Mindfulness: can it solve the distractibility associated with modern life?
Image: Caleb Roenigk
By Lucy Doyle
A couple of weeks ago I attended a conference run by the Mindfulness in Schools Project (MISP). Mindfulness is an ancient practice of meditation that encourages us to be ‘present’ by focusing on our breathing.
It’s rocketed in popularity in the last year and there have been claims it can help people with various mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression.
Professor Mark Williams, emeritus professor of clinical psychology at Oxford University, and co-author of Finding Peace in a Frantic World , gave attendees an introduction to mindfulness, with one benefit in particular leaving me feeling quite convinced: how mindfulness can help us focus on the moment, be less distracted, and stop multi-tasking.
He spoke about how many of us are guilty of constantly being in autopilot mode, and constantly thinking about what we need to do next.
It’s the sort of mind-set where we delay enjoyment and participation in the current moment: ‘I’ll relax when…I’ve done the ironing, finished doing the shopping, fed the kids’ etc.
Professor Williams emphasised how this means that for a lot of our waking life, we’re not really paying attention; our mind focusing instead on what we have to do next. This can leave us feeling rushed, stressed and not very happy, seeing as we’re actually spending a lot of our time worrying about our to-do lists, rather than living.
The myth of multi-tasking
We’ve probably all heard someone smugly claim how they simply have no problem multi-tasking. Maybe they’ll even go on to say how they’re actually more productive when they’re juggling several things at once. Before, I’d listen, steeped in jealousy as I recall how my attempts at multitasking normally result in me breaking crockery, or walking into something. But now those feelings are gone, because apparently, my old-school one-thing-at-a-time approach is actually a bit more effective. (Now who’s the smug one?!)
Professor Williams told us how multi-tasking only ever works with ‘automatised’ activities, such as driving, or walking. But, he argues that it’s impossible to multi-task with any activity that isn’t automatised (which is most of them), such as writing an email, or checking through a spreadsheet.
What we’re actually doing when we try to do two things at once is ‘multi-switching’.
Each time we switch between activities, there is extra time we waste, referred to as the ‘switching cost’. This was demonstrated to the conference-goers with a short exercise. You can give it a go too.
First, spell out the word mindfulness in your head. Now count from 1 -11. Both tasks take only a few seconds. Now, try counting each letter as you spell the word – m -1, i - 2, n - 3, d - 4 etc. That probably took a little longer. The average is 19 seconds, according to Williams. I sat here in the office, using a timer (I’m a bit sad, I know) and got 19.72 seconds.
When you add together the time it takes to spell the word, (4 seconds) and the time taken to count each letter (2 seconds) it totals 6 seconds. But, when you try to do both at the same time, or ‘multi-task’, it takes 19 seconds, adding on an additional 12 seconds. This is known as ‘the switching cost’.
An article by the American Psychological Association said:
‘Although switch costs may be relatively small…they can add up to large amounts when people switch repeatedly back and forth between tasks. Thus, multitasking may seem efficient on the surface but may actually take more time in the end and involve more error.’
And Christine Rosen in her article, The Myth of Multitasking , described how hurried modern life has led to us embracing multitasking as the only means to getting everything done, believing it to be the most efficient use of our time.
The theory of the switching cost debunks this idea.
Modern life and distractibility
Image: David Goehring, CCBY
Many have talked about how modern life, with its permanent connectedness, can lead us to feel distracted and burnt out.
In Parent Zone’s report on the state of the digital family in 2015, Geraldine Bedell describes how ‘intuitively, most of us who are on social media or use our devices for email and other kinds of work will recognise the feeling of frayed attention, the slightly dizzy sense of distraction when an alert pops up or we decide to check a feed and we lose our train of thought.’
Practising mindfulness, according to Professor Williams, helps us allay the stress caused by our modern ‘frantic’ lifestyles by helping us to stop multi-tasking and making us less distractible: instead paying full attention to what we’re doing in the moment.
I caught up with him at the end of his talk to ask a bit more about whether he thinks technology, and our online lifestyles, are risking our mental wellbeing.
He first made it clear that what we’re doing on technology isn’t new, it’s just a new form of doing what we’ve always done, and with anything new, it takes a while for people to work out the best way of dealing with it.
He predicted that younger generations will become better at dealing with technology and allaying distractions, and hoped that tech companies would play a part in supporting our mental wellbeing while using technology. He spoke about how there might eventually be a send now/send later option on emails or messages, and a move away from instant messaging platforms that allow you to see when someone has read your message, thereby removing the pressure to respond instantly.
So, does mindfulness work?
If mindfulness can help us be less distractible, concentrate more on what we’re doing, and therefore increase our productivity and lower our feelings of stress, then I’m all up for giving it a go.
Even if you’re not sure about mindfulness, it’s still worth trying to focus more on the task at hand, and being more disciplined when it comes to ignoring that little flashing light on your phone alerting you to a retweet, message or ‘like’ on your social media account.
As Lord Chesterfield said in a letter to his son in the 1740s:
‘There is time enough for everything in the course of a day, if you do but one thing at once, but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time…
This steady and undissipated attention to one object is a sure mark of a superior genius; as hurry, bustle and agitation are the never-failing symptoms of a weak and frivolous mind.’ 
I’d better put my phone down then!
 Journalist Dr Danny Penman co-authored the best-selling book, Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World.