It’s Mindful Monday, and I woke up with distraction on my mind. Distraction affects our lives in numerous ways, with consequences ranging from distasteful to disastrous. Often it masquerades as something we proudly venerate: multitasking. But every time we multitask, we pull brain activity away from our primary task of the moment.
Distraction with Distasteful Consequences
A couple years ago, I set out to make a delicious stir-fry dinner from scratch. The finished product was to look like this:
I carefully assembled the ingredients, added them to the pan at appropriate times, and enjoyed the pleasing aroma as I waited to perform the last step. I was also multitasking: paying bills with online banking and setting the timer to alert me to perform the next cooking step. So when the final ding sounded, I rushed into the kitchen and added 2 tablespoons of cornstarch to the mixture. I alerted the family to head to the table while the sauce thickened… Only it didn’t thicken – I had stir fry soup! So like a good Southern cook, I performed a taste test – and gagged. I realized that I had added 2 tablespoons of baking soda instead of cornstarch, and my fabulous meal was ruined. By multitasking, I made a small mistake that messed up my primary task – getting the meal on the table.
Distraction with Disastrous Consequences
Remember the last time you talked on your cell phone while driving? According to Distraction.gov, that multitasking choice reduced your “amount of brain activity associated with driving by 37%”. Have you ever sent or read a text message while driving? At 55 mph, that kind of multitasking removes your eyes from the road for 4.6 seconds on average. That’s like driving the length of a football field with your eyes closed, and the consequences can be disastrous.
In 2010, 18% of injury auto crashes were affected by driver distraction: 3092 people were killed and an estimated 416,000 people were injured in accidents involving a distracted driver (distraction.gov/facts). Cell phones and smartphones standout as obvious distraction culprits because their use often requires the visual, cognitive, and manual focus of the driver. Yet other potential driver distractions include eating or drinking, applying make-up, shaving, adjusting an iPod, watching a video, reading maps or possibly using a GPS. Multitasking while driving or distracted driving can have disastrous consequences.
Distraction with Relationships
Maybe it’s easy to see how multitasking can mess up a meal or a ride in the car. But how does distraction affect our relationships? How do you feel after unburdening your emotional pain to your loved one, and he absentmindedly grunts in response because he’s distracted by something else? What do your children experience when you ask them about their day as your eyes remain glued to your iPhone, iPad, or TV screen? In relationships, repeated distraction can disrupt connections, because it draws our attention away from our primary task – connecting with someone else. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal explores a possible association between parental high-tech gadget use and childhood injuries. While there’s no data to establish causation, an emergency room physician observes that “‘we think we’re multitasking and not really feeling like we are truly distracted. But in reality we are.'”
How to Avoid the Consequences of Distraction with Mindfulness
Since distraction draws our attention away from our primary focus, a mindful approach invites us to return our mental focus to the present moment. Just remember 3 things the next time you feel the pull of distraction or multitasking:
- Observe (notice) what you are doing (your primary task of the moment): cooking, driving, spending time with someone. Also observe the pull of distraction.
- Accept the presence of your primary task in the moment and accept (acknowledge) the pull of distraction.
- Let go of the thoughts that pull you towards distraction and return your focus to your primary task as often as it wanders.
Here’s what the 3-step process looked like for me today. While driving on the interstate, I observed the traffic around me and accepted the process of driving. I observed the sound of email and text alerts on my phone, but I let go of the need to check them. I observed the pull to call a friend and chat her up on the long drive. I accepted the presence of the pull, but I chose to let it go and I returned my focus to driving.
What might happen if you apply this process to distraction in your life?