multitasking

Five tips for National Relaxation Day

In our fast-paced world it seems everyone’s stressed, hassled, and exhausted, so it’s a good thing that August 15, 2012 has been declared National Relaxation Day.

When they think about relaxing, most people would tend to hit upon rather conventional things, like soaking in the bath, having a glass of wine at the end of the evening, or watching a movie. But those things are temporary fixes that don’t lead to long-term change. Instead, I’d like to suggest five habits that can be cultivated and practiced every day. These are skills that can become a permanent part of the way you function in your daily life, and bring you long term benefits. And you can do them whether or not you have time for a long relaxing soak in the tub.

1. Take your time eating
We all have to eat, and we don’t generally do it very mindfully. We watch TV while we eat, or we read, or we’re caught up in a conversation, or we just space out. Sometimes, heaven help us, we even eat while we drive.

It’s very enriching, and deeply relaxing, to eat mindfully. It might not be feasible to eat every mouthful of food with complete attention, but what if we were to eat the first and last mouthful of a meal or snack mindfully? Whether you’re eating a gourmet meal or a candy bar, really notice the movements of your body as you transfer the food toward your mouth. Notice yourself receiving the food — how it feels, tastes. Eat slowly. Chew methodically. Savor the experience. If you find you’ve plowed into your food and are mindlessly scarfing it down, pause, and take the next bite with full awareness.

2. Give yourself short breathing breaks during the day
You may have heard of the three-minute breathing space, in which you spend a minute just tuning in to an awareness of your experience, a minute focusing on the sensations of the breathing in order to gather your attention, and a minute expanding your awareness so that you’re no longer noticing just the breathing, but also other sensations from the body, your mind and emotions, the sounds, light, and space around you. Even on the busiest of days it’s a good idea to take a few of these three minute breaks.

If that seems impossible, then just pause what you’re doing, take a few mindful breaths, and then bring your attention back to the task at hand.

3. Notice what your thinking is doing to you
A Harvard study of 250,000 people found that they spent almost 50% of their waking time thinking about something other than they were doing. What’s more, they found that the people who were most distracted were more likely to report feelings of unhappiness. Much of our thinking promotes unhappiness.

So develop the skill of checking in from time to time to see what your thoughts are doing to you. Notice whether you’re relaxed or tense, whether your overall experience is pleasant or unpleasant, whether you’re happy or distressed. Notice this without making any judgements about yourself. It doesn’t mean you’re “bad” or a “failure” for harboring thoughts that make you feel bad. But see if you can just notice those thoughts, and let them pass away. Actually, just to notice how you’re feeling you have to let go of some of the compulsion around these inner dramas.

4. Reduce input channels
One thing that really stresses us is being interrupted. So give yourself a chance to focus. If you’re writing a report, shut off your email program, turn your phone off (don’t just switch it to vibrate). Close any programs you don’t need to have open. It’s just you, and the task. You’ll find that when your concentration isn’t interrupted, you’re not only more relaxed and happy, but you get more done.

5. Give yourself a break from the news
We get really hooked on the news, and we stress about it. That politician and his lies! Those criminals! That tragic accident two cities away! It seems like it’s vital to keep in touch with what’s happening. What if a war were to break out and nobody told you? Well, I remember times I went abroad on vacation and didn’t have access to English-language news media. And you know what? When I got back, I felt like I hadn’t missed anything. Most of the news is the same old yadda-yadda, and the TV companies are trying to built it up so that you’ll get mad, be scared, and pay attention (and by the way, here’s an ad for a new wonder-drug).

Try unplugging from the news entirely for just a day. Or maybe for a week, go on a news fast and do nothing more than glance at the headlines in the newspapers. The world will go on, and you’ll be happier.

I’m not suggesting that you abstain from news for life, but at least for a while give yourself a break so that reading or watching the news is a choice and not a compulsion. And you’ll realize how much your own habits stop you from being relaxed.

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Say ‘Om:’ Increase your paycheck with meditation

Laurie Tarkan, Fox News: You might assume you have to kick it into high gear when you’re juggling emails, phone calls and multiple projects, but a new study shows that slowing down, or specifically, meditating, can make you a better multitasker – and a more productive employee.

