Distracted Multitasker or Mindful Zen Master
An indisputable fact about modern life is how busy everyone seems to be. There are always more incoming emails, more meetings, more things to read, more ideas to follow up on. Digital mobile technology means you can easily crank through a few more to-do list items at home, or on holiday, or at the gym. In addition, social media often seems to center-stage; we are under a relentless and continuous assault from Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, text messages, videos, advertising, news, etc. It’s impossible to manage this without a superpower, but what is your superpower?
Multitasking seems to be the order of the day, but as a result, our attention span lasts only for a few seconds before boredom sets in and we feel the urge to move on to the next great thing seeking our attention.
The ironic consequence of being busy is that we are actually less efficient, get less done, make poorer decisions, prioritize trivial tasks over important ones and end feel overwhelmed. We’re human beings with finite energy and abilities but under seemingly infinite bombardment from work and from social media which intrudes into our family and leisure time.
Is mindfulness a solution?
(I was inspired to write this watching my daughter doing her homework, complaining she was bored, and seeing her check her social messages not less than once every minute. No sooner had I pointed this out she noted I was guilty of the same; ‘Medice, cura te ipsum,’ Physician, heal thy self.’)
What is Multitasking?
Multitasking was originally used as a computing term to describe concurrent execution of tasks in a computer’s Central Processing Unit (CPU) and main memory. Multitasking allowed a user to perform more than one computer task at a time but doesn’t necessarily mean that tasks are carried out in parallel. The operating system is able to multitask by keeping track of where you are in these tasks and switching from one to the other without losing information.
Multitasking as a term wasn’t applied to people until the 1990s. Human multitasking is also the ability to perform more than one task at the same time, for example taking a phone call while driving a car. The normal way that humans multitask, however, is more similar to the way that computers used to, by switching tasks rather than carrying them out at the same time.
There has been a lot written about multitasking in recent years and a lot of concepts mixed up so for this article I have tried to clarify my definitions below, and ask if it is our true nature to multitask?
Our brains have limited capacity and struggle to really multitask unless one or more of those tasks are ‘second nature,’ i.e. that it is so well learned that no thought is necessary to perform it. Examples would include walking and chewing on chewing gum, driving a car, and listening to an audiobook.
When most of us say that we are multitasking, it may appear that we are multitasking, but in reality – like computer multitasking – we are actually just switching from one task to another in rapid succession. As much as you might like to think that you write an email and talk on the phone at the same time, however, in reality, you can’t and are actually taking more time and being less efficient than if you did both tasks separately.
Some of the things we do, our guilty pleasures – that are really easy to slip into when we are bored, are not tasks, but mindless timewasting. Posting a story to your personal Instagram account, OK – that’s arguably a task, but checking your feed 30 or 40 times an hour, playing games, posting a bunch of likes on Facebook – well that’s more likely to be mindless time-wasting – no multitasking points there.
Myths of Multitasking
Multitasking is a widespread modern phenomenon, however, there is considerable evidence for its negative impact on personal health, productivity, effectiveness, and even to reduced levels of compassion. Multiple studies have confirmed that multitasking is a myth and anyone who believes that multitasking increases their productivity and efficiency is mistaken. Data shows clearly that multitaskers are doing less, getting more stressed out, and performing worse than those who perform single tasks at a time.
So is there an alternative?
Concentration & Mindfulness
Martin Luther, 15th-century professor of theology, composer, priest, and monk, and first translator of the Bible into the vernacular (and not to be confused with Martin Luther King) famously said: “I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.”
This sounds counter-intuitive, but like many other counter-intuitive practices, e.g. ‘slow and steady wins the race,’ has a strong basis in truth. The ability to focus on a subject, to concentrate deeply, to understand its nuances and interweaving complexities and its simplicities allows our minds to maximize the absorption of information.
When we concentrate, we are bringing to bear upon an activity the full focus of our minds, and this is essential if we are to learn anything. It is also very calming to concentrate, to block out all outside noises and distractions.
