Want to know how to uni-task in a multi-tasking world? Read on, courageous one! It is possible and you are worth it.
Welcome to week two of the Summer of Meditation Challenge! I hope you offered yourself some lovingkindness last week (here is that free audio of the Loving_Kindness Meditation again if you missed it).
Did you began to examine the ratio of work to rest in your weekly rhythm? If not—no worries, there is no behind in the Summer of Meditation Challenge. You can read the whole reflection on Balance here or just continue with today’s prompt and begin again!
This week we are building concentration and gathering back up all that energy we waste being in the past or future, as well as frittering our attention between multiple tasks, so we have it to meet the moment.
Meditation: Following Your Breath (15 minutes in AM + 15 minutes in PM of a walking meditation or reflecting with gratitude on your day.)
Real World Mindfulness Practice: Whiteboard Your Thoughts
(Don’t fall into the trap of thinking “I know about these already.” The benefits of meditation come not in being familiar with practices cognitively but in experiencing them in your body in real time. How to engage in both of these practices is described in detail below.)
The Reflection: On Concentration*
It is not really possible to multi-task. Instead the brain can only focus on one thing at a time because it takes in information sequentially. If we have multiple things going simultaneously what actually happens is that we are rapidly switching back and forth.
This takes bandwidth, time and energy – effectively our mind has to remember where it was and get reoriented to each task. All of this leaves us less productive as we make more errors and take longer to complete our work.
*Quick tip* Try checking your email only once or twice a day— or at most only on the hour if you have a job which truly demands it. First complete the work which requires sustained focus—with only one document or page open on your computer while you do it (And turn off those dreadful pop-up features!) Then later check email and social media.
Don’t be seduced by the hit of adrenaline which can come from jumping off the document which feels tedious to craft to instead respond to a superficial (but interesting) new email. Or by leaving your toddler in the middle of telling you an important story (for the 17th time) to grab your phone for the latest Facebook update.
While there is nothing inherently wrong in multi-tasking, it cultivates a habit of distraction. And our poor nervous systems are already overwhelmed by daily information content. Bringing awareness and thoughtfulness to how we consume it helps to manage stress and actually makes us happier.
It is our unified focus which allows the task in front of us to reveal its true nature—to bloom before our eyes. Anything, when given our whole attention, is interesting. Maybe not in a superficial or flashy way, but in that way that ordinary things can reveal fascinating details and subtlety – once we snap out of our half-hearted attention and really tune into them.
Think of the experience of travel—sure there is the excitement of being out of the regular routine, but so much of what makes travel pleasurable is the heightened attention and openness you bring to your surroundings. Taking in what is really there in front of you—with all senses activated.
It takes practice to do this in regular life. But the benefits are worth it. Concentrating on one thing at a time is directly related to subjective well-being, aka our personal levels of happiness. Mind-wandering or multi-tasking, in contrast, feeds the feeling of discontentment with our lives and work.
Translation—uni-tasking makes you happy!
We practice this focusing on one thing in meditation (like the breath) so we can remember how to do it in the intensity of every day life. Here is how.
Breath meditation Alright, here we go—the meditation classic! As I said last week some people get demoralized trying to simply follow their breath because the thoughts and internal distractions rise up so strongly. Just because this is a simple practice does not mean that it is easy. Release any expectations. And remember:
Following the breath is simply a tool.
Noticing your breath is one of what are called “skillful means”—the practices which support your meditation. Hold it lightly and don’t confuse the tool with the whole experience. In meditation we are inviting our body and awareness to bloom as well– into natural or grounded presence.
With meditation we remember how to be in this one moment, not in the past, or the future but in our bodies in real time. The breath is an anchor or a connection cable which draws us into that experience. So approach it as a support for your practice, not a goal (like I need to go x breaths before I have a thought.) Our traditional achievement approach is way off base here.
Plus the great thing about breath is that it is just so portable!
You can always return to it—so that makes it a great resource.
Want to know how to actually follow your breath?
**Quick Tip** Attending to breath is not a head exercise. Instead tune into the felt sensations. Notice where you feel them the strongest: is it the cool inhale or the warmth of the exhale? Is it the expansion of your side ribs, your belly, even into your back? Rest your attention on that one point, wherever you feel the breath the strongest. Let your attention be light, like a butterfly on a flower. Stay there for one breath. And then one more. Until the time you have designated is complete– 5 to 15 minutes to start.
