Why Being Present is ‘healthier’ than multitasking: 3 Tips to enhance your emotional well-being
Let us be very clear: being ‘truly present’ in today’s environment where we are constantly battling with ‘tackling’ as many things as possible, is not an easy task.
To the same extent avoiding getting stressed (knowing that the threshold for perceiving a given source of ‘pressure’ as stressful varies from person to person) is not exactly a ‘walk in the park’ either.
Let me sum up a small scenario, which I am sure might sound familiar to some …
During your working week, you might be on the phone to a client from the car (…handsfree obviously…) whilst driving to the airport to catch a flight to travel abroad to your ‘work project destination’. You are getting stuck in an unexpected traffic jam (asking yourself “why is there a traffic jam at this time – I intentionally left early and booked the later morning flight to avoid peak traffic time?….”) … Just when you hang up you receive another call from a close colleague, who is clearly upset and needs venting and support. Whilst listening to the colleague on the phone you try to find an alternative route (starting to realise that the chance of missing your flight is becoming a growing reality). You tap into your GPS, which is starting to talk at you giving you visual and verbal directions….. I think you get the scene.
I would assume that if you were the ‘main character’ in this scenario, you might be starting to feel rather ‘overwhelmed’ by this ‘multitasking’ scenario and the demands it is putting on you. By this point your perceived stress levels might possibly have increased considerably too.
I often reflect on the extent to which our whole life is shaped by a constant influx of increasing demands and (technology driven) data points and with it an ‘inherent’ expectation to make more, faster and better decisions.
Will we ever be able to be truly present again and learn the art of truly ‘switching off’ from all that ‘noise’ which is often at the detriment of our emotional and physical well-being?
Is the act of the ‘multitasking’, which helps us to thrive in our demanding times and maintain a sense of physical and emotional well-being or is it the art of being present?
Well-being is not uni-dimensional but is characterized by three closely connected dimensions: the physical, emotional and cognitive (mental). One way of ensuring that these three stay in balance is to consciously overcome our tendency of ‘going about our daily lives in autopilot mode’ and instead putting some effort into ‘being more present’ with the person, situation or task we are dealing with.
Truly focusing on the one task/activity at hand and completing it (whether this might be manual, intellectual or people oriented), has been proven by numerous studies and much research into workplace effectiveness, to yield better results than multitasking (switching from one task to another).
Even though it is unlikely within the realities of our everyday hectic lives to turn into utterly ‘purist’ task masters– we certainly can do much better than we are doing today by raising our awareness when we do switch tasks relentlessly without completing hardly any of those started by learning, and keeping to a regular practice and discipline of focus.
A seemingly simple action like focusing on one task at a time is becoming increasingly impossible in today’s (work and life) reality. Our human ‘natural habitat’ as it stands today, is characterized by 24x7 (technology driven) stimuli and by ongoing progress (whether technology or science based) evolving faster than the speed of light. This is creating a never-ending data influx and requires an ever-increasing range of options, which we need to take decisions upon.
Whilst multi-tasking used to be considered a ‘unique’ special ability only 10 -15 years ago – now it is everybody’s ‘usual’ way to get things done whether at work or in other areas of our life.
Unfortunately, the sad news is that recent evidence based research emerging from neuroscience is increasingly demonstrating the debilitating effects of multitasking on our (intellectual) efficiency, overall productivity/results and on our well -being. It has been shown, based on several studies, that on average employees manage to stay on one task about 11 minutes before getting interrupted. The issue is that it then takes about 25 minutes for the brain to focus back again. It’s been estimated that 40% of the time people fail to return to their original task, or if they do it will be several days later. (Mark et al, University of California, 2013). Another study conducted with a large group of employed professionals demonstrated that the median of open unfinished tasks was as high as 65.
Can you see the magnitude of the issue for organisations from a sheer work productivity/financial point of view – let alone from a human point of view related to personal fulfillment, well-being and job satisfaction?
Most humans are motivated and driven by a sense of achievement/goal orientation - our brains are geared that way.
