Many years ago, I worked with a remarkable man who’d spent 20 years as a monk before getting married, starting a family and becoming a brilliant educator. He was making a brief stop in the UK and I had the afternoon free, so I took him to Hampton Court Palace near London.
I imagined that we’d go round the palace, but he seemed more interested in the garden, so we walked round that instead. I set out at my normal walking pace, which was almost a jog, but he wasn’t in such a rush. He asked me when the blossoms came out, and although the same trees were on my street, I couldn’t remember because I always dashed past them. He inquired into the history of Hampton Court; I knew King Henry VIII had lived there but couldn’t recall anything else. He was aware that I’d been a professional artist and he stopped to ask me about the correct name for a particular shade of red on one of the flowers. I said I had no idea. He must have got a little exasperated at this point because he turned to me and said, in a gentle way, “Do you notice anything?”
His words stung, but they highlighted an uncomfortable truth: that I lived in a cloud of distraction and missed out on experiencing what was in front of me. As Leonardo da Vinci is claimed to have said, “An average human looks without seeing, listens without hearing, touches without feeling, eats without tasting, moves without physical awareness, inhales without awareness of odor or fragrance, and talks without thinking.”
Living in a state of distraction inevitably leads to shallower relationships and reduced effectiveness, but a study conducted by Harvard University psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Dan Gilbert revealed that we pay a price in happiness too. They used an iPhone application to gather data from 2,250 participants, aged 18 to 88, on subjects’ thoughts, feelings, and actions as they went about their daily lives. They concluded that people spend 46.9 percent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing. The punchline was this: people were less happy when their minds were wandering than when they were not.
The challenge of being present isn’t helped by the fact that our attention span is shortening. For example, researchers at the University of California tracked the average time people spent looking at a computer screen before moving their attention to another window. In 2004 the average time was three minutes. By 2012 this had dropped to one minute and 15 seconds and in 2014 it broke the one-minute barrier, averaging 59.5 seconds. The issue with switching attention is that it exacerbates our tendency to bring thoughts and emotions from the last task or conversation into the new one, which in turn erodes our ability to engage in the present moment. Sophie Leroy, a business school professor at the University of Minnesota, refers to this phenomenon as attention residue. It’s the same challenge faced by a professional tennis player whose game suffers because she gets caught up in thinking about the volley she missed in the last game rather than playing the point in front of her. Equally, we rob ourselves of experiencing the present moment when we are engaged in anticipatory rumination; on these occasions, we are too busy thinking about a future moment to experience the present one.
The good news is that small changes in our habits can make a demonstrable difference.
- Start to notice how little you notice. Improving the quality of our attention starts with observing it. While it’s impossible to always give people your undivided attention, you can notice when your attention drifts away and then bring it back to the person you’re speaking to. This takes discipline and practice but begins to turn the habit of being distracted into a habit of being present.
- Practice switching on and switching off. The correlation between preoccupation and unhappiness makes good sense when we consider the converse: that simple activities can be a source of great joy when we become absorbed in them. The following practice will help. When you begin a task or conversation, imagine that you’re turning off a switch that relates to the last thing you were doing and turning on a switch that relates to the new one. Sports professionals use the same prompt to remind them to stay in the present. Before moving to your next activity, you’ll need to switch off again, before repeating the process again. You can practice this countless times each day; each time you do so, you are strengthening the mental boundary between tasks and improving the quality of your attention.
- Go deeper. Interruptions are a part of life, but this doesn’t stop us scheduling uninterrupted time, during which we put our phone away and stop checking our emails. During these activities, focus entirely on what you’re doing, expecting to be nowhere else. Being absorbed is both productive and healthy.
As neuroscientist Moshe Bar puts it, “Except when you are flying an F-16 aircraft or experiencing extreme fear or having an orgasm, your life leaves too much room for your mind to wander. As a result, only a small fraction of your mental capacity remains engaged in what is before it, and mind-wandering and ruminations become a tax on the quality of your life.”
Thankfully, the route to being happier may lie directly under our nose.
Moshe Bar, ‘Think Less, Think Better’, The New York Times, June 2016.
Steve Bradt, ‘Wandering Mind Not a Happy Mind’, Harvard Gazette, 11 November 2010, news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2010/11/wandering-mind-not-a-happy-mind
Ian Hardy, ‘Losing Focus: Why Tech is Getting in the Way of Work’, BBC News, 8 May 2015, www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-32628753, based on studies by Professor Gloria Mark, Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences, University of California.
Sophie Leroy, ‘Why is it so hard to do my work? The challenge of attention residue when switching between work tasks’, Science Direct, July 2009.