It is not surprising that modern day life is often referred to as the "culture of distraction." We are bombarded with information 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And yet, most of us cannot get enough. We channel surf, search the Web, talk and text, drive and text, drive and talk, drive and talk and text. It is no wonder we are driven to distraction.
The term "multi-tasking" originated in the computer engineering industry, and refers to the simultaneous execution of more than one program or task by a single computer processor. What we engage in is human multi-tasking -- the performance by an individual of appearing to handle more than one task at the same time. The operative word being "appearing."
When you stop and think about it, the human brain is really quite amazing. According to a study conducted at the University of California, San Diego, the average American consumes 34 gigabytes worth of information a day, that's about 100,000 words. Now, clearly we don't parse a full 100,000 words each day, but that rather staggering figure does infiltrate our eyes and ears and minds via the Internet, television, radio, iPods, text messaging, cell phones, video games, Wii and oh so much more.
In our efforts to skim through volumes of information, we truly miss out on quite a bit by paying only partial attention. Not only are we less focused, we are not present-moment oriented. "People can't multitask very well, and when people say they can, they're deluding themselves," said neuroscientist Earl Miller in an interview on National Public Radio. "The brain is very good at deluding itself."
Miller, a Picower professor of neuroscience at MIT, stated, "For the most part, we simply can't focus on more than one thing at a time. What we can do is shift our focus from one thing to the next with astonishing speed. Switching from task to task, you think you're actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time. But you're actually not."
Mindfulness involves bringing presence and attention to the task at hand. Multi-tasking involves dividing our attention among several tasks at the same time. When we focus on a task, switch our attention away and then return to the original task, it takes several minutes to refocus our attention to the level we were at initially. And when we do this repeatedly, we limit our productivity, sabotage our creativity and compromise the quality of what we do.
How often do you do more than one thing at once? Take the test to find out.
Rating: Always, Frequently, Sometimes, Never
1. _____ I keep the television on in the background when I am not actively watching it.
2. _____ I have my cell phone on at all times.
3. _____ When I'm on the telephone, I often surf the Internet.
4. _____ When I'm watching television, I channel surf during commercials.
5. _____ When I'm out to lunch or dinner with others, I take non-emergency phone calls.
6. _____ I do a crossword puzzle, Sudoku or other activity while watching television or listening to music.
7. _____ I have to have the television on at night in order to fall asleep.
8. _____ I read the newspaper or other material while at stoplights or when sitting in traffic.
9. _____ I text message when I'm in the company of others.
10. _____ When I'm on the Internet, I frequently have three or more browser windows open.
So, how distracted are you? If you answered "always" or "frequently" to many of these questions, you may want to pull yourself out of the quagmire before you sink.
What can you do? First, identify which of the above you will commit to changing in order to be more present-moment oriented. What steps will you take to make those changes? Here are a few suggestions: Limit checking your e-mail to three, 10-minute sessions each day; turn off Facebook, Twitter and other personal social media sites when at work; keep your cell phone, Blackberry, Droid, iPad, iPhone and so on away from the breakfast, lunch and dinner table. And if you find that doing any of these suggestions makes you feel anxious, then really stop and think about that.
Rita Schiano is an adjunct professor at Bay Path College, where she teaches philosophy and stress management courses. She is the founder of Live A Flourishing Life™, which melds her three professions: philosophy instructor, stress management instructor and resilience coach, and freelance writer. Her book, "Live a Flourishing Life," is used for the college program and in private training programs.
Rita also conducts stress management and resilience-building workshops funded by the Massachusetts Dept. of Industrial Accidents. She is actively involved with Maine Resilience, a program coordinated with the effort, materials and information offered by the American Psychological Association and the Maine Psychological Association through their Public Education Programs. Rita is an Associate Member of the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA). Visit her online at her personal website and atRed Room, where you can read her blog.