But what about the thoughts which carry you away from breath? Fear not! Release them easily with the following practice. And remember… the moment you realize a thought has carried you away, you are already beginning to be aware. Reorienting to the breath is what actually rewires your brain. So far from evidence you are doing it wrong– thoughts in meditation are actually (in a funny way) what enables the benefits of it to take shape in your brain.
How to Whiteboard Your Thoughts: You can do this mindfulness practice at the beginning of your meditation time or take five minutes to explore it as a stand alone exercise whenever you wish.
Sit comfortably. Allow your eyes to gently close. Imagine your mind is a whiteboard. And you can just sit in a relaxed way and watch as your thoughts appear before it. Some thoughts are really loud. Others can be subtle like “it is really quiet in here” or “I wonder if I am doing this right?”
This practice puts you in driver’s seat and allows you to get perspective on your habits of mind. Rather than allowing the thoughts to charm you and lead you away… simply label them.
Oh that’s planning (to do lists, strategizing what you will say to someone etc). That is remembering (going over a conversation or experience from the past). That is judging or criticizing (comparing yourself or others to an internalized standard).
Often there is an emotional charge under the surface which fuels the recurrent thoughts. As you sit with your whiteboard, see if you can begin to identify it. For example, anxiety—a flavor of fear — often fuels thoughts about planning. Anger may fuel the comparing. Grief or longing may be driving recurrent thoughts about the past.
Each of our minds generates a particular pattern of thoughts based on our temperament, personality and stress level. Begin to notice your pattern and which flavor of thoughts dominate your mental air space.
This pattern of thinking recurrent thoughts doesn’t make you bad or un-evolved. We all do it. It is the mind’s job to think and it does it 24/7. We can however stop identifying with the thoughts and in so doing expand our sense of ourselves.
If I am not this thought? Who else am I?
That’s a fun question to keep asking!
Alright, almost time to turn it over to you to see what you would like to commit to for this week. But first, one last “real world” tip.
Uni-tasking generates happiness in every part of your life. So if you are making oatmeal, just be with yourself making oatmeal. Turn on that whiteboard and begin to label the other thoughts beyond attending to what is right in front of you. Often I think we have the illusion that we are being productive or sort of thinking through some important topic while we are doing something else.
The truth is, it makes us not happy. Instead– notice what you are ruminating on and trust you will have what you need to deal with it if and when that situation presents itself in real time in the future (because you will have so much energy from being truly present!)
And bring yourself back to the now.
**Quick Tip: if you truly have a gazillian things in your mind you need to capture, you might want to think about how you set up your office and your time. Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen is a great guide.**
The Commitment. Now it is Your Turn.
What do you what to try on this week? Ready to keep going with a daily or almost daily practice? Great. Overwhelmed but think you could try the Whiteboard Your Thoughts Practice once or twice, Wonderful. This is your summer of meditation challenge! I do encourage you to get clear, even if only to yourself, about your commitment for the week– specificity is powerful. Write it on a sticky note. Tell a friend. or better… leave it for me as a comment below (you may need to click “leave a comment” above the post to open the comment space. I’d love to hold it with you this week.
PS If you enjoy the loving kindness audio… 8 guided meditations are available as part of the Meditation Support Circle. Click on the link above to learn more or purchase now by clicking the button below.
As a bonus to the first 12 people who enroll I’m offering a free half hour private coaching session. Plus a percentage of the profits from this program will go to support entrepreneurs in the developing world. As we examine and create our own life-giving relationship to work it is good to share the love!
Want to receive these Summer of Meditation lessons in your inbox? Enter your name and email below to participate in this free online training program and to receive Bird in Hand’s weekly enewsletter on conscious living. In addition to a complete “how-to-get-started” meditation curriculum, this year the meditation challenge is focused on mindfulness practices for the “real world,” especially our work lives. Please sign up below, “like” this page, and invite friends to join in with you!
Join the Summer of Meditation Challenge Here!
* Themes for the Summer of Meditation Challenge are drawn from Sharon Salzberg’s new book: Real Happiness at Work: Meditations for Accomplishment, Achievement, and Peace (2014).