I’m preparing dinner – a chicken and vegetable dish from a cook book I received as a gift. My partner is pacing in kitchen telling me all about his busy day at work. The TV is blaring in the background with the news of the day. My phone beeps – it’s an email from my supervisor about work tomorrow. I respond to the email, stir the hot pot on the stove, listen to the devastating news on the TV and console my partner all while multiple thoughts run through my head: “I’ve got so much work to do tonight”, “I need to put petrol in my car”, “I hope it’s not raining on the way to work tomorrow, the traffic will be awful”, “I wonder whether this meal is going to taste any good”, “How am I going to get my reports done on time?”. Multitasking – it’s something I do extremely well… or do I?
The definition of multitasking is the simultaneous performance of two or more tasks, switching back and forth between different tasks, or performing a number of different tasks in quick succession. We’re human, multitasking is integral to our busy lives. And let’s not get started on the: ‘who does it better: men vs women multitasking debate’.
I myself, am the queen of multitasking. At present, I am in the final year of my Master of Educational and Development Psychology. This involves an equivalent of 60 hours of study-related activities per week which is broken down into placement, thesis and a case study. I spend two days per week at Monash Medical Centre in the Paediatric Developmental Clinic for my placement, I’m writing a thesis on the association between psychopathy, narcissism, Machiavellianism and ways of thinking as well as a comprehensive case study on a young child with Autism Spectrum Disorder. On top of this, I’m an academic teacher at Latrobe University for first year psychology and I have my own tutoring business. Just thinking about how much I have to juggle hurts my head. Surely all of this multitasking cannot be good for me. In fact, it is not good – recent neuropsychological research has found multitasking to be counterproductive. It places excessive demands on the control centre of our brain and thus it not only hinders the ability to complete all tasks efficiently, but it also impairs performance. Yet we all do it… regularly, as a part of everyday life.
It’s highly likely, that at some point while you are reading this, your mind will wander off, you’ll respond to a text message, daze out the window, look at your phone or focus on the television. You will distribute your attention to an array of stimuli. But that’s not unusual – you do it all the time.
Our current society has made us chronically distracted, serial multitaskers. We’re hit with so much incoming information that it is often extremely difficult to pay undivided attention to the small things – such as a conversation with a loved one or the taste of the food we eat. Our minds are in a state of continuous ‘partial attention’, on auto-pilot, incessantly pulled from pillar to post, leaving us feeling stressed, overwhelmed, highly-strung and often anxious. So how can we overcome this? Mindfulness!
Mindfulness is the intentional, accepting and non-judgemental focus of one’s attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment. Essentially it is about living in the now, being aware of every moment of your life.
When you’re practicing mindfulness, you’re:
- Regulating your attention so it stays on what’s happening moment by moment; and
- Approaching your experiences with openness, curiosity, and acceptance—even if the experience isn’t entertaining or desirable
Now I know many of you might be deterred so far, because you’re not one who’s into ‘hocus pocus’, but I promise you, mindfulness is NOT some kind of strange ritual that only Buddhists and hippies practice. You do not have to be seated in a meditative position, in a dark quiet room surrounded by burning scented candles. Rather, being mindful is a state of mind.
So what are the benefits of mindfulness?
There are cognitive and academic benefits:
- Improves the ability to maintain attention and concentration
- Improves short-term memory (your brains post-it note)
- Improves processing speed (how fluently one can perform simple speed based tasks)
Although cognitive processing is important for everyday functioning, just as pertinent is our physical and mental health. Mindfulness can:
- Decrease stress, anxiety, and depression
- Assist with the regulation of emotions
- Improve immune functioning
- Decrease burnout
- Lower blood pressure
- Alleviate gastrointestinal issues
- Assist with sleep (getting to sleep and maintaining sleep throughout the night)
“When walking, walk. When eating, eat.” Rashaski · Zen Proverb
The purpose of practicing mindfulness is to orient yourself to become more present in every moment of your life. Although this may seem hard now, the more you make an effort to be mindful, the more likely you will find yourself being mindful without even trying.
How to get started: Over the next few weeks, choose some of your daily activities and attempt to do them mindfully (with more attention, concentration and awareness). Here are a few examples:
- Begin with breathing. Be mindful of your breathing. Identify and acknowledge your in-breath and then do the same for your out-breath. When you breathe in, be mindful that this is your in-breath, when you breathe out, be mindful that this is your out-breath.
- Be mindful when you first wake up. Stretch out in the bed and take a few deep breaths. Connect with your intentions of the day and and notice which foot hits the floor first.
- Be mindful in the shower. Be mindful of the warmth of the water on your body when you first enter; the sensation of the loofah on your skin and the smell of the body wash and shampoo.
- Be mindful when you brush your teeth. Focus on the sensation of the bristles on each and every one of your teeth and gums; feel the motion of your arm moving back and forward and the sound of the brush hitting your teeth.
- Be mindful while eating. During the day, whenever a food item enters your mouth, take the time to connect with the food. Where did it come from? Did it grow in the ground or was it made by someone? Pay attention to the smell, the texture the taste. Notice the movement of your teeth, the urge to swallow and the actual swallowing.
- Be mindful while you work. If your mind wanders into planning, daydream, or criticism, notice where it has gone and gently redirect it to sensations in the present.
- Be mindful while walking. Count your steps. Notice the brightness of the sun, the sounds of nature, the breeze and the smell of the freshly cut grass. Notice your feet hitting the ground as you step.
If you mind wanders – gently refocus.
Just do! Don’t think why you are doing it, whether you are doing it well, what you’ll do next or what you should be doing.
The practice of mindfulness is a moment-by-moment awareness of ourselves and our surroundings that helps us better cope with the overwhelming nature of everyday life. It assists with the development of a healthy mind and body focusing on the positives and increasing our compassion and understanding of both ourselves and others.
Don’t just look, observe.
Don’t just swallow, taste.
Don’t just sleep, dream.
Don’t just think, feel.
Don’t just exist, live.
“….. a human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.” Killingsworth and Gilbert
Special Guest Post by
Master of Educational and Development Psychology (Student)