Before I embark on this topic, I first want to introduce some terms, and the best way is by way of an example.
If you are you reading this article whilst chewing your meal, listening to music, or chatting online with friends, you are multitasking right now. If you have to read this sentence again because your mind has already wondered off somewhere else, then you were distracted. Finally, if you are fully here reading this article, then that is mindfulness.
I think this is an important distinction because in the literature I have read so far on the topic many writers have mixed up multitasking and mindless distractions, and then implied that multitasking is “bad”, while mindfulness is good. To them, multitasking and mindfulness can’t go together hand in hand.
When I was a first-year law student, I recall sitting in the classroom listening to my lecturer whilst I madly scribbled down notes like everyone else around me. Then one day, the lecturer said to us, “For today, I want you all to put your pens down and just listen to me.” Throughout the class, there was no writing allowed. I remember a slight anxiety creeping up as I kept thinking to myself, “How am I going to remember all of this?” I looked around me and saw other people fidgeting too. One girl even reached out for her pen, only to drop it down sheepishly after she got a “look” from the lecturer.
It took a while, but eventually I just listened. Surprisingly, it took a lot more effort than I thought would be needed to just listen, because my mind would wander and I had to continuously bring it back into the classroom to really focus my mind on what the lecturer was saying. I had to understand what she said, rather than just writing down her words. I had to appreciate each moment I was there because if my mind wandered away, I wouldn’t be able to follow her subsequent logic. After class, students were complaining and even I didn’t find value in it. I felt I didn’t retain much of the information, compared with when I was taking notes.
Then I graduated from law school and became a junior solicitor. One day, I went to court with an experienced barrister, and during his cross-examination, I was again scribbling like mad to ensure I got down all his questions and the witness’ answers. At one point, he kindly told me to put down my pen and just listen. So I did. This barrister got out very detailed information from these witnesses, including dates, times and places for when things happened. He didn’t write a single word down. At the conclusion of the case when he was addressing the jury, he recalled everything in great detail all the evidence to support our case. I was amazed.
Now when I run my own cases at court, I still scribble notes here and there, but the most valuable times are those when it’s just me being present with the witness. Not only do I recall the information later on, I also pick up on body language and the subtle facial expressions that I otherwise wouldn’t have seen if I was too busy scribbling away like mad.
When I reflect on it, I realise that my pen and paper are like my safety nets for fear that my memory will fail me, and they were like an anchor point so my mind doesn’t wander off too far. I now realise why it was so difficult for me as a first year student to just listen: I hadn’t trained my attention, memory and mindfulness. Over time, by exercising my attention and memory, and practising mindfulness meditation, I began to develop this invaluable skill of listening and being present to each moment that arises.
I won’t be surprised if readers find my ‘pen and paper’ story outdated, because by my last year of uni, pen and paper were steadily replaced by laptops. Laptops are probably a more difficult distraction to overcome than writing. Sitting at the back of the class, I can see students flipping between their Word Document and Solitaire game. (This is also before UNSW had wireless internet available to all students, so I can only imagine what students do now.)
When I was studying, I would find myself just checking my email, reading the news, chatting with friends – basically finding a distraction to occupy my mind each time I was bored. In my chill-out time, I would be able to chat to three different people at once online, reply to my emails, pay bills online, and sometimes even clean my room in the process, with music playing in the background. I used to think I was making the most of my time by multitasking.
If you look up the definition of “multitasking”, you will find that it is actually a computing term, in which the CPU executes various diverse tasks concurrently or in interwoven execution. A secondary definition of the term describes aperson carrying out two or more tasks at the same time. So the term “multitasking” was first used to describe the function of computers, not humans.
I remember in my uni days I used to argue that humans were capable of doing a few tasks at the same time. Others would argue that the mind can only do one thing at a time. I still don’t have the definitive answer to this, but looking back I realise that we were actually disputing different things (typical bored students) and I now think both answers are essentially correct.
