This is the age of multi-tasking, the era of social media. Between smartphones, tablets, and laptops, everyone is constantly connected. There are so many channels open. Both at home and at work we are busy juggling our responsibilities and our to-do lists inside our heads.
The brain is a funny thing. Like a muscle, it gets used to whatever work it is given. If we have to juggle constantly, and are constantly looking for feedback from our phones, our emails, etc., our brain will come to expect that. This is an adaptation that has been paramount to our survival. Our brains get better at the work they must accomplish. Most of the time this is a good thing.
The problem comes when you’re sitting across the table from your partner, the person you love, and instead of giving them your full and undivided attention, you are busy going through the lists in your head and wondering what you forgot to do at work, or if that friend responded to your message, or how you forgot to renew your car registration. Our minds have so many things to balance, and we spend so much of our day in that precarious multi-tasking juggling act that it actually becomes difficult to silence the noise. The “default setting” is hyperactive, constant interruption, popcorn mentality.
But why is that such a big deal?
Contrary to popular belief, love is not compatibility, or having things in common with the other person. Love is not that spark or excitement when you first meet someone you find attractive. Love is actually spelled T-I-M-E and is defined by your attention. Time and attention are the foundations not only of romantic relationships, but all relationships. We show others that we value them by spending time with them and giving our full attention during that time. This is why picking up your phone at dinner is rude. But distractions don’t just come from outside. Nine times out of ten the real attention drains are inside our own heads.
If the natural tendency is toward constant distraction, then it takes concentration and energy input to focus entirely on one person, their words, and on understanding what they are trying to communicate. It’s easy to think that once you’ve left work for the day that you no longer have to actively engage. After all, this is your time to relax, right? Wrong. Be careful of letting your attention wander when you should be fully present. It is a small thing at first, but it eats away at your relationship over time.
Lately, I have been guilty of letting my mind wander. I am distracted by the never-ending stream of thoughts inside my own head, and that makes less available to those that matter the most to me.
Fortunately, the solution is easy: practice. Shut off the phone, the computer, the TV. Make it a priority to spend part of every day without the triggers of distraction. During that time, find someplace quiet. If you must, read a book, but also try meditation or even just thoughtful reflection. When you’re with someone, spending time, make an effort to limit distractions. The more you practice, the easier it will become.
So even though it's not the New Year yet, I'm making a resolution and starting it now. I'm going to spend more time completely focused on the one task I have chosen. If that's having dinner with my partner, then that's where I'll be 100%. If it's working, then I'll commit to just work. If it's simply being peaceful and relaxing, then I won't try to find ways to distract myself. I'll resist the urge to turn on background noise and I will get used to the calm that comes with following just one, single train of thought.
Every time I embrace focus over distraction and quiet over noise, I will remember that I am not just making the right decision for today, but I am also training my brain to do a better job at it next time. I hope that soon I will look back and realize that a large portion of my daily stress was self-imposed by giving in to the multi-tasking itch. I hope that in a month or two I will feel more relaxed when I have time to relax and more focused when I need to accomplish my most mentally and physically demanding tasks. I will be more available mentally and emotionally for my friends and family. I will be a better listener because I will really listen and be entirely focused on understanding.
Most importantly, I won't feel guilty for feeling like I'm doing less. I think we've all been told by society that we should be BUSY. We should be efficient and productive and maximize our time. Multi-tasking, even if it's just the mental kind, makes us feel busy. There is something almost gratifying about feeling like I couldn't possibly squeeze one more ounce of productivity out of the day. But that feeling of productivity doesn't actually mean I've been my most productive. Generally, the opposite is true. Most of the time multi-tasking is just cleverly disguised task-switching, and most of us don't acknowledge how much time is lost every time we switch tasks or a move to a different train of thought. So although we may FEEL more productive, more efficient, and definitely more busy, we are actually draining time, energy, and focus. By ignoring the societal expectation of staying busy, I will actually get more done and feel like I'm doing less.
I'm taking back my sanity and I think I'll become a better person in the process! The people in my life deserve my full and undivided attention. With less mental background noise, I know I'll see a difference in my stress and my attention. I'm already starting to see it. I know it takes a little more energy to focus, to shut up the dozens of voices in my head telling me "don't forget this" and "remember that", but it'll get easier with time. Our brains are great at adapting to the work they're given. I've just got to change the work that I give my brain.