Much has been written about the downside to multitasking: It’s been shown to make workers less accurate and efficient, it hampers your ability to filter out irrelevant information, (in other words to focus on the task at hand), and it increases stress and other negative feelings.

Researcher David Levy, a computer scientist and professor at the …

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Meditation can keep you more focused at work, study says

Anita Bruzzese: All sorts of gizmos and gadgets can help you be more productive at work, and theories abound on how you should structure your days to get more done.

But a new study finds that becoming more focused, productive and less stressed at work may involve nothing more than learning to meditate.

David Levy, a computer scientist and professor with the Information School at the University of Washington, found that those who had meditation training were able to stay on task longer and were less distracted. Levy and his co-authors discovered that meditation also improved test subjects’ memory while easing their stress …

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Meditation before multitasking can calm stress, aid concentration

Need to do some serious multitasking? Some training in meditation beforehand could make the work smoother and less stressful, new research from the University of Washington shows.

Work by UW Information School professors David Levy and Jacob Wobbrock suggests that meditation training can help people working with information stay on tasks longer with fewer distractions and also improves memory and reduces stress.

Their paper was published in the May edition of Proceedings of Graphics Interface.

Levy, a computer scientist, and Wobbrock, a researcher in human-computer interaction, conducted the study together with Information School doctoral candidate Marilyn Ostergren and Alfred Kaszniak, a neuropsychologist at the University of Arizona.

“To our knowledge, this is the first study to explore how meditation might affect multitasking in a realistic work setting,” Levy said.

The researchers recruited three groups of 12-15 human resource managers for the study. One group received eight weeks of mindfulness-based meditation training; another received eight weeks of body relaxation training. Members of the third, a control group, received no training at first, then after eight weeks were given the same training as the first group.

Before and after each eight-week period, the participants were given a stressful test of their multitasking abilities, requiring them to use email, calendars, instant-messaging, telephone and word-processing tools to perform common office tasks. Researchers measured the participants’ speed, accuracy and the extent to which they switched tasks. The participants’ self-reported levels of stress and memory while performing the tasks were also noted.

The results were significant: The meditation group reported lower levels of stress during the multitasking test while those in the control group or who received only relaxation training did not. When the control group was given meditation training, however, its members reported lower stress during the test just as had the original meditation group.

The meditation training seemed to help participants concentrate longer without their attention being diverted. Those who meditated beforehand spent more time on tasks and switched tasks less often, but took no longer to complete the overall job than the others, the researchers learned.

No such change occurred with those who took body relaxation training only, or with the control group. After the control group’s members underwent meditation training, however, they too spent longer on their tasks with less task switching and no overall increase in job completion time.

After training, both the meditators and those trained in relaxation techniques showed improved memory for the tasks they were performing. The control group did not, until it too underwent the meditation training.

“Many research efforts at the human-technology boundary have attempted to create technologies that augment human abilities,” Wobbrock said. “This meditation work is unusual in that it attempts to augment human abilities not through technology but because of technology — because of the demands technology places on us and our need to cope with those demands.”

Levy added: “We are encouraged by these first results. While there is increasing scientific evidence that certain forms of meditation increase concentration and reduce emotional volatility and stress, until now there has been little direct evidence that meditation may impart such benefits for those in stressful, information-intensive environments.”

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How meditating helps with multitasking

Tina Barseghian: There’s no question that for both kids and adults, our attention is divided. Texts, emails, Twitter, Facebook are all chiming, ringing, beeping, and chirping for our attention.

How does this affect kids? The media has covered the subject in terms of fear of multitasking leading to ADD, losing control to digital devices, and the dangers of not being able to focus. And in most cases, the Internet (and technology in general) has been declared the culprit.

But rather than blaming the medium, David Levy, author of Scrolling Forward: Making Sense of Documents in the Digital Age, believes the challenges of multitasking …

Click to read more »

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Driving as Preparation: An excerpt from One-Minute Mindfulness, by Donald Altman

The act of driving requires our full attention. I know of a woman who drove through her garage door one morning because she was on automatic pilot and didn’t notice that it was still closed! The lapse of a split second can have devastating results. How do you approach your morning drive?

