We do things best one at a time, but we’re often called on nowadays to multitask. Everyone blames their devices, but the reason they work so well for us is that they’re attuned to an instinct that’s already there: we’re natural multitaskers and the devices just speed things up.
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Multitasking divides your attention span and at a certain point actually fractures it, leading to a state of mind that compulsively seeks distraction.
In other words, distraction doesn’t just happen to you. You do it.
It affects your productivity and your general state of clarity and energy. To develop that energy there’s no better way than to train in mindfulness and to becoming strategically more deliberate and less reactive.
Reactivity is triggered by instincts—touching a flame makes you recoil. Learned habits work the same way.
When you see a pic of someone you love or hate, you tend to click on for more love or hate.
Hand-eye coordination with the device creates simple, automatic habits that grow into complex patterns of behavior, our attention guided expertly by marketers, publicists, and promoters of all sorts.
To slow down and regain your focus takes special effort. At first, it’s like swimming against the stream.
Everyone’s looking for a slice of your attention. It used to be that time was money. Today, attention is money.
For example, while writing this document I switch from writing app to search engine to check a fact. It’s a justified distraction.
Along the way, I’m assailed by ads and tempting leads, and my focus is broken.
Even when I find the page I need—and even if it’s an ad-free wiki page—I’m presented with more tempting facts.
I allow myself to be led from page to page in search of…well, by now it doesn’t matter. These ads are contrived to trap my attention at a limbic level—as close to an instinctual response as possible.
By the time I’m back in my writing app I’m in edit/recap mode. I’ve wasted time, lost inspiration and have to rebuild my momentum.
As a long-time meditator, I’m reminded of the challenge of concentration exercises. The idea is to simply hold your attention to one thing.
It’s not that the distractions are wrong—often they’re important, like tracking your schedule—it’s that they take your focus away from the commitment you’ve made for these few minutes: to be still and unobtrusively watch your experience.
To postpone worrying about your schedule takes mental effort.
There are two steps to become less distracted.
First, you must first see when you’re distracted. This may sound obvious but it’s tricky.
We tend to react with another distracting train of thought, explaining to ourselves why we’re distracted.
This inner dialogue ends up with an explanation when what you really need is a simple observation that you’re distracted—something completely hands-off.
Second, follow it up. Make a mental note, “being distracted,” and go straight back to the job at hand.
This is the first deliberate step of a new artificial habit. Repeat it and it takes root.
This is a different type of habit, however. Unlike reactivity, it’s never triggered unconsciously. Habits that promote clarity and energy are always deliberate.
This is how mindfulness can be joined to energy, direction, and strategy. By realigning your attention and your intention you discover and become the sort of person you really want to be.