Concentrated Attention and Multi-tasking
by George Pitagorsky
Concentrated attention is a critical resource.
Multi-tasking is performing multiple things at the same time. We really can't do more than one thing at a time, but, we can interweave activities so that it seems as if we are multi-tasking.
Multi-tasking allows you to maximize the use of your time so that you are productive during gaps in any one task. For example, you are in the middle of a painting project and you have to wait for one coat to dry before applying the next. You could sit around and watch the paint dry or you could go and do something else while you are waiting. Or, maybe you are on the elevator and you are texting while riding to your floor. Another kind of multitasking is doing one thing while allowing interruptions as events occur. For example, you are writing a letter or are in conversation or at a meeting and an email or text comes in that you attend to.
How Many Things Can You Do at One time?
There is a limit to the ability to pay attention to several things at the same time, particularly, when all are complex and important activities deserving of full attention for an extended period of time. While multi-tasking can be wonderful, if it is not managed well it degrades your ability to do what you want to do; to perform. Performing takes many forms. It includes working at a job, acting, singing, painting, engaging in healthy relationships and relaxing.
How many things can you skillfully attend to at any one time? The answer depends on skill, your interpretation of "skillful", the nature of the people and activities involved, among other factors. Mostly, it depends on how quickly you can mentally shift gears. Dropping one thing and focusing on the next, then dropping it and going back to the original, or to yet another.
Even relaxing requires the ability to mindfully attend to what you are doing, saying and thinking. For example, you are relaxing in a favorite chair, reading a book, maybe having a cup of tea or glass of wine and some thought about a problem you have at work or in a relationship comes up. If you let it blossom into a full blown thought train, how relaxing is that. The more complex your activity, say, being involved in an intense conversation with three or four people, the more challenging the multi-tasking.
The power of meditation enables you to see a thought before your mind gets lost in following and embellishing it. Recognizing the thought permits you to let it go so you are not distracted by it.
Meditation has three components, effort, mindfulness and concentration.
Effort is required to make a break from a habitual tendency to mindlessly follow the next "interesting" thought that comes up. Dropping a thought to stay on a chosen object with full attention requires a degree of resolve and skill that is not all that common. Too much effort can lead to stress, too little can lead to lethargy and sloppiness.
Mindfulness is being consciously aware of what is happening in and around you. Everyone is mindful to a degree. However, large numbers of people are unaware of the constant underlying flow of thoughts that occur from moment to moment. As a result, they are often caught up in trains of thought without consciously choosing to be on them.
What does it mean to be caught up in a train of thought? Thoughts arise. When a thought arises, if it is seen objectively as a thought arising and, if it is not given undue further attention, it will dissolve and be no more. Like a wave appearing from the ocean and then merging back into it. But, if the thought is "sticky" it attracts attention because it is pleasant or unpleasant, then the mind will focus on it and join it with many other thoughts forming a thought train. A thought train is a collection of related thoughts. The train takes you on a mind trip.
Mindfulness enables you to choose the train to get on. Or, to choose not to get on any train, and be present observing thoughts as they come and go.
Concentration is remaining one pointed on a chosen object. To concentrate there is a need for mindfulness to see when the mind is leaving the chosen object and going off on a trip and there is a need for the effort to bring the mind back when it does go off.
Concentration leads to a sense of calm and a focus that enables highly effective action. Think about times you have been completely focused on a task. How did it feel? Was there a sense of peace, a deep calm, a change in the perception of time, a sense of being aware without identifying with anything in particular? Those are some of the effects of concentration.
The Ability to Choose
Meditation, the combination of mindfulness and concentration, helps to manage multitasking by enabling the choice of when to switch from thought to thought, task to task and when to attend to one thought or task exclusively.
Cultivating that ability to choose is a step towards becoming increasingly effective. The next step is actually making the choice. That requires valuing one pointedness and not reactively grasping on to thoughts that are pleasant and pushing away those that are not. It means making a concerted effort not to read and respond to the next text or be interrupted by the next phone call.
We are bombarded by interruptions, some self generated and others from the outside. We are blessed with devices that keep us constantly plugged in. Thoughts, calls, advertisements, texts, emails and IMs are all arising and vying for attention. It is easy to just let it all flow and allow yourself to be driven by one thing and then another. It takes effort to make choices that go against the habitual flow. Effort requires motivation. What is your motivation? Are you willing to make the effort to take control of your mind and your life?
� 2013 Pitagorsky Consulting