Am I the only one who has trouble focusing on a single task? I doubt it.
It wasn’t always this way. At school and university it seemed relatively easy to apply myself to a single task. But these days it seems as if my mind is wanting me to do a million different things at once.
I call this the “web 2.0 mind”. Why? Because I believe the web 2.0 has changed how I act, both online and offline. When online I’m usually busy doing a number of different things at once. Twitter, Reddit, Digg, Gmail, Flickr, Facebook, Skype, blogs…. these are just a few of the places I might I be at any given moment. Doing multiple things at once has become the norm for me, which is why I say even when I’m offline I can find it difficult to focus on a single task. Of course multi-tasking is nothing new, but never before has it been so easy and enjoyable to be doing so many things at once.
You may be asking yourself: does this web 2.0 mind even need “taming”? Well, let me make one thing clear: the ability to be doing a number of tasks at once – ie multi-tasking – is not only an asset, but a necessity, in this modern economy. And as I previously noted, it is often fun to have a number of things on the go at once. However, there often comes a time when you need to put your head down and get a particular task or project completed. And when this time comes, the last thing you want to have to deal with is a mind that is running wild with thoughts such as “I wonder what is on the Digg front page” or “I’ll just check Twitter quickly to see what my friends are up to”. These sound pretty harmless, but it’s funny how 5 minutes can quickly turn into 30 minutes without you realizing it.
The point of this article, then, is this: when you consciously decide to work on a single task you should be able to maintain your focus on that task. If you can’t, you need to work on your mental discipline. As I said at the start of this article, staying focused on a single task is something I struggle with. However, I am improving and would like to share with you what I’m finding to be the keys to being the master of your mind.
Practice Practice Practice
Mental discipline is like a muscle. The more you build it, the more you can rely on it. If you consider yourself mentally undisciplined, I suggest taking on little challenges, conquering them, and then progressing to bigger ones.
Want to try a small challenge right away? Try time boxing, a productivity tip where you set yourself a certain amount of time to work on a task. When the time is up, you stop. Simple. Now, the key here is that when you find yourself wanting to do something else you do not act on that desire. Rather, you stay focused on the task you have committed yourself to. When the time is up, then you can reward yourself by spending some time doing whatever it is you would rather be doing.
Mindfulness involves being present with whatever is occurring to you or within you at any given moment. This, in turn, helps to free you from reactive, habitual patterns of thinking, feeling and acting. I often find that when my mind runs wild, it is a few moments before I “catch” it. This means that before I can tell myself “I’ll finish this task and then check Digg” I will already be on the front page. Damn! You can see why, then, mindfulness is crucial to curbing such behavior.
An easy way to start being mindful is to practice mindful eating. Instead of shoveling down the food on your plate, slow down and let your senses explore, savor and taste. Also, be aware of your hunger and don’t feel you need to finish eating everything in front of you just for the sake of it.
The best practice I have found to date to to cultivate mindfulness is meditation. If you have little or no experience with meditation, you may like to check out this article on How to Meditate.
One of the keys to meditation is the ability to concentrate on a single thing at a time. There are a number of things you can concentrate on, but if you are new to meditation I suggest focusing on your breath. Every time your attention moves away from the breath and shifts to another physical sensation, sound, smell or thought, try to gently but firmly bring your attention back to your breath. Each time you do this you are practicing the skill of mindful observation, thereby strengthening your mental discipline. And as I noted earlier, it is all about practice.
Ok, now that I’ve finally finished writing this article I’m off to check out the front page of Digg and see what’s happening on Twitter. Bye!