I recently heard a well-known marketing expert ask a room full of Fortune 500 types a compelling series of questions. With a show of hands, he asked how many in the audience watched TV with at least one additional screen – like an iPhone – nearby. Almost everyone raised their hands. Then he asked about having two screens nearby – like an iPhone and an iPad. Many raised their hands. And finally, he asked about having three screens nearby – iPhone, iPad and laptop. Still, there was a decent show of hands. Now that’s three open screens while the TV is on, engaging information from a total of four different sources more or less simultaneously.
His larger point had to do with modern marketing methods, the fragmented attention span of viewers these days, and the dwindling efficacy of traditional advertising. But his point hit me in a different way, mainly because, at that moment, I was actually sitting at my desk, doing this four-screen shuffle exactly as he was talking about it! I was watching a YouTube video of his lecture on my laptop, while waiting for a return text on my iPhone, while monitoring an eBay auction on my iPad, while glancing over at a Dodgers game playing on a nearby TV with the volume down.
I’m sure we can all relate to this crazy modern phenomenon of super-splintered attention spans. I believe it’s commonly categorized as yet another form of multitasking. But as someone who has taken great interest in the study of the mind/body connection, I’ve lamented over what this kind of hyper-multitask-ism actually does to our brain. And while I am definitely not about to jump on some kind of anti-technology bandwagon – hey, I love all my gadgets just as much as the next person – I did want to offer another take on this whole thing, along with at least one basic counter-measure that we all should consider integrating into our routines.
Concentration is King
I have often said that the most important single skill anyone could ever develop is the ability to effectively concentrate. When most folks consider what it means to really concentrate, they usually think about someone straining their brain, forcing an intense focus on something. But really, concentration has more to do with one’s ability to simply think about one thing, and one thing only. Easy in theory, I know…
Being able to concentrate is what entering “the zone” is all about in sports. Momentary lack of it is why a musician can make some nonsensical mistake in a song they’ve played perfectly 99 times prior. Concentration – and the engagement of the brain’s all-powerful frontal lobe – is where our creative genius resides, and it is essentially why Buddhist monks are the “Olympic champions” of the mental realm; meditation is the ultimate practice of concentration.
So if concentration is a learned skill, and the brain can be trained to perform this skill through repeated conditioning, what the hell are we doing everyday? The exact opposite! That’s right. Multitasking is pretty much the opposite of concentration. Constantly navigating between various conversations and communications, via multiple platforms and devices throughout the day, actually conditions the brain to “focus” on multiple things at once. And because this technology shit is so imbedded in our lifestyles, our mere existence everyday ensures that we are getting further and further away from being able to do one of the most important things we could ever do: Concentrate!
Being in the Present
Another problem in this data-overkill era, is this: when do we have time to just be? Where is the downtime, the decompression period, the little pockets of creative incubation throughout the day? When do we allow ourselves a chance to relax into the nothingness of the moment – if only for a few minutes – and practice mindfulness, be grateful, be present for those around us. or connect with nature? So often, it seems that folks are two places at once; where they are in person in their “physical” world, and where they are online or in text-land, in their “virtual” world. How present can we be with those in our physical world when we’re also maintaining (usually inconsequential) communication with others in our virtual world?
In terms of being fully in the present, if you have any sort of meditation practice, that’s great. But to truly live mindfully, we have to practice more than just our designated 20 or 30 minutes of meditation a day. It should be something that we tap into throughout the day, everyday.
The “Gap” is Gone
Still another real issue with all of this technology clutter is that we are not leaving enough space in our heads for those genius ideas to spring forth as often as they should. Here’s what I mean:
Think about when some of your greatest thoughts, ideas, creative surges or revelations hit you. I bet you were in the shower, or out walking the dog, or folding clothes, or at the gym, or maybe driving home from somewhere. In other words, the idea just seemed to “pop up” out of nowhere, while you were doing an activity that 1) demanded minimal brain power but, 2) likely precluded you from doing much else.
Sure, you could add technology – like being on the phone, for example – to most of the above-mentioned activities. But I’m guessing you were not doing much else when the big idea bubbled forth. Why? Because you inadvertently created a “gap” opportunity in your brain, and your subconscious mind found a little space to drop in an idea. I like to call this the Gap because it seems like ideas pop out when there’s a bit of a gap or space between thoughts.
For me, I typically have huge gap time at the gym, because I’ve always found lifting weights to be meditative and, in a bizarre way, relaxing. I’ve recorded many hundreds of voice memos – no exaggeration – between sets through the years. Initially, I used an Olympus digital recorder that I would always have handy, but over the past 4 or 5 years I’ve used my iPhone Voice Memos function. (The real dilemma has been managing all of this material. I still have hundreds of “voice notes” in various folders, waiting to be added to various manuscripts and projects.)
But the problem for most is, when is there ever a gap anymore? If we are constantly navigating, deciphering, communicating and fucking re-tweeting data all day long, how difficult must it be for one of these unexpected creative revelations to find its way in?
The 10 Deep Breaths Solution
Well… I don’t know if this is a total solution, but I can guarantee it could at least be the start of one. This is something that is deceivingly difficult to do and, at the very least, will show you – in less than three minutes – how little control you actually have over your own brain. I’m serious. This shit is hard! But at least you can do it anytime, anywhere. Here it is:
1. Whenever you find yourself with a few spare minutes between activities, pull yourself fully into the present moment; don’t think about the past or future.
2. Take 10 full, slow, deep breaths. In through the nose, out through the mouth, silently counting each one on the exhale. Try to stretch-out each full inhale/exhale to take between 15 to 20 seconds.
3. In public, you can do this so discreetly, no one will even know you’re doing it. But in private, I suggest exaggerating the actions, which includes inhaling more deliberately and exhaling like you’re blowing out a candle.
4. Try to think about little else but the air going in through your nostrils, filling up your lungs, expanding your chest, then exiting your mouth as you (silently) count your 10 breaths. Envision any distracting thought as being encased in a bubble that you blow away with your exhale.
5. Try this 10-breath practice on two or three separate occasions throughout the day to start.
I don’t want to assume that any or all of the following will happen to you… but it probably will! So just be on the look-out for a few common things:
- Notice how this might feel like the longest three minutes of your day, every time you do it.
- Notice your fundamental resistance to this practice… how the mind starts freaking with nothing else to occupy it but counting these breaths.
- Notice your potential impatience… how you can’t wait to get to 10… or how your mind will begin to stray even after only two or three breaths.
- Notice how your “monkey-mind” might be so distracted by the inactivity you’re asking it to embrace, you might actually lose count!
- Notice how you’ll start thinking about what you just did (past), or what you have to do next (future)… basically any other thoughts that are not about the present moment.
If any of these things happen, don’t get discouraged. Just calmly bring yourself back to the present and keep counting those breaths.
And finally, think of this process as a sort of “introductory weightlifting practice” for the mind. This three-minute practice will help to strengthen your brain every time you do it, but you do have to do it consistently to fully experience the benefits.
So delay that mindless three-minute text exchange or tweet that you were about to do, and try this… right now!
Until next time,