Solving the Attention Crisis Through Mindfulness
Did you know that the typical person checks their email once every 5 minutes? Furthermore, it takes 64 seconds to resume the previous task after checking their email. In other words, because of email checking alone, we typically waste one out of every six minutes (International Journal of Information Management). As humans, we have become accustomed to multitasking and essentially being in a distractible state. So often, we catch ourselves doing multiple tasks at once – eating a meal with Netflix playing in the background, while answering text messages/emails, while also listening to a conversation from a family member. And when we live in a society driven by productivity, it’s quite normal to feel accomplished after completing all these tasks at once.
Unfortunately, multitasking is actually a myth – there is no such thing as being a good multitasker. You may get the job(s) done, however, research demonstrates that multitasking or more specifically “task switching” is terrible for your performance, accuracy, and mood.
Mindfulness researcher, Dr. Amishi Jha, describes attention like a flashlight – where you point it becomes brighter, highlighted, or more salient. However, you can only have one flashlight (despite what you may think). And your one flashlight can only ever be shining at one thing at a time. In a day, when you think you’re multitasking, you’re actually just switching your attention from task to task. When you do a lot of task switching, you begin to have less integrity in any of the states your attention is in.
This in turn makes you slower, more error-prone, and emotionally worn down.
So, how can mindfulness practices help improve your attention and become less distractible? Mindfulness is paying attention in a particular way, in the present moment, on purpose, non-judgmentally (Jon Kabat Zinn). Initial mindfulness training focuses primarily on learning to sustain attention on a single object such as the breath. This helps develop skills in directing attention, vigilance, recognizing mind-wandering, and taking a step back from your thoughts and knee-jerk responses. Ultimately, mindfulness allows you to check in with your attention more often, thus giving you the freedom to choose where your mind goes next. You learn to slow down, recognize that doing more things does not drive faster or better results, and thus focus your energy on one thing that drives better results.
To help you get started, here are some doable mindfulness tips to help improve your attention:
When setting your daily to-do list, focus on one task per day that is non-negotiable. The power of choosing one priority is that it naturally guides your behavior by forcing you to organize your life around that one responsibility. Your priority then becomes an “anchor task”, which holds the rest of your day in place (James Clear, Atomic Habits).
2) Mental Push-Up
Consider scheduling quick mental “push-ups” throughout your day to give you an attention boost. A mental push-up is a focused attention practice where you focus, notice, and repeat (Amishi Jha). Begin by selecting the sensations of breathing that are most prominent for you (it could be the coolness of the air entering in and out of your nostrils, the rising & falling of the chest or abdomen, or anything that is salient). Using this sensation as the “target”, focus solely on this for the entirety of the push-up (you can decide how long it will be). Next, notice when the mind wanders away from this “target” and as soon as you notice it, redirect your attention back to this specific target.
3) Be kind to yourself
It’s so easy to beat yourself up about losing focus, not completing your to-do list, and not having a productive day. However, you are only human and you are allowed to take rest and be kind to yourself. When you are feeling overwhelmed and finding it difficult to pay attention, a simple loving-kindness phrase of “May I be well, may I be happy, may I be peaceful” can go a long way. When you begin to cultivate loving-kindness towards yourself, you will notice a shift in how you value yourself and thus, how you spend your time doing the things you value the most.
If you take a step back and take time to develop the powerful skill of mindfulness you have within yourself, you can watch what is happening in your mind and recognize where your attention is moment to moment, so that when you do get distracted, you can easily and skillfully bounce back.
“Stop measuring days by degree of productivity and start experiencing them by degree of presence.” – Alan Watts
Blog Article by Yenushka Karunaratne
Yenushka has been practicing meditation and mindfulness throughout her life and is a previous student of MBSR, MBCT, and MBSD programming at the Centre for Mindfulness Studies. Her passion is to find creative, practical, and accessible ways to integrate mindfulness into our everyday lives and ultimately advocate for the prioritization of mental health within our communities.
For more of Yenushka’s work, visit www.karunaminds.com.