One Thing at a Time

In this age of distractions, attempting to focus on one thing at a time can be surprisingly difficult.  A recent article in the New York Times cited a couple of studies demonstrating the pitfalls of so-called multi-tasking.  Are you listening to music while you read this?  Or maybe someone is talking to you.  Or you might be in a crowded or noisy environment where a loud noise could take your mind away from your reading. This may seem like a minor thing, but according to these studies multi-tasking can “double the number of errors made in assigned tasks”.  In fact, it turns out, by trying to do more within the same period of time, you actually accomplish less.

Interestingly, I was able to actually prove this to myself while I was reading the article.  Any of you who read online news have probably already noticed that advertising peppers the page you are reading from.  Advertisers actually count on your inability to resist distraction. About half-way through the article a little video appeared at the side of the page. Despite my best efforts to focus on the article, the lure of the video was unavoidable.  Without even realizing it, I found myself glancing over to the movement.  The sound was turned off so I don’t even know what the video was about but as soon as I realized that I had been sucked into the distraction vortex I had to laugh. I couldn’t help but wonder if the author of the article was aware of the irony.  Stanford professor Clifford Nash, who was part of a research team that published an article on this subject for Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, calls this being a “sucker for irrelevancy”.  Isn’t that the truth!

The problems with multi-tasking don’t stop there.  People who multi-task may think they are maximizing accomplishments, but according to a study conducted at the University of California, Irvine, multi-taskers are actually less productive.  In fact, distractions make the original task take about 50% longer “compared to focusing on one task through to completion before starting the next one”.  Furthermore, it turns out that multi-tasking actually depletes your neural resources contributing to the mental exhaustion you might feel at the end of each day. As the Times article points out the “term ‘brain dead’ suddenly takes on a whole new meaning.”

There are other factors that contribute to being easily distracted or having difficulty focusing on one thing at a time.  These include stress and lack of adequate sleep.  But the constant noise of our 24/7 world makes avoiding distractions especially difficult.  Try and picture the last time you were in a noise-free, media-free environment for any length of time.  Many of us have become so accustomed to constant noise that we have actually developed what could be considered an addiction. Admittedly, this is true for me.  Not only do I run a fan at night year-round for “white noise” to sleep by, but I also confess to being a long-time radio junkie.  Until very recently when I stopped wanting the constant bombardment of news, I used to have the radio playing as “background noise” all day long.  Some people use TV for the same purpose.  My husband and I have lived without commercial TV for the past 10 years so I have managed to eliminate that noise from my daily life.  But as many of you know I am now a podcast addict so I guess I’ve just substituted one form of distraction for another.

This is where yoga and Pilates come to the rescue helping me to learn how to focus my attention on one task at a time.  The Times article refers to “monotasking” as a “21st-century term for what your high school English teacher probably just called ‘paying attention.'” Those of you who follow this blog will probably recognize learning to pay attention as a benefit of mind-body movement modalities.  As I’ve noted in earlier blog posts getting injured is often a direct result of not paying attention.  According to psychologist and Stanford lecturer Kelly McGonigal, author of The Willpower Instinct , monotasking is “something that needs to be practiced”.  There’s another term mentioned frequently on this blog: practice.  Think about it.  Given the obstacles, it’s not surprising that learning to focus on one thing at a time requires practice.  But the benefits are worth the effort.  It turns out that monotasking “can also make work itself more enjoyable.”

Still it’s not easy to concentrate one’s focus.  As a typical “Type A” personality I can definitely attest to that.  However, I know how much yoga and Pilates have helped me learn how to practice.  And every day presents new opportunities for practice.  For example, throughout the day I will often find myself starting one task and suddenly remembering something else that draws me in another direction.  When this happens I have learned to remind myself to finish the first thing first.  I may even have to say it out loud to myself:  “Finish this first!” If I need to I can make a physical note (that is, write it down) of the “something else” so I won’t forget to do it when I’m done with the first thing.  This is just one example of how I have learned to practice.

Years ago, I remember taking a time management course. The instructor talked about the things that need immediate attention vs. the things that have the appearance of needing immediate attention.  The latter are usually distractions.  When you’re in a yoga or Pilates class and putting all of your attention into connecting your mind with your body you will probably find that there is no room in your head for anything else. But still your mind may try to pull you in another direction.  This is the siren call of something having the appearance of needing your immediate attention.  When this happens, remind yourself that the other thing will still be there when you are finished with the task at hand. This is your chance to practice.  The more you practice the better you will get at remembering to put the practice into action.  Then you just might find that whatever you’re engaged in actually gets done more efficiently and may even be more enjoyable.

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