Can meditating help you multitask?
Last week, the Atlantic ran an article about meditation and multitasking entitled “Studies Trickle In on How Mindfulness Meditation *Actually* Improves Multitasking.” Aside from the interesting use of the asterisk (which I could discuss for several posts if this were a blog on writing), when I saw the title, I thought, Oooh, studies on meditation, and clicked through to read.
When I scrolled down the text, I saw that the article is mostly commentary on another article published by The New York Times, “Silicon Valley Says Step Away From the Device.” Of course, it’s interesting that Silicon Valley would make products and then say something like, “Hmm, maybe spending too much time with our machines is bad for your health and ability to focus on tasks. Try taking walks and breaks to improve your productivity.”
The heart of the Silicon Valley article is really chronicling “the emerging conversation,” which “reflects a broader effort in the valley to offer counterweights to the fast-paced lifestyle. Many tech firms are teaching meditation and breathing exercises to their staff members to help them slow down and disconnect.” Since my family is currently exploring how to use our technological toys as tools instead of leashes, I loved reading about an emphasis on meditation from Silicon Valley.
When I clicked back to the Multitasking article, the contradiction of an article about both meditation and multitasking dawned on me. I really see the two activities as completely opposite. Multitasking… doing multiple tasks at the same time. Checking your email, reading for class, disciplining a child, doing laundry, preparing for an evening out, and writing a blog post… all at once? (Okay, maybe pick two or three of those to do at once – still multitasking.)
Meditation is the act of focusing on ONE thing, if that. The breath, a mantra, or being. Studies say that meditation helps you sleep, lowers anxiety, and now… maybe help you multitask?
I am befuddled by the fact that studies on meditation’s effects on multitasking are even being done. Apparently the studies are befuddled too–here are the results: “In this tiny sample, meditation actually seemed to help a lot: Groups trained in it stayed on task longer and better remembered what they were working on. They reported fewer negative emotions after their test (take negative emotions as you will). The researchers conjecture that meditation helped the women notice distractions without ceding to them, that it let them stick to a task longer and not give in.”
Right, which means meditation didn’t help people multitask, it helped them focus more happily. Again with the weird use of the bold / asterisk emphasis on “actually.” What does “actually seemed” even mean? Maybe: “Meditation actually helped improve the lives of our subjects, which means it only seemed to help with multitasking.” Unless, of course, the point of the exercise was to not multitask, but to focus on one task until its completion, in which case, meditation actually does help.
I’m so transfixed by this article because I’m slowly falling deeply in love with meditation. I know the power of focus meditation gives to a writing practice, the power of meditation on sleep, the power of meditation on lowering anxiety. It’s an amazing amazing thing. When I’m grounded in my breath and being, grounded in who God made me to be to reflect God (the effects of meditation), I am present for the task at hand and the ping-pong self-talk is absent.
So why someone would want to take meditation and use it to improve multitasking is very weird to me. I’d love to be able to be present with one thing: writing a blog post, responding to an email, reading an article online, posting on twitter – instead of doing them all at one time (like I’m doing right now: I have seven tabs open in my browser).
Perhaps I can start by only opening one tab.
Or maybe I’ll start by doing LOTS of meditation this week. Today my mom and I depart for a Prayer of Heart and Body retreat conference with Father Thomas Ryan and other Christians who practice yoga. We’ll be yoga-ing and meditating twice a day and talking about it when we’re not practicing. We’ll be practicing the presence of silence from 10 p.m. to 10 a.m. daily with the Grand Silence of the monastery.
Follow our adventures on Twitter with #christianspracticingyoga!