A great paradox has arisen in our modern society - the more we invent faster and smarter ways of getting things done the more we are creating and caging ourselves in a frightening word of information overload, risking psychological exhaustion, burnout and a whole host of other psychological problems.
The reality of work and life has changed dramatically over the last few decades. We are now bombarded with information from every direction streaming from our vast collection of mobile devices 24/7 and with further advancements in technology this is not set to improve any time soon - Google Glass is next where any moment of connection to reality that we may still have left will be invaded by a constant barrage of data directed straight into our line of vision.
It is important to recognise that irrespective of the multiple demands on our attention our brain tries to deal with them all at the same time. That is how our brains evolved - to take in data, evaluate and problem solve it. This tendency can be traced back to our evolutionary past when our cave dwelling ancestors scanned their threatening environment for signs of danger in their goal of survival. Our brains haven't evolved much since these times and despite there being endless streams of data to contend with, coming at us all at the same time, we inherently try to attend to it all at once - now that sounds like multitasking and we're good at that, right? Well no, actually we're not.
Despite the myths about multitasking we aren't actually very good at it at all. The research tells us that it stresses us out, we make more mistakes and it takes longer to do things. Moreover the more we do it, the more we do it, each attempt at multitasking reinforces the habit of multitasking so we relentlessly keep doing it making more and more mistakes, stressing ourselves out more and generally becoming more inefficient in the process. The habit of multitasking becomes so strong that even when we have one thing to do say, like fall asleep, the mind might feel compelled to do something else at the same time and all too often will wander off thinking about anything else that is can, getting in the way of our much needed rest.
So the more we habitually multitask the more we are actually increasing our distractibility. This is problematic for our well-being as well as our productivity as research also tells us that we are happier when we live in the present moment irrespective of what we might be doing there.
So can we change this habit or are we stuck with it? What does the future hold for us as currently we're at risk of becoming one big frazzled nation of inefficient zombies, clambering around on autopilot, suffering with varying degrees of attention deficit disorder?
Well you will be pleased to know that the world of neuroscience has given us hope, with its wonderful discovery of neuroplasticity - effectively our brains are 'plastic', not static and we can therefore create new habits and ways of being. We need to train our minds to remain present and focussed at our will irrespective of the compelling distractions around us and that is done through the practice of mindfulness.
The truth is that we don't need to throw away our mobile devices, return to the land of milk and honey and dance in circles of joy to find some much needed space and peace from this modern busy world. We can't simply turn our minds off either, that would be attacking ourselves, the natural humanness in us all and quite simply an impossible task. The answer is none of these, it is instead within us all - mindfulness gives us what so many of us are craving - a spacious place within which we can calmly stand with more stability as we continue to move about and enjoy this busy modern world and all that we have created in it.
So, here's a quick mindfulness technique to bring the mind back to the here and now and not wander off into some other time and place:
-First before you try the technique, bring to mind a thought about a scenario that stresses you out and that you would usually get caught up in, like:
"I have too much to do" or "I can't get all this done in time" or the like.
-Next, think this thought over and over again and really believe and buy into it. Notice the affect on your mood and where your thoughts take you.
-Now for the technique, repeat this thought but this time with a few simple mindful words before it, these are:
"I'm having the thought that ... I have too much to do" or "I'm having the thought that .... I can't get all this done in time" (or whatever your thought was).
So what happens? What did you notice? What affect do those mindful words have? They create some distance, right? There you are and then there is the thought. We take a step back from the endless rushing around that we do, often in our own minds. We 'wise up' to our autopilot tendencies, like worrying, multitasking and endlessly checking our emails and are free to make better choices like even turning our mobile devices off for a few minutes.
Now you might say that the thought you came up with is true and you need to think it but that is not the point. The question to ask yourself is how helpful is it to keep thinking it, how is thinking that thought 'right now' promoting your well-being and productivity? How is thinking that thought affecting your mood and your busy behaviour and how does all this get in the way of a more enjoyable and meaningful life? Noticing our thoughts like this is being mindful of them, no meditation needed here, although meditating can really help to cultivate this observing mind.
This all seems simple, huh? Well, it is but it is very difficult to be simple, the mind is so unruly and highly conditioned, are you willing to be extraordinary to promote your well-being and productivity in this information overloaded world? Well now you can make a start by practising this simple mindful technique of your thinking as much as you can, notice your thoughts and you may find that you feel like you have more space amidst the endless rushing around that you do.
We have created an amazing modern world with astonishing technological advancements and the time has now come to also develop our minds so that we can enjoy all this, our own wonderful creation, rather than have it consume and exhaust us all.
Dr Michael Sinclair is a Consultant Psychologist and the Clinical Director of City Psychology Group in London. He is the author of "Mindfulness for Busy People: turning frantic and frazzled into calm and composed".