Almost daily, I catch myself reaching for a magazine when I sit down to eat lunch, or I veer into a mental rehearsal of my to-do list while I walk the dog. Eating a meal and walking the dog are potential sources of immense beauty, learning, sensation, and pleasure. Sadly, when I’m distracted from these primary activities, I miss out on all they have to offer. Some people call this multitasking. I call it divided or fragmented attention.
Attention is such a simple concept. We don’t even have to think about it, we just… attend. But the pace of our culture pushes us to fracture our attention in order to process an avalanche of internal and environmental stimuli. It’s impossible to keep up with the endless streams of thought, activity, and media that overwhelm our senses.
Beyond the obvious price to relationships, the core problem with these distractions is that they take us further away from concrete, sensual experience. They steal our attention from the immediate environment and thrust us into some once- or twice-removed state of disconnection.
So how can we keep up with this flurry of data? I suggest that we shouldn’t try. Simplifying is one lifestyle change that helps us handle the tendency to overdo. But in the meantime, we can practice paying attention. When we allow our attention to rest fully on one thing at a time, we are available to appreciate the fullness of the thoughts, actions, and information we navigate each day.
We always attend to something (or somethings), but often this attention is automatic rather than deliberate. For many of us, a swirl of empty entertainments or internal worries and plans take precedence over the raw information available to our senses in real time. Now, I don’t condemn to-do lists, TV, or a little light reading! All I’m saying is that we can’t fully experience those things if we’re doing something else at the same time. Multitasking amounts to mindlessness.
“What did you say your name was again?”
Far too often, I ask this of someone I met only moments before. It’s embarrassing to admit that I was so wrapped up in my own desire to make a good impression that I didn’t attend to crucial data-- like their name. What happens here is that my attention becomes fragmented. I am trying both to absorb information about this new person before me and to appraise/predict/act to make a good impression.
Even this mild form of mental multitasking asks too much of my feeble mind and senses. The result? My attention suffers, my priorities are skewed, and I fail to direct my attention on what is most important to me: learning about and from this lovely new friend.
A mess of multitasking
On the surface, multitaskers appear so productive and accomplished. And a select few of us are efficient, productive multitaskers. But I argue that for most people it’s the old tradeoff between quality and quantity. When tasks are done one at a time, they’re done better. There’s more satisfaction to be found in well-crafted, individual accomplishments than in a tangled mess of mediocre stuff crossed that we checked off a checklist.
I admit that on occasion multitasking might boost productivity, but at what cost to enjoyability? Personally, my priority is to slow down and appreciate my experiences, not to relentlessly churn out product. Sure, we all have to get things done. But we can take pleasure even in the most menial or tedious tasks if we attend to them fully. Ever hear of the concept of “flow”? That’s the intense connection we can feel to what we’re doing when we fully attend to it. Just as important, we can appreciate both the process and product of each task more if they aren’t overlapping and intertwined. Full attention—even to job duties or housework—allows us to enter a state of mindfulness and appreciation of each and every moment.
Take just ten minutes to experiment with your attention. Right now or as soon as you can, turn off any background noise and work on a single task. If a more important distraction presents itself (such as a phone call or a crying child), simply direct your attention fully to that undertaking instead. Alternatively, take a break from action and passively listen to a song or watch a TV show with your full attention. The point is to try a one-thing-at-a-time approach and see if you experience any difference in quality or enjoyment.
After you give it a try, share your thoughts and advice on the multitasking vs. simplicity debate in the forum.
My favorite online resources about simplicity are listed in the Related Links below. My favorite book about simplicity is The Simple Living Guide by Janet Luhrs. She also maintains a website. And if you want to read up on the fascinating concept of “flow,” check out Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Read excerpts or buy these books new and used on Amazon.com.