In recent years, I’ve become increasingly concerned about my scatterbrained-ness. I find it hard to focus on a single task for a prolonged period of time: for example, I find it takes me far longer to get through a book, or even read a short passage of text, than it ever used to. I don’t listen to the other person when I’m having a conversation — or rather, I try to listen, but the information somehow always seems to pass through my brain without being stored anywhere. I’m not really present in the moment. My brain gets distracted very easily, and I’ll swear I hadn’t had that conversation with you. My comprehension of texts is perhaps worse than it’s ever been, too. Not all the time, but often, I have to concentrate quite hard in order to actually take in the details of what I’m reading if I want anything more than a cursory understanding. When using the computer at home, I never seem to do anything productive — just follow an endless cycle of checking my feed reader, my e-mail, Twitter, and flicking through my open tabs. Sure, I get things done, but slowly, and piecemeal. My concentration usually feels scattered, my focus divided, my brain like it’s trying to juggle too many balls/clubs/knives/porcupines at once.

The first time I noticed this really happening was after starting university. My arrival at uni coincided (I think) with my first really portable, useful laptop (an iBook G4) with real internet-wherever-I-was; with the rise of update services like Twitter; with the rise of tabbed browsing. More and more things calling for my attention at any given time, and an increasing number of easy distractions. I think taking a laptop into lectures was a big mistake. What with web browsing, instant messaging, and the computer society chat room, I’d often leave lectures not having a clue what we’d just been told about. Closer to exams, I’d be going over course notes and sample exam papers and come across topics that I was sure I’d never been taught. Of course, I had — I just hadn’t been paying much attention.

It’s a problem that feeds itself. Checking your e-mail or Twitter account and finding a new message or some new updates from your friends is very… moreish. Each new ‘thing’ you discover is like a reward for your brain — well done!, it says, you checked for a thing, and you found one!. And so you check again. And again, and again.

Modern technology makes it easier than ever to be distracted; for your focus to be divided. Everything is at your fingertips. The problem is that if you’re trying to write a report on the computer and your brain keeps diving off to skim through some websites, or check your e-mail, or see what your friends are up to, it leaves very little time to actually devote to what you were trying to accomplish in the first place. And every time you check on one of these things, and your brain gets that little reward, it spends more and more time looking at more and more things. Ergo, you don’t finish that report — never mind, I’ll finish it tomorrow. But tomorrow, you’re just as distracted. You feel bad for not finishing, but your brain can’t help seeking its little rewards. It becomes a habit. An addiction. So the downward spiral goes.

I think multitasking’s partly to blame for this detrimental effect. As much as we like to think we can work on lots of things at once, the fact is we’re simply not that good at it – and I don’t think it’s particularly good for us, either. It’s stressful, and it trains our brain that it’s okay to only focus on tasks for a short period of time before switching to something else – but that’s no way to get things done. Even when relaxing, my brain still thinks it should be doing other things. For years, I’ve been overloading myself with information and trying to do too many things at once. Without even noticing it, I’ve been training my brain to always look for opportunities to perform this kind of rapid context-switching, which has left me less and less able to focus on any one thing for any length of time.

And lately, it’s been getting to me. I want to read more (I used to love reading books and would devour them ever-so quickly); I want to write more; I want to create more. Every time I attempt to settle down to do one of these things, that crack-seeking part of my brain gets excited by the slightest thing, pulling my attention away from what I want to do. What was that noise? Have I done this? I should remember to do that. I wonder if I have any e-mails? Are there any updates to my iPhone apps? Has anyone posted on Twitter recently?

I’m genuinely concerned about the effect it’s going to have on my long-term ability to focus on tasks and on my memory. The change I’ve described thus-far has arisen over a fairly short 4 year period. Current research seems to be backing up this idea that multitasking may well be problematic. A recent CNN article covers a study in which multitaskers did worse on attention tests than non-multitaskers. The multitaskers were more easily distracted by irrelevant information, and retained useless information in their short-term memory. Researchers aren’t sure whether these effects are reversible or not — I’m inclined to think they are, given enough time spent trying to correct them. So, I’m planning to do something about it and start trying to reverse the effects. It’s like realizing that for years I’ve been eating junk food on an alarmingly regular basis, and training my body to crave the taste of it. It’s time to throw away the Big Zinger Whopper, go on a diet, and start an exercise regime.

For starters, I’m going to be attempting to take up meditation on a daily basis. After all, applying single focus for a prolonged period of time is part of what mindfulness mediation is all about. Training my brain regularly in this way should help increase my mindfulness and focus when going about my day-to-day activities.

The goal of this kind of meditation is to bring an inner peace and a lasting happiness. Along the path to that goal, you get a lot of other benefits such as being more connected to your body, more aware of your feelings and emotions, and less caught by your thoughts and what’s called the “monkey mind” – a mind that won’t rest and that, over time, contributes to the kinds of anxiety and stress many of us feel each day. An Introduction to Mindfulness Meditation – Hivelogic

I’m also going to be trying to cut down on multitasking. If I’m doing something creative, or talking to somebody, or reading something, I want to give that my full attention. No aimless web browsing, or e-mail/Twitter/feed checking, whilst I’m trying to half-participate in a conversation with you. That doesn’t mean I can’t browse the web or read my feeds – but there’s a time and a place, and keeping these things distinct means that I should be more effective at whatever it is I’m doing. As with meditation, singletasking should help my ability to focus on a given task. It won’t be easy and it won’t be fast, but I guess it’s a bit like learning to run a marathon – take small, incremental steps, practice as often as you can, and you’ll get there.

After I began drafting this post I bought a book I’d read about online: The Power of Less. It may sound like a load more self-help nonsense, but it puts forward some useful ideas about applying meditation techniques to singletasking in your daily life. Simply focus on the task at hand — if you find your attention drawn away, be aware of what’s happening, breathe, and return your focus to the task. I’ve written the first draft of this blog post with no distractions whatsoever – just me and a text editor. I’ve written nearly 1000 words in about half an hour, because my attention has been on writing, and only on writing. Singletasking might just be the way forward