This is because I can do tasks simultaneously (multitasking), but when I do this, I am actually undertaking one task at a time in quick succession. So I am able to listen to the radio while I drive, and file my nails while on the phone. However if I slow down the processes, I can see that my mind is only attentive to one thing at a time. This became clear to me during meditation, when the level of distraction is diminished and the level of awareness is heightened.
With this view in mind, I don’t think that multitasking and mindfulness are at odds with one another. After all, multitasking has become a fact of modern life and as Thich Nhat Hanh would say, “There is no enlightenment outside of daily life.”
To illustrate this further, let me share a Zen story with you. A Zen master used to tell his students to be mindful of what they do, and his instructions are simply, “When you read, just read. When you eat, just eat.” One day when his students came down to the breakfast hall, they saw their Zen master reading the newspaper over breakfast. One horrified student approached the Zen master and asked, “Master, how can you read the paper while having breakfast? You always teach us, ‘When you read, just read. When you eat, just eat’?” The Zen master smiled and said simply, “When you eat and read, just eat and read,” and then went back to reading the paper over his breakfast.
Hindrance of Multitasking
Even though it is possible for multitasking and mindfulness to go hand in hand (and later I will discuss how mindfulness enhances multitasking), multitasking can become a hindrance to our mindfulness training in our initial training stages.
This is because multitasking hinges on jumping from one thing to another, and if this is done repeatedly, it becomes a habitual tendency. Our mind – which is very delicate – then is used to short bursts of attention before it moves onto the next object. We become less patient with what is difficult and boring. We become less-inclined to follow through with long projects to their end because we give up in search for something else.
In time, excessive multitasking and distraction–seeking can erode our ability to concentrate on one object at a time, and finally stillness becomes seemingly impossible to achieve. After all, stillness only comes if we allow the mind time to settle without attaching onto the next distraction to keep itself preoccupied. Lao Tzu once said, “Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the mind is clear? Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself?”
Mindfulness achieves more than Multitasking
If we think multitasking makes our life more fulfilling in being able to fit more into it, or make us more productive, then I think mindfulness practice is more effective in allowing us to achieve this.
When I am chatting online with three different people, the quality of the interaction is very different to if I was only talking to one. If I was reading a book with music in the background, the quality of my reading (or listening to music for that matter) is different to if I only read or listened to music. If I was racing down the motorway to get to my destination, I am likely to have missed the whole journey.
To me, it is possible to experience many things at once, but the fullness of each experience is lost. The subtle nuances of life aren’t heard, nor felt, nor understood. We race through life, without really experiencing it completely. In that sense, even if we fit more stuff into our day, what we get out of it is much less.
As an exercise, next time you are dining with someone, give them your whole presence and then take a moment to give your food your full presence. Observe any changes in the quality of your experience.
As for productivity, if we have too many things happening at the same time, we are likely to miss out on something or forget something. As the Buddhist saying goes, “When busy, go slow.” After all, when you are busy, you don’t have time for mistakes that are made by hasty action.
Why Mindfulness Practice is so important when Multitasking
Multitasking is life in the fast-lane, while meditation is a time for you to slow down and recuperate after a busy day of running around, physically and mentally. With a fresh mind, you are able to tackle the busy day that awaits you the next day.
Further, mindfulness practice is also about being aware of what is happening in this present moment and seeing things as they are (vipassana). Even if things are busy around you, you are neither subsumed in the workload nor drowning in your own anxiety or stress. So much of our mental energy and time is wasted on thoughts of self-doubt and unproductive mental chatter. Imagine if you could just watch the raving thoughts and feelings without getting caught up in them – how efficient can you be! Externally, say studying, you can focus your whole presence on your studies, without being distracted by the internet or Facebook.
Finally, with the joy that comes from mindfulness, hopefully you can enjoy each moment of your life with equanimity and gratitude for all that is happening right now. Even studying! It takes a lot of favourable causes and conditions to allow you to have this time to study and learn, and pursue your life accordingly. So I hope each of us can fully embrace our mindfulness practice in our lives, so we can stop the computing process and become more human.