The Value of Focused Attention

This age of high-tech has had the unfortunate effect of favoring and fostering the practice of diverted attention. Young people these days MySpace their friends while checking out what’s on YouTube while texting while keeping an eye on the television … and we see and even experience the same flurry in the workplace.

On the surface it might seem as if this results in honing multitasking skills, but recent studies have shown that this is not true multitasking. This type of activity has at least two drawbacks – it actually adds time to the tasks and it also creates additional stress.

Now scientists have learned another lesson on the value of focused attention – this time from Buddhist monks.

Multitasking is not the best approach

During a recent Science for monks training seminar, San Francisco Bay Area scientists used hands-on workshops to train Tibetan monks about scientific methods and experimentation. This is part of an ongoing effort inspired by His Holiness the Dalai Lama to train highly educated monks to also be leaders in science.

The scientists found the monks to be ideal students, primarily because they were “excellent single-taskers”, as one of the staff at the Exploratorium science museum in San Francisco put it. Even though the monks were not experienced with such hands-on learning, their skills in mindfulness enabled them to take to the activity with a focus that amazed the scientists. When faced with a novel situation, the monks were able to explore it without getting bored or without the need for a diversion, and in the process came up with some novel solutions to the engineering problems presented to them.

This is clearly evidence of the benefits of meditation and other spiritual exercises that involve focused attention. If you are able to focus for extended periods of time on a single task or problem then:

  • You can come up with creative solutions.
  • You gain a deeper and more complete understanding of the issue.

Self-improvement proponent Steve Pavlina believes that the best way to learn a new skill is to “condense your learning into a shorter period of time.” According to his experience, this is more effective than spreading out your study sporadically amongst other activities. While I don’t believe that following his approach 100% is practical for most people – it is incredibly unbalanced in my opinion – it does speak to the value of being able to stay focused on one task for an extended period of time. Or at least to try to spend as much time as possible on one task before switching to another. This flies in the face of the “multitasking” flurry that many of us find ourselves involved with in our daily lives. Is there much we can do about it?

Breaking the Habit

Most of what we do is a product of habit. Even if there is no need to switch our attention, if it has become a habit then we’ll find ourselves having to “take a break” from one task and spend a little time on another. Like any habit, though, it can be broken with a little effort. Every time we catch ourselves getting ready to switch attention unnecessarily, we can fight the urge and stick to the immediate task. Sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it?

This is where meditation comes in. No, not while you’re working, but the benefit comes as a byproduct of a meditation practice. One way to think of meditation is as a way to exercise your attention muscle. As you focus on your breathing, or repeat a mantra, your mind naturally wanders but you repeatedly bring your attention back to your center. This cements a new habit that you can call upon to help you maintain your focus on specific activities outside of meditation.

Another byproduct of meditation that helps in this area is achieving the ability to live in the present moment. In that state you don’t worry about the future nor dwell on the past. Consequently you become more in touch with who you really are inside, without the trappings of ego, and so you become more secure with focusing on your current task without worrying about what’s around the corner. In fact, you learn to appreciate the beauty in the present and so have a reduced need to look to the future for fulfillment.

But all this comes with time. Some good books to read are Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment
and A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. Other practices, such as yoga in its various forms, also facilitate this state and are worth exploring.

So don’t feel that if you’re not an enlightened monk then there’s no point in even thinking about trying to practice focused attention. Even the slightest shift away from habitual diverted attention can be beneficial. Any amount of additional uninterrupted time spent on a task can help by reducing the amount of time wasted in shifting gears. Once again, ancient wisdom has a thing or two to teach post-modern society.


Read the article Bay Area scientists teach and learn from Tibetan monks in India.

See also my post on meditation.

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