Do you use the morning drive to prepare for the day to come? Is driving a placeholder, a time for fitting in extraneous activities? Do you let the frustrations of the road soak into your body and spirit, filling you with anger or draining you of energy? A one-minute mindfulness approach to driving can improve your emotional tone, stress level, and ability to be open and adaptable.

When I discuss the brain and multitasking in workshops, I often ask participants to share stories about multitasking while driving. Here are a few that stand out: eating soup, with a spoon; putting on makeup and getting dressed; reading the newspaper or a book, even on a busy freeway; simultaneously smoking a cigarette, drinking a cup of coffee, putting on mascara, and backing up the car.

Title: One Minute Mindfulness
Author: Donald Altman
Publisher: New World Library
ISBN: 978-1-60868-030-6
Available from: Amazon.co.uk Kindle Store, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com Kindle Store, and Amazon.com.

Ample evidence shows that the brain does not multitask very well. A recent study showed that simply talking while driving can negatively impact our driving skills. Researchers also found the reverse to be true: driving reduces a driver’s ability to recall a conversation by as much as 20 percent. According to psycholinguist Gary Dell, one of the study’s researchers, “You might think that talking is an easy thing to do and that comprehending language is easy. But it’s not. Speech production and speech comprehension are attention-demanding activities, and so they…compete with other tasks that require your attention — like driving.” In other words, something will suffer if we decide to split our attention when we’re behind the wheel.

Basically, there are two ways to drive. The first is to drive in order to get where we’re going. Driving then is a means to an end, an act that has little intrinsic value. In this case, we may be preoccupied with other things when we get in the car. Our minds may wander off to the future. Maybe we’re engaged in a conversation with someone, literally or mentally, as we pull into the street. Our attention might be focused on listening to a radio station or thoughts about an upcoming task. I’m not suggesting that we avoid all sources of sensory input while driving but that we practice sixty-second intervals of awareness to notice when we are driving mindlessly, with our bodies going through the motions.

Fortunately, there’s a second way to go about this: drive with the sole purpose of driving. It’s that simple and direct. It’s about full participation in what we are doing with the next sixty seconds, before we even climb into the car and turn on the ignition. For example, what details do you notice about your vehicle’s door handle as you open the door? Its temperature, shape, the feel of it? How does your body bend and move as you climb into the driver’s seat? Feel your hands as they grip the steering wheel. Notice the sound of the pavement as the tires move along the road’s surface.

When we bring awareness to the next minute, we gain traction instead of dis-traction with our surroundings, from road signs and road conditions to bicyclists and pedestrians. We can also find gratitude each time we drive somewhere. Fully participating in the journey of moving from one place to another leaves no time for anxiety about the future. Driving in order to drive requires our presence in each moment — and that sets our consciousness to sixty-second time.

PRACTICE
In the next day or week, take one driving trip where you are focused only on your driving, with no distractions. Do this when you are alone, and try to be as present as you can every sixty seconds. You don’t have to be perfect when doing this. When your mind wanders, to the past or the future, gently bring it back. You can even mentally affirm your present moment intention with the words “driving, driving.”


Excerpted from the book One-Minute Mindfulness © 2011 by Donald Altman. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA. www.newworldlibrary.com

Donald Altman, M.A., LPC, is the author of One-Minute Mindfulness, The Mindfulness Code, and Meal-by-Meal. Known as America’s Mindfulness Coach, he is a practicing psychotherapist who conducts mindful living and mindful eating workshops and retreats through colleges, community centers, and health care organizations. Visit him online at https://www.OneMinuteMindfulnessBook.com.

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A little calmness can go a long way

I just read a news story about an 18-year-old woman whose car went out of control and hit a dump truck. The woman and her 10-month-old son were killed. On her phone was a half-finished text message.

Now, not all multitasking is as catastrophic as that. We do it all the time, don’t we?

