A funny thing happened to me on the way to the station the other day. I was walking quite briskly, a briefcase in one hand, a phone in the other (I’m always expecting a call), and in my mind I was rehearsing a conversation that I would be having at a meeting later that day. I was, in fact, completely in the zone. So much so, however, that as I stepped on to the kerb I lost my footing and fell over. I got up, dusted myself down and gave the kerb a long, hard accusative stare. But once I was sure that nobody had seen me I settled down to think about what had occurred. The fact was that I had been so distracted by walking to somewhere else whilst thinking deeply about the future that I had lost any connection with the present. Rather than practising mindfulness, I’d been doing mindlessness.
It is extraordinary how easy it is to miss the present moment and to be too busy to just be. As TS Eliot put it in The Rock: “where is the life we have lost in living?” Many of us simply miss the moment and those that are “present” are often only present in the artificial superficiality of the hustle and bustle of the so-called real world. Modern communications technology has both empowered us and made us more connected whilst at the same time it often makes us feel curiously disconnected us from ourselves. Twitter, for instance, can make us feel both part of the happening world and yet strangely insignificant compared with those seemingly more influential.
The recent Ofcom survey on the media consumption habits of the British throws up some interesting insights. The good news is that for the first time for a while there is an increase in families coming together to watch TV. Regardless of the content of the programmes it is important that families take time to be with each other. However, the bad news is that it seems that many people “distract” themselves from the TV by phoning, texting, or interacting with others on social media. So even when we are together we’re not actually together. Doh. As Alain de Botton put it: “It is one of the unexpected disasters of the modern age that our new unparalleled access to information has come at the price of our capacity to concentrate on anything much.”
The idea that we can do two things at once is a myth and yet people seem to do it all the time. Business meetings are often taken up with people sitting in front of their laptop or emailing on their phone with only one ear on the conversation. Rather than listening to understand they listen to respond. And then there’s the business presenters who put detailed powerpoint slides on a screen and then talk to (or over?) them not understanding that we can either read the slides or listen to the points but we can’t do both. And if anyone says that they are the exception that proves the rule, tell them that the research shows that the people who are worst at multi-tasking are the multi-taskers. As Confucius said, a man who chases two rabbits loses one and misses the other.
The good news is that there is a growth in the number of people practising mindfulness. Indeed, there are now many businesses which are encouraging their employees to get involved in the discipline. They recognise that mistakes are happening because people are too busy and under so much pressure that they’re missing the present (perhaps this will even lead to a decline in noisy, distracting open-plan offices in favour of a return to quiet areas of concentration). Society needs to be less frenetic and more grounded. We all need to be more aware of the present and live for the moment and stop running on autopilot mode where we look without seeing and hear without listening. Only then will we be able to concentrate on the moment. As Brian Tracy put it: “Throughout my career, I have discovered and rediscovered a simple truth. It is this: the ability to concentrate single-mindedly on your most important task, to do it well and to finish it completely, is the key to great success, achievement, respect, status and happiness in life.”
And if you still think multi-tasking is a good idea, next time you’re in your car remember the scary thought that half the people around you are trying to drive and follow their SatNav.