Reward seeking behaviors studied (motivation) increase the level of dopamine transmission in the brain. In short: if you want to increase your dopamine levels the best is to set a goal and achieve it. If people are deprived of this fundamental need on an ongoing basis, they can get severely demotivated and in extreme cases this might lead to cases of mild depression. This is also the reason why it is so important to set achievable goals versus mammoth type goals, which are unlikely to ever get done, as the feeling for achieving small realistic goals, will provide us with a positive feeling and encourage us to set and achieve another one. The same happens when we receive positive feedback.
No wonder worldwide stress levels and related illnesses (panic disorder, burn-out, depression, anxiety, unhealthy sleep patterns, etc) have increased exponentially in the past 5 years….
It is reported that 80% of employees feel stress on the job and at least 40% admit they would need help to deal with it. One of the top health concerns amongst teenagers is feeling stress and not knowing how to deal with it. (Global Organisation for Stress, 2015)
On the other hand, our brains are equally wired for excitement and switching from one task to another (through voluntary or involuntary interruption) which can provide a ‘sense’ of novelty and immediate gratification, which then obviously fades away as quickly as it was initiated.
An example of this is the extent to which many of us are in some way ’seemingly’ addicted to checking emails, social media, spending time on the internet on our smartphone/I-devices. Several recent studies conducted showed that when a large number of participants (teens and older generations) were cut off from their devices for a period of 24 hours they almost considered it as hard as quitting smoking.
In other words, if we want to focus more and multitask less – our everyday environment and way of life is not really helping us to stay motivated to do so and the temptation of being pulled back into the ‘superficial attention task switching syndrome’ is far too easy. This is the reason why consciousness and discipline are key success factors in helping us to be more present and focus again.
As we mentioned above there is growing evidence from research conducted in the areas of positive psychology and the science of well-being that indicates having a sense of goal achievement is a key motivator for people, but so is the pursuit of meaning and purpose for humans. Numerous studies show that the more people felt their activities were consistent with core themes and values of their self, the greater meaning they reported in their activities, the more fulfilled they felt. (Scott Barry Kauffman, 30th January, 2016).
Another study showed the perceived benefit of participants of connecting with others in a meaningful way. For example, it was found that helping others even in cases where individuals did not consider themselves as strongly empathetic provided a sense of fulfillment, satisfaction and well-being. People who reported a perceived sense of purpose and meaning in their work, relationships and activities experienced less stress and health issues and greater balance also in other areas such as physical fitness and well-being.
So where does this all leave us? Well… I believe taking action is critical once we become aware of what is actually holding us back. So let me share three simple tips, which have helped me to be more deliberate about focusing on doing less but being more present with those things I do and most importantly getting less stressed about the fact that I am not doing them all:
1. Train your Brain
Learning to ‘switch off the noise’ whether this is ‘internal’ (i.e. worries, limiting self-beliefs, thoughts and feelings) or external (issues and/or barriers whether at work, in family, conflict, deadlines, etc) can be learned and helps you to ‘be more present and focused’ on what really matters. It also helps you to clearly discern between what is a priority and what is not. This clarity will help you to have the courage, willpower and comfort to let those things go which actually do not really matter or even worse make you feel stressed and disempowered.
One of several ways to do this is to meditate regularly. Please note that meditation does not have to entail a lot of effort and can take different shapes. A more ‘informal example ‘of doing some meditation could be in form of a short ‘speed self-reflection’ session:
Taking a 10 mins walk somewhere in a quiet place in nature (park/anywhere outside the office/home building or similar) by yourself and take a break for self-reflection (phone/email access off), can be a form of meditation. Some examples of self-reflection questions, which might help you to start this process: What is going well for me? What am I grateful for? How am I feeling today? What did not go so well? What am I learning from this that can help me in the future? Who did I help? Who did I not help? How important is that to me? etc)
If you don’t have much time or patience/experience with starting a lengthy meditation session you can instead:
Start with a 5-10 minute session a day (chose a time where you can best ‘absent yourself- morning before day starts is best) and follow the few steps below for what I call a ‘speed meditation’ session with impact:
- Find a quiet place by yourself at the start of the day or whenever you can ‘squeeze’ this time in.
- Put the timer/alarm to 10 minutes on your phone/watch and then switch every gadget to silent so that you won’t hear any incoming mails/calls/messages until the timer will go off at the end of the 10 minute session.
- Close your eyes, pay attention to your breathing.
