Multitasking and Distraction

“In a time where no one seems to have enough time, our devices allow us to be many places at once — but at the cost of being unable to fully inhabit the place where we actually want to be. Mindfulness says we can do better.” — Time Magazine cover article on mindfulness, February 3, 2014.

Many of us use electronic devices like smartphones, tablets, and others that seem to define modern life. We can send a message to our friends about getting together during a 30-second elevator ride. Sounds great, right?  But is there a cost to our constant multitasking? Are children who use such devices more prone to attention deficit problems? Has our collective attention span been shortened by the ever-increasing use of these devices — and if so, is that really a problem?

Our minds naturally have a tendency to gravitate toward distraction and away from being present.  Working on a laptop using multiple windows, using a browser with multiple pages open, or using smartphones while on a bus, in an elevator, or even walking down the street can feed this unhealthy tendency. This is a bit of a problem because it interferes with our important natural ability to be present and relaxed. Multitasking has even been described as a bit of an addiction. The more multitasking we do, the more of it we want to do, and the less comfortable we are simply being somewhere without doing anything. Getting caught in a spiral-like that can end up causing sleep and anxiety difficulties, erode our ability to be patient, and increase irritability.

Our ability to attend to something can be strengthened or weakened, like a muscle. Mindfulness and meditation practice help strengthen this muscle. Multitasking weakens it.  Shorter attention spans make us worse listeners and detract from our ability to be “in the moment” when we really want to. For example, turn on any baseball or basketball game and notice the people with front row seats busy on their smartphones during the game they’ve paid so much to attend. Giving in to the temptation to multitask can make it harder to take in the important and meaningful situations that make up our lives.