The advantage of concentration is that it brings us into an intimacy with what we are doing, and in that intimacy, there is learning and pleasure. It is one of the ways the mind is intended to work, and this type of concentration is called mindfulness.
What is Your Superpower – Mindfulness?
Rather than just concentration, mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us. If life is feeling too busy and hectic, if you aren’t connected to or interested by what you are doing, it may be the time to slow down and practice mindfulness.
There are many definitions of mindfulness that provide further insight into what mindfulness is, my personal favorites is:
“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment and in a non-judgmental way”
In addition to concentration, mindfulness also incorporates aspects of non-judgment, compassion, spirituality, curiosity, acceptance, and kindness. Non-Judgment is a large part of Buddhist philosophy. There is no good and evil in Buddhism. Human problems are talked about in terms of ignorance and wisdom – the cause of the sufferings in the world is ignorance and the solution is the development of wisdom.
The History of Mindfulness
Mindfulness practices are often taught secularly, but their roots stretch back to the early teachings of the Buddha and other eastern religions.
“The secret of health for mind and body is not to mourn for
the past or worry about the future, but to live in the
present moment wisely and earnestly.”
Mindfulness was made mainstream in the east via religious and spiritual institutions such as Buddhism and Hinduism, while in the west, its popularity can be traced to particular individuals such as Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn whose system is based on a type of Buddhist meditation called Vipassana.
Buddhist monks believe that the reason a lot of people are anxious, stressed, or in pain is that they are stuck on something that happened in the past or worried about something in the future. Buddhist monks learn how to practice mindfulness to help free themselves from anxiety, stress, and suffering. Buddhists believe that your focus and attention should be on the present as the present is the only time we can learn, do, or feel anything. The present is the only time where we can heal and grow.
How Mindfulness Relates to Meditation?
Mindfulness is the awareness of ‘some-thing,’ whereas meditation is the awareness of ‘no-thing.’ Both meditation and mindfulness help quieten the mind but the main difference between the two is that the goal of mindfulness is to have one’s thoughts be on the present moment, whereas for (transcendental) meditation, the goal is to transcend thought itself and experience a state of ‘pure awareness.’
Meditation is also a practice that trains the mind not to stop thinking but to surpass our own thought process. Through meditation, one’s thoughts should flow like a river. If you have time to meditate, do it; if you don’t have time to meditate, meditate for 5 minutes. Acknowledge your thoughts, know what they are, but do not engage in them. Let the thoughts be, do not attach ‘good or bad’ labels to them.
How to Practice Mindfulness
So, what is your superpower? There is a raft of scientific evidence to confirm that concentrating on what we are doing, or mindfulness is the superpower we should be aiming for. Mindfulness has a lot of benefits and can replace multitasking, if not all of the time, then at least some of it.
- Mindfulness can help us get more done, can relieve the stress of feeling busy;
- Mindfulness can help bring us into an intimacy with what we are doing, and in that intimacy, there is learning and pleasure;
- Mindfulness can help cope with depression, stress, boost your psychological well-being, manage physical pain and improve your memory;
- Mindfulness helps us switch to a more positive mindset which in turn helps us feel happier;
- Psychological evidence suggests that mindfulness can foster greater relationship satisfaction by increasing our ability to deal with stress when conflicts arise;
- Mindfulness can help us become more emotionally aware and appreciative of the little things.
- Mindfulness helps improve the way we communicate and relate to those around us. It also helps get us off the auto-pilot mode where a lot of us operate days after days, weeks after weeks, months after months, and years after years;
- Mindfulness can help us regulate and express our emotions in a way that is more thoughtful, non-judgmental, and more compassionately with ourselves;
- Practicing mindfulness helps build our resilience.
Being mindful can have a lot of benefits, not just to you but also to the people around you. One last benefit is expressed in this simple quotation from French Philosopher Simone Veil (3 February 1909 – 24 August 1943):
Your mission, should you accept it, is to practice sharing the fullness of your being, your best self, your enthusiasm, vitality, spirit, and above all your presence with your friends, family, with people around you. That is the greatest gift of all.
And this my dear friend is your Quest!