contributory factor to obesity, drink, and drug related problems.

We live in a culture of distraction; the vast improvements in technology make it so that we are more vulnerable to interruption than ever before. Right now the chances are that as you read this, you could be distracted by email, text messages, phone calls, twitter, Facebook, Skype, forums, advertising banners and other interesting web pages - both on your PC and your mobile phone.

The amount of information we can consume at any given moment is infinite, but human beings have not developed the capacity to cope with this.

The online poker player is particularly vulnerable to this level of distraction; not only do they spend most of their time at a PC, they also set their own hours and are not being monitored by a boss, not to mention already loading their capacity to maximum by playing a high number of tables.


Online players deal with lots of information
Best-selling author and productivity guru Tim Ferris posted a blog on the impact of multitasking in this way, citing a 2005 study by King's College London, which revealed that people distracted by email performed worse on IQ tests than people who were stoned on marijuana.

That is a pretty alarming claim, so I spoke to mental game expert JaredTendler, who has helped hundreds of poker players improve their focus:

"I am not at all surprised that multitasking is more damaging to performance than smoking weed. You have a limited amount of mental capacity at any one time, and when you are heavily distracted, you reduce the amount of mental thought available to make complex decisions with clarity."

"What you are left with is whatever skillset you have learned to the level of your unconscious, in other words, your C game. Basically, you're guaranteeing you will make subpar decisions in critical spots and cannot possibly expect to play in the zone if you are also checking emails, tweeting, and surfing the web."

It is not just online players who are susceptible to distractions; it is just as big a problem live too. Most of us have a phone where we can check websites, email, and social media; most of us do just that at the poker table. Some people use iPads at the tables, some even use laptops and I have often seen people reading books or watching movies while they are also playing poker. I have even seen people playing online poker at the same time they are playing live poker and with the growing mobile poker app market on a high at the moment, this is only going to become all the more common.

So what is it exactly about multitasking that makes it such a hindrance to making good poker decisions?

"The part of your brain that deals with short term decisions is called working memory. When you have thoughts in your head, that's the part of the brain I'm talking about. The average person can only juggle about seven pieces of information at any one time. Now, if you are an experienced poker player, a lot of decisions such as snap calling an all-in with aces can become instinctive, and don't require any thought."

"But when you are making a complex decision - say for example one that includes meta-game, table image, pot odds, previous action etc - then you need all your working memory to be working for you. Distractions literally take up mental space that prevents you from properly thinking through the hand."

Tweeting to distraction?

Tweeting during a tournament
We have run a series of features of articles recently on the role of twitter in poker, so what does Tendler think of poker players constantly tweeting while playing tournaments?

"I actually think a strong argument can be made for both sides, for and against. On the one hand, being able to vent about the action to a group of people might keep some from tilting. One of the things I suggest to a lot of players, in dealing with Tilt, is writing. Usually I mean for them to write about it afterwards, but I can see how even just writing 140 characters can be enough to take a little of the edge off and prevent tilt. Getting things out of your head is one way to release emotional pressure and twitter can help do that."

"On the other hand, it can definitely be a big distraction. If updating your followers becomes a bigger priority than focusing on the action, it's a problem. For some players, that problem is small because they’re just losing small details that may or may not be material enough to make a difference... though I can guarantee that for other players, ones who already have focus issues, twitter is just another way to destroy their attention."

I think most of us realise we are allowing these distractions into our lives, but we let it happen anyway. Why is it that we let distractions get the better of us?

"Focus is directed by goals. If you’re distracted, it means that you have multiple goals that are competing for your attention - play solid poker, what’s on Facebook, checking out the forums, and seeing how your friends are doing on their grind. You have a lot of options for what to focus on, and that places a greater premium on being able to divide your day so you can play high quality poker while not being a boring asshole and enjoy your life too."

Jared Tendler's top focus tips

Jared Tendler
"Clearly detail your goals in poker and write out why those goals are important. When you find yourself getting distracted, remind yourself of your goals, and force yourself to remain focused for a reasonable period of time, like 10, 15, or 20 minutes."

"Track the number of times you get distracted during a session or tournament over a week. This is your starting point, and you’ll improve your focus by steadily decreasing the frequency of your distraction by 10-20%. So, let’s say in a week you get distracted 100 times, you. In week 2, your goal is to reduce that to 80-90 times, week 3 reduced to 64-81 times, and so on. Eliminating distractions is not like flicking a switch. Sure, you may have a couple days, even a week where you’re able to significantly increase focus, but rarely does that kind of dramatic improvement stick long-term. In the short-term this method is slower, but it’ll last a hell of a lot longer." 

"Before you play, make a habit out of closing all unnecessary browsers, shutting the ringer off on your phone, turning skype off, telling anyone who might distract you not to bother you until you’re done, and anything else that typically distracts you."
"Decide what level of distraction doesn’t detract from you playing your best. Every player has their line where distractions cause poor play. Figure out that line for you." 

by Barry Carter