Lack of concentration is a symptom of many psychiatric illnesses, from depression and anxiety to adult ADHD. But before jumping to any conclusions, remember that it’s also a symptom of stress and the chaotic nature of a busy lifestyle. We live in a world filled with distractions, where everything seems to be urgent, and we are always on call and available. Every text message has become so important that it can’t wait until the car is parked (yikes!), and the computer can’t be turned off for a 20 minute lunch break. We are trying to do more in less time, using technology to make us more efficient. Yet somehow we feel less focused than before the invention of the smart phone.
Multi-tasking is valued in many areas of life. It is a good skill to have when I’m trying to make dinner, finish the laundry and help my kids do homework. Everything gets accomplished, but sometimes things get forgotten. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve filled the washer and walked away without pushing start. Or walked into the pantry only to walk back out having no idea why I went there in the first place. This morning, I found the ice cream in the refrigerator. Am I losing my mind? No, but I am too distracted to give my full attention to any single task. The division of focus means things will fall through the cracks. Let’s face it, a human brain simply can’t do several things at once. At least, it can’t do them all well.
So what is the antidote to an overly multi-tasked life? I often suggest a radical idea to stressed out people complaining of memory and concentration problems: Slow down and do just one thing at a time. I think I once saw a busy mom’s head actually explode at the idea, and I understand why. It’s not what we’ve been trained to do. But hear me out. If I give my full attention to just one task, I am focused, efficient, and can see it to completion in a shorter period of time. Then I can turn my attention to the next thing with the same devotion. I propose this method will take only slightly longer than the old way, and fewer mistakes will be made.
I also believe we lose a lot of the richness of life when we are distracted. Meals get ingested, but not savored. when eaten in front of a computer. Conversations with friends have no give and take if we are all busy checking our messages. So why not try single-tasking for a change? Consciously turn off the computer when on the phone, disable email and text alerts, and put your focus on what’s going on right now. This is living mindfully. Every task has its moment, and we can enjoy each of life’s experiences in their own time.