But why do we do it? Sometimes we say it’ll make us more efficient, but if you’re trying to type a report and keep interrupting yourself to send text messages and check Facebook, you’re not exactly being very efficient. It seems to me that what’s really going on is that we’re being anxious, and trying to find a distraction from our anxiety by looking outside of ourselves.

We’re not taking an interest in ourselves, so we hope someone out there is taking an interest in us. Maybe someone’s sent a text message, or has phoned us, or has replied to an email. Maybe we can say something funny or even annoying on Facebook, and get a response. As soon as we’ve finished checking one source of stimulus, we move on to another.

So we keep cycling through all these different things — anything to take us away from the rather boring experience of just being ourselves.

And none of this actually helps with anxiety. In fact it makes it worse.

Research by psychiatrists Edward Hallowell and John Ratey of Harvard University says that all this multitasking and overstimulation can lead to what they call Pseudo-Attention Deficit Disorder, where we’re constantly seeking out new information, but when we find it were not able to concentrate on it. So we keep surfing the web, for example, looking for really interesting stuff, but when we find it our minds just can’t get engaged, and then we’re off looking for the next thing.

So what does help? We can learn to be happy with our own experience. That’s what helps.

Meditation is a way of learning to be comfortable with ourselves. Its a way of learning to really value our experience.

And one important thing about meditating is that it’s a form of “uni-tasking.” We’re more and more just doing one thing. It’s a bit like defragging your computer’s hard drive so that it runs more efficiently.

This is one reason that we feel refreshed and calm after meditation. We have calmed the mind by just focusing on one thing, and by letting go of some of the crazy pointless maddening thinking that we do.

It’s good, at least sometimes, to take that into our daily lives as well.

So here is a practice for you — one that you can take into your daily life. It’s just one example.

Next time you’re brushing your teeth, for example, just brush your teeth. Don’t check your cell phone. Don’t read something. Don’t wander around. Just brush your teeth. Pay attention to the movements in your arm. Notice the feeling of the bristles on your teeth and gums. Notice the taste of the toothpaste. Notice your breathing. Notice thoughts arising, and let go of them. Notice how you feel. Notice if you feel bored or restless, and just allow yourself to feel that way. Don’t feel you have to run away from boredom. Be patient with whatever you find. Relax. And just brush your teeth.

You can do this with many things. Not just brushing your teeth, but walking, driving, taking a shower, cleaning the house, preparing food, eating.

Paying attention to your experience in this way will bring a little calmness into your mind, and even a little calmness can go a long way. It might even save your life.

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Five ways to do nothing and bring stillness to your life

Two young girls seen from behind, resting together in a hammock.

We live in a world filled with input from television, radios, the Internet, social networks, email, news broadcasts, newspapers, magazines, white papers, books, Kindles, movies and more.

Our society is fast paced and we are proud of our ability to multitask. We begin our days by listening to the news as we get dressed in the morning. On the way to work or school, we listen to the radio in the car and use ear phones to listen to music or talk on our cell phones.

Our days are filled with talking, doing, accomplishing, gathering, spending, earning, and accumulating facts, relationships and material things. We are fast becoming human doings rather than human beings. All this doing is exhausting and it depletes us of our energy and leaves no time for wonder.

It is possible, however, to find stillness, no matter how busy our schedules are. By taking time for reflection, by being silent, we can find the stillness of inner peace.

Take a moment to recall what it is like waking up on a winter morning after a night of snow falling on the earth. Without even looking outside, there is a palpable stillness – it is so delicious, so full of wonder.

If you have ever been in a kayak or canoe when the water is smooth, the air is fresh and the sun is warm,  or skiing along a snow covered path in the woods, you know about stillness.

We can bring that same stillness to our lives by taking time to meditate and reflect, to quiet the mind and listen to the language of the heart.

Pablo Neruda says: “If we were not so single-minded about keeping our lives moving and for once could do nothing, perhaps a huge silence might interrupt this sadness of never understanding ourselves and of threatening ourselves with death.  Perhaps the world can teach us as when everything seems dead but later proves to be alive.”

