How mindfulness helps limit distraction and noise in your life
The topic of mindfulness has been making headlines for several years. It has infused all facets of the health and wellness industries as well as the business world. There are books, apps, seminars, and online courses all promising to change your life and improve wellbeing. But what exactly does mindfulness mean, and why has it become the buzzword of the decade? We are living in a time of unprecedented change, opportunity, and progress. The advent of the internet and smartphones has transformed how we communicate with one another, socialize, and gain knowledge. It has allowed us to become a profoundly interconnected world while at the same time perpetuating isolation and loneliness.
Previously established social norms surrounding our work-life schedules such as the proverbial 9-5 are obliterated by the array of devices we find ourselves connected to on a 24/7 basis. Although our access to technology is meant to ease our lives and provide us real-time data, in many ways, it causes anxiety, stress, and information overload. When we are continually attached to our devices, we become detached from the people around us and ourselves. We have become a society that is incessantly short on time, and to compensate, we attempt to multi-task. However, despite what we have been telling ourselves, our minds are not equipped to focus simultaneously on multiple tasks. Studies show that when we divide our attention, we become inefficient, unfocused, and ultimately less productive.
In its simplest form, mindfulness means being fully present and engaged in the moment. It requires two particular skills: focus, the ability to concentrate on what you are doing, and awareness, the ability to recognize and dismiss distractions as they arise. Mindfulness has increases empathy, improves productivity, and motivation and lowers levels of stress.
Mindfulness can also bring about greater appreciation and contentment, which leads to higher levels of fulfillment. It teaches us how to take a pause in moments of distress or conflict and consciously decide how to act, rather than react by identifying physical sensations, thoughts, and feelings. Mindfulness trains us to concentrate effectively on individual responsibilities, master our body’s stress responses, and recover from disappointment.
When we exist in a state of constant distraction and noise, we exacerbate tension and decrease our satisfaction. Yet we find ourselves running races without finish lines, enslaving our minds with endless to-do lists, tying the measure of our worth to our standards of productivity. In our attempts to “to do it all,” we often accomplish little, make mistakes and find ourselves experiencing loneliness.
The Price Of Distraction
Renowned Harvard psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert, found that people spend nearly 47% of their time distracted in thoughts that keep them from enjoying what they are doing in the present. Even when we participate in activities that we deem pleasurable, such as spending time with our families and friends, we surrender to the clamor of our thoughts. Their worldwide study, with 2,250 subjects, found that our happiness levels diminish when we shift our focus away from the present moment.
Mindfulness permits the brain to focus on the present, which allows us to gain a deeper understanding of long-term and short goals and how to achieve them. Successful people recognize that without mindfulness, they cannot reach their full potential.
Living On Autopilot
To be mindful, we must learn to shift our perspective and admit that we spend much of our life only partially engaged, entrenched in our old habits, and functioning on a proverbial autopilot. Because we spend so much of our time in this state of “half being,” we are often not even aware of what we are doing at any given moment.
Think of the last time you drove to the supermarket, your children’s school, or the office. What can you remember about that drive? Unless you had an important phone call, a meaningful conversation with a passenger, or a frightening event, probably not much. Often, we can pull up to our final destination and have almost no memory of the trip we just took. In these cases, while we are physically functioning and performing tasks, we are doing so without any acute awareness of the world around us. This happens while we drive, walk, perform mundane tasks, and engage in many other behaviors.
Money Trees and College Students
In 2014, professor Ira Hayman, Ben Sarb, and Breanne Wise-Swanson published an article titled “Failure to see money on a tree: inattentional blindness for objects that guided behavior.” In one of the studies, the researchers clipped three-dollar bills onto a tree beside a narrow path of a college campus. They did not hide the money or obstruct its view. It hung from a branch directly over the walking path at the students’ head height. To avoid hitting the money branch, the students had to intentionally duck their heads.
Observers positioned nearby spent two weeks collecting data. If students stopped to examine or collect the money, they were recorded as having displayed awareness. Their results were fascinating. Of the 63 students who passed by the branch while talking or texting on their cell phones, only 4 (6.35%) demonstrated any money awareness. Of the 333 students with only music players or no electronics, 66 (19.82%) noticed the money.
Ultimately, most students avoided walking into the tree branch but failed to show any awareness of the branch itself or the money. Nor did they form a memory of the objects and their experience. Essentially demonstrating that people can register information about an item that directs their behavior without any actual awareness of what it is.
Divided attention and mind wandering disrupts cognition and prevents us from forming memories. Unlike avoiding trees and physical hurdles, navigating obstacles in life requires planning and concrete thinking. If we are unaware of something as evident as money hanging from a tree, imagine how little attention we must pay to the subtle cues given by those around us.
To become a more productive, efficient, and empathetic individuals, we must learn to perform even mundane daily tasks without distraction, improve our working memory, and fully engage in all interactions. After all, if we should ever find ourselves walking past a money tree, wouldn’t we want to notice?