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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

June 16, 2012 at 8:00 PM

No app for applying ourselves mindfully: Drowning in tech distractions? Meditation can help

When I was younger, I could do something pretty well that I’ve been struggling to do at all now for years.

UW Prof. David Levy

Pay attention.

I blame you, browser. And you, phone. All your tabs and apps and naggy notifications. How many unread messages are in my inbox now, email? Seven hundred? And you, Facebook and Twitter. You’re the worst. Remember when you both decided, right around the same time, to take out that button that said “load more posts” and replace it with, well, nothing, so that scrolling through my news feed and my tweets goes on and on forever and ever, until my brain wakes up 40 minutes later, realizes it’s been sucked into a social vortex, and has no clue what I even went to your sites to do?

University of Washington Information School professors David Levy and Jacob Wobbrock think they know what I need, and it’s not a shrink.

It’s meditation.

The researchers and their colleagues just released what they believe is the first scientific study to explore how meditation affects multitasking in a work setting. And the implications are fascinating — whether you’re on the clock or off.

“I have every reason to believe that the results we’re finding extend beyond the workplace,” Levy said. “That’s my belief, my hope, and my expectation.”

Here, refreshingly, is a study that asks what we can do, apart from resenting technologies or waiting for them to change, to handle our information-rich lives better. We rage against tech for giving us more than we can take. But what if we can train our brains to take only what we need, only when we need it?

How to meditate

  • Sit in a comfortable position, relaxed and alert
  • Pay attention to your breath — the sensations as you breathe in and out
  • When your attention wanders, note where it went, then bring it back
  • Keep coming back to your breath, whenever your mind wanders

In the study, researchers gave groups of subjects a set of things to do and 20 minutes to do them. To complete the tasks, the subjects had to check email and instant messages, answer phone calls and coordinate mock schedules, all while handling interruptions from researchers posing as colleagues in an imagined office.

Multitasking. Fun, fun.

One group of subjects got eight weeks of meditation training before the trial. Another, eight weeks of relaxation training. A third, no training at all.

Everyone got the job done in the same amount of time and the subjects trained in relaxation remembered more afterward. But only the subjects who had learned how to meditate did it with significantly less stress, fewer disruptive switches between tasks and a better ability to remember, say, the names of their mock colleagues.

Sound appealing?

The subjects didn’t have to light incense or read up on the Buddha. The techniques they learned were simple, secular and conveniently portable. They were exercises in mindfulness — nothing more, nothing less — aimed at teaching wandering brains to be aware of distractions, but stay put when they wanted to. The training was designed by the late Zen teacher and author Darlene Cohen, who used Zen training to help people through personal and professional crises and ran many of the study’s weekly trainings herself.

Cohen had come to believe, as she wrote in 2004, that “one of life’s most essential skills is the ability to focus one’s attention at will.”

I’ve come to believe that’s absolutely right.

Meditation and multitasking: A slide from a presentation by UW Prof. David Levy shows excerpts from interviews with study subjects who received meditation training prior to completing the multitasking trial.

About a month ago I ran a simple task management app called Yast to measure just how distracted I could get while trying to do work on my laptop. One evening, I stopped every eight minutes, like clockwork, to check email, Facebook, Twitter, or the news. After a couple hours, I’d done barely an hour’s worth of work and felt grumpy, guilty, and worse — powerless.

To many of us, attention is something that operates on auto-pilot, with good enough results, most of the time. To Levy and his colleagues, it’s a muscle that needs to be trained, especially when it’s plugged in to technologies that serve up more temptations than ever.

Plenty of apps count on our lax attention spans to draw us to another page, another click, maybe even another purchase. They’d rather we hop onto their agenda than stick to our own.

My attention was so weak and my tech habits so strong that evening on my laptop that I didn’t even need to see my email inbox or get a ping from some social site to be drawn away by them. My brain notified itself — ooh! let’s see what’s on Facebook! — and off I went.

We can count on technology to help us with lots of things. But staying in control of our attention? There’s no app for that.

Meditation, mindfulness, whatever it is — if it helps us strengthen our attention muscle, it’s an exercise we sorely need.

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