Just Add Mindfulness: The Right Way to Multitask

December 11th, 2013

Just Add Mindfulness: The Right Way to Multitaks Productivity Sebouh Gemdjian BurrellesLuce Fresh IdeasThe problem: The phone keeps ringing, projects pile up, we try to multitask, but all we keep thinking about is the project we’re not doing, so we sacrifice quality and blame it all on limited time and resources.

The cause: “We’re saddled with a Stone Age mind in a digital world,” Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn told Google employees as he introduced them to meditation in 2007. A pioneer of blending Western medicine with mindfulness meditation, Kabat-Zinn is a molecular biologist, a trained Zen teacher, and founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. In that talk at the “Googleplex” in Mountain View, Calif., Kabat-Zinn defined the Stone Age mind as the tendency to fall into obsession with doing (as in the next thing to survive) and ignore the doer (as in the one active right now).

In her book The One Who is Not Busy—Connecting with Work in a Deeply Satisfying Way, Zen teacher Darlene Cohen writes that we fail at multitasking when we stay in the perception of the whole (our schedule), and don’t settle on anything because we keep shifting focus. When we’ve taken the time to settle on the doer, who only exists when we’re actually doing something, our schedule is a balanced interconnectedness of tasks, and when we haven’t done that our schedule appears chaotic.

The solution: According to Cohen we can find relief by “matching focused awareness to whatever motions our hands and bodies are actually doing at the moment.” It is much more satisfying than paying attention to something we’re not doing. I’ve found it useful to include sensations in the body as part of the activities to be aware of. Once our feet are firmly planted in our current activity, we can look at the rest of our schedule for perspective and then go back to the task at hand. She calls this type of focus “simultaneous inclusion.” Dr. Zinn presents his version of this point in this short, guided meditation taken from his 2007 Google talk.

Here is an exercise from Cohen’s book that is strikingly useful in the workplace, called “Talking Meditation”:

“In any conversation, short or long, tune in to your own breath at least three times while (1) listening to another person speak, and (2) while you yourself are talking… This is true simultaneous inclusion. You are thinking and feeling your breath at the same time… Your breath gives you the distance you need from the conversation in order to participate in it from real interest rather than from habitual conditioning.”

Maintenance: Zoketsu Norman Fischer, former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center and frequent speaker at the Brooklyn Zen Center, teaches a course called “Mindfulness in Legal Education.” The group has a mission statement outlining examples of specific perspectives connected to meditation that foster productivity and inspiration.

One perspective includes wisdom and creativity. Meditating on awareness of the breath and letting thoughts come and go without grasping brings more self-honesty, less distortion, and a unity of mind and heart. As anyone looking for inspiration for a new project will attest, passion and logic in the right ratio rev up the creative engine, and meditation can be a means of ignition accessible anywhere.

Compassion is beneficial to productivity, as it inspires empathy, connectedness and teamwork. It is a meditative perspective that happens when we fail at balancing focus on our current tasks with mindfulness of their context. Once we realize that what we’re doing at that moment is failing, the way everyone does sometimes, we can go back to a clear, inspired perspective of our priorities. Insight meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg calls it “exercising the letting-go muscle” in her talks. When we remember it’s all about starting again fresh, motivation and inspiration usually follow.

Further reading:

Real Happiness at Work: Meditations for Accomplishment, Achievement and Peace by Sharon Salzberg

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind By Shunryu Suzuki

To Meet the Real Dragon by Gudo Nishijima

Sailing Home by Norman Fischer

Arriving at Your Own Door by Jon Kabat-Zinn

The Sound of Silence by Ajahn Sumedho

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