Here are five ways to “do nothing” as we “prove to be alive”:

1. Before getting out of bed in the morning, take a moment to listen to what surrounds you. Perhaps it is very early and the only sound you hear is the ticking of the clock.

2. While eating breakfast, do not talk, but enjoy the taste and texture of your food.

3. While on your way to work, do not put on the radio or listen to a CD.

4. Take a day to do only one thing at a time, silently, a “no multitasking day”.

5. Before you enter your house after a long day, pause in silence to leave the work day behind and bring an open heart to your family.

Try bringing stillness to your life and experience its benefits.

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Sitting in school

It’s October, so schools are back, bringing with them the stresses of academic life. And therefore there is a bunch of news stories focusing on meditation for students and teachers.

An article in “The Tack,” the newspaper of Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa, has an opinion piece on “Mindful Studying.” There’s no hard news here, but the author, who arrived at BVU “intending on majoring in psychology” found himself fascinated by mindfulness, and he cites psychologist Ellen Langer‘s view that “simply being mindful of one’s environment … can vastly improve student performance, whilst allowing one’s mind to drift off (ie. mindlessness) can result in the deterioration of student performance.”

In New Jersey, Ramapo College just opened the 1,525-square-foot Salameno Spiritual Center, which “consists of two small meditation rooms, a larger structure and a deck with views across Kameron Pond.” The $1.5 million project was funded largely through private donations, is the first religious space to be constructed on the campus of the 40-year-old public college.

Any number of universities have meditation and yoga clubs of course, so it’s pretty random what makes it into the news. But perhaps there’s something in the air in New Jersey, where Rutgers student yoga club is featured in that institution’s newspaper, in an article stressing the mental aspects of yoga practice.

Meanwhile, in Utah State University, the students now have a non-denominational Meditation Club that “is not aligned with any specific religion or tradition,” thanks to the efforts of student Jay Summerhays and English professor Michael Sowder. McKenna Miller, a junior majoring in music therapy, and who describes herself as a constant multitasker, said for her, “meditation is forcing myself to slow down and focus on one thing, like classes, which is a good thing.”

These efforts may be fighting a losing battle, however, if events at Worcester, Massachusetts’ Clark University are anything to go by. Clark University sought to promote a Day of Slowing — 24 hours without texting or checking Facebook or listening to an iPod.

They posted quotes around campus from Henry David Thoreau. Meditation groups discussed Buddhist techniques of emptying the mind and overcoming attachment. Some sipped organic tea or took knitting and crocheting classes. The dean took off his shoes and socks and led students in qigong, a traditional Chinese breathing exercise to promote awareness of body and mind.

But… “nearly every student in the academic commons of the main library yesterday was either talking on a cellphone, checking e-mail on a laptop, or otherwise connected to a digital device.”

According to the Boston Globe, “The Day of Slowing was sparked by new research that has shown how our brains are increasingly affected by the technology we use to get through the day, making it harder to focus.”

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The benefits of “uni-tasking”

I’ve been meaning to mention an article I read recently in the Harvard Business Review, called How (and Why) to Stop Multitasking. It’s by Peter Bregman, and it explains, as the title suggests, how and why he stopped multitasking and started paying attention to one thing at a time (what I’ve called “uni-tasking”).

Bregman lists some of the benefits he experienced, and I’ve summarized those below (but do go and read the full article, which expands on these points).

  1. He found life more enjoyable, especially when it came to spending time with his children. And he noticed the simple beauties of life.
  2. He found that he could concentrate better and made significant progress in tasks that required high-level cognitive processing.
  3. He was more relaxed.
  4. He no longer wished to waste time.
  5. He had more patience and felt less rushed.
  6. And lastly, “there was no downside.”

He also includes a bunch of links to some cool research. For example, he points out that our productivity goes down by as much as 40% when we multitask. Multitaskers think they’re being more efficient, but they’re not.

I’d compare this perceptual disconnect to drunk driving. People who drink drive badly — but their intoxication often prevents them from recognizing this, to the point where some people believe they drive better drunk than sober! I think multitasking prevents us from seeing that multitasking is an ineffective strategy.

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