Focus and the Challenge of Multi-Tasking

I find myself driving along a familiar street. While my speed is within the posted limit, I pull behind a car that’s moving noticeably slower. The driver appears to have difficulty staying in the lane. At first, I’m annoyed. But then the car comes close to side-swiping a parked car and jerks to the right crossing the center line and just as abruptly corrects its course. The car speeds up momentarily but within a short while is moving along slowly once again. There was a time in my life when I would have assumed that the driver of the car ahead of me was under the influence of some substance. Instead, as I looked into the car ahead of me, I could see that the driver was talking away on a cell phone.

I’m not going to suggest that I’ve never used my cell phone while driving a car. I suspect almost all drivers have done so. Today, I avoid this common habit. The reason is simple: even though most people are convinced that they can do two things at once and do both of them very well, I know that’s just not the case. The human brain just doesn’t work that way.

An episode of a TV drama I sometimes watch began with the main character sitting in front of a wall of perhaps a half dozen televisions all set to different news channels. When another character walks in, the main character explains, “I’m training my brain to absorb information from multiple sources at once.” I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. Clearly, none of the writers did basic research on the brain and how it functions.

While we may value multi-tasking kinds of behavior and while many workplaces view multi-tasking as a skill they want in employees, research demonstrates that even though people believe that they do several things well at the same time, they actually don’t. When doing two or more things at the same time, the quality of each task is diminished. (For more information, here’s a quick reference:

If you want to accomplish tasks more quickly, then mental training is important. The kind of mental training that is helpful in training the mind to focus and avoid distractions is the practice of meditation.

By slowing down, being still, and focusing on one’s breath, or a single word (a mantra), or a single image (an icon or candle), a person begins to quiet the mind and fix attention on the present moment. The process of learning to “tune-out” other thoughts, background noises, and physical sensations during a time of meditation enables one to build the skills needed to learn easily and accomplish tasks more quickly.

I often hear many people say, “I don’t have time for something like meditation.” To be honest, when the work is piling up, I often feel as though I don’t have the time for my own practice of meditation. Yet, the opposite is true: by not taking time for regular meditation, we use our time less effectively because we aren’t keeping our mental focus sharp.

The practice of meditation has benefits for brain health, heart health, general psychological health, and spiritual health. Meditation positively impacts each dimension of our lives and, among other things, enables us to perform at a higher level.

Whether your interest is spiritual development, success in learning, or improved work habits, meditation can be an important way to achieve your goal.

© 2013, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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