- Breath in slowly and deeply. Stop and consciously hold your breath for 2 seconds before breathing out deeply and slowly. If you repeat this breathing activity just 5 times, you will notice it will help to slow yourself and your thoughts down.
- Keep breathing slowly but naturally without any specific instructions and with your eyes still closed: Observe any thoughts that might cross your mind, don’t judge them but try simply to observe/notice them as if you were an external observer of yourself, as if these thoughts were clouds passing the blue sky. No need to ‘do anything or force yourself to empty your head’.
- Every time a thought passes through your mind which ‘distracts you’ from your breathing focus back on your breathing.
- Do this for a few more minutes, calming your mind by simply paying attention to breathing slowly.
- Think of a beautiful place or landscape you really like or imagine one and try and focus your mind fully on this beautiful image.
- Now create for yourself a self- encouragement motto (mantra) for your day, for example: Today I will stay calm and focused no matter what happens, or Today I feel confident etc.
- Choose whatever will help you most to feel calmer less stressed and more on top of your day.
You will be surprised, 10 minutes will be over in a moment, the alarm will ring and before you know it you are back to your ‘hectic day’ except you might feel much more present and focused.
2. Name your Emotion
There are many emotions we go through during the course of a day – it is the ‘negative’ emotions that can make us feel ‘out of control’ at times or stressed or overwhelmed and can make us unable to focus and ‘be present’ with what we need to accomplish.
We humans have a tendency to dwell on past and future events, especially those that ‘upset’ us and trigger ‘negative’ emotions, which make us lose focus on the present moment. Growing the ability to recognize these emotions and ‘label them’ clearly will help us to get more ‘emotional distance’ from them.
According to one recent piece of neuroscience research conducted by David Rock– outlined in his book: ‘Your Brain at Work’ (2009) our emotions ‘feel’ less prominent when we give these a clear cognitive label.
For example, it is less useful to say to yourself: I am feeling really upset and emotional, compared to instead asking yourself: what type of emotion am I exactly feeling? Let me give it a name and determine whether it is anger, fear, shame, sadness, jealousy etc. Clearly recognizing the emotion and spelling it out for ourselves will help us obtain a certain “emotional’ distance from it.
However, it is important not only to recognize positive emotions and not ‘face’ the negative emotions or vice-versa, which is counterproductive when in the process of establishing a strategy to address and manage them.
The more honest we are with ourselves and the more we become aware of what emotions are triggered by what type of situations, the more we start knowing and recognizing the ‘entire range’ of emotions we go through and can address the way we react because of them.
3. Act with Intention
As we determined earlier on, setting a goal and achieving it is highly motivating. Actively choosing a course of action, makes you already feel ‘more in control’ and looking forward to achieving the goal set.
Making decisions means creating intentions and setting goals. All these activities are proven to have a positive effect towards reducing anxiety and worry, as they provide a feeling of taking control over ‘your own destiny’.
In other words, once you have calmed your ‘internal and external noise’ with some self- reflection and meditation techniques and once you recognize the underlying emotion that goes with what you are experiencing, it’s time so set an intentional goal to address the way you react because of it, if it is getting in your way and raises your stress levels.
I guess the moral of the story is quite simple:
If we could stop for a just a moment (the present one ideally…) trying to respond and react to everything ‘automatically’ and instead ‘pay conscious attention’, we might end up discovering that knowing what truly matters to us becomes crystal clear, we will be less stressed and we will probably find out that maintaining our well-being requires much less effort than we thought.
Let us remember this: ‘Life will present you with whatever experience is most helpful for the evolution of your consciousness.’(Eckhart Tolle). However, if we are rarely ‘truly present’, we are at permanent risk of missing some of those learning opportunities, which are critical for our human evolution.
Would it not be ironic that in our era of ‘ultrafast progress’, we might be at risk of failing to evolve the most fundamental aspect, which set us humans apart from all other species: namely: …consciousness?
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Read more on well-being, positivity and the balance between mind & body and meaning in our next blog.
About the Author
Natalie Schurmann is the founder of Badiliko – a positive learning solutions consultancy specialising in leadership coaching and development for greater authenticity, trust, well-being and happiness in the world.
Please feel free to email Natalie directly if you are interested in learning more at Natalie.Schurmann@badiliko.com
Badiliko’s motto is: Lead from within. Inspire others. Transform the world