At a recent seminar, I sat at a table with several other addicts. Yes, addicts. Addicts to distraction. One person was on a laptop completing a brief, three people were on their BlackBerrys, one was texting on her cell phone, and I was making numerous “to do” lists.
It is difficult, of course, to admit one is often in a state of complete distraction. We use a much more acceptable word—“multitasking.” To us, multitasking means we are being more productive and efficient. I learned, unfortunately, that this not true. According to Dr. Louis Csoka, founder of Apex Performance and an expert in performance psychology and organizational development, “[c]ontrary to popular belief, you cannot simultaneously attend to one thing and do another. You just can’t overcome the way the brain is wired. Habitual multitasking may even result in a situation where you can’t focus even if you wanted to. What people perceive as simultaneous multitasking is actually very efficient shifting of attention. . . ”1 In fact, “[w]hen people multitask, they are actually reducing the quality of their performance in all of the things they are doing.” Further, women aged 35-44, who earn greater than $75,000 per year, and have completed post-graduate education are those most likely to think they are good multitaskers.” As women attorneys, we are the most guilty of fooling ourselves into thinking that we are good “multitaskers.”
I posed the issue of this addiction distraction to a friend who happens to be a social worker. She kindly told me that perhaps we would be well-served, as attorneys, to “practice mindfulness.” My first reaction was that most of us were already “mindful.” If anything, maybe we were too mindful. We are mindful of the needs of our families, our friends, our clients, our responsibilities. Our minds often race, thinking about the next task even before finishing the first. But, no, she explained, this is the opposite of mindful. In trying to juggle all of our responsibilities, we lose sight of ourselves in the present moment. “Mindfulness” is ancient a Buddhist practice which may hold the key to breaking our addiction.
The practice of mindfulness has been described as two-prong:
The first component involves the self-regulation of attention so that it is maintained on immediate experience, thereby allowing for increased recognition of mental events in the present moment.
The second component involves adopting a particular orientation toward one’s experiences in the present moment, an orientation that is characterized by curiosity, openness and acceptance.2
So, how does one practice mindfulness? The literature makes it sound simple. Dr. Jeff Brantley is the author of “Five Good Minutes” and director of the Duke University Center for Integrative Medicine. Dr. Brantley explains that one should begin by focusing on breathing.3 This acts as the “anchor” for awareness in the present moment. Slowly begin to include all that is physically present. This means whatever you are hearing, seeing, tasting, smelling, touching, or thinking. Resist letting your mind drift elsewhere. Dr. Brantley cautions that one’s mind will likely wander, and if that occurs simply return your focus to the sensation of the breath. All we need to do is to “establish attention in the present moment . . pay attention without trying to change anything.” This should result in becoming “more informed, more responsive, and less driven by the habits of reaction and inattention.”
Attorney Scott Rogers, author of “The Six-Minute Solution: A Mindfulness Primer for Lawyers” and founder and director of the Institute for Mindfulness Studies, assists attorneys practice mindfulness.4 Rogers presents empirical evidence supporting the benefits of mindfulness in our law practice. He offers the following:
While mindfulness is not necessary for ethical and professional conduct, neuroscience findings strongly suggest that it can sustain us in our endeavor to be honorable and to practice with integrity. More to the point, it can change the structure and function of our brain so that we might develop or enhance the skills that clearly contribute to the making of an outstanding attorney, jurist, mediator, negotiator, paralegal, law student—human being.
Rogers cites a study finding that even short-term mindfulness practice was associated with a “shift in brain activity from right to left hemisphere. This shift in activity is associated with movement from depressed, pessimistic and anxious states to a more engaged, happy, and energetic way of experiencing life.”
I became convinced this was worth a try. Much to my surprise, I discovered two things. First, it was difficult. Trying to focus on the present moment without analyzing, planning, worrying, or structuring was difficult and took some practice. Second, I realized it was powerful. I was more relaxed, and felt peaceful rather than frantic. At the office, I tried to focus on one task at a time. I also paused and focused on the moment for just one minute in between major tasks. At home, before I walked in the door, I took two minutes to focus on the present. Instead of walking in with my mental checklist of tasks which must be accomplished, I walked into the house open to what my kids and husband were saying. Mindfulness gave me the opportunity to clear my mind of thoughts about the workday, and instead be open to what was occurring in the present. My mind, at least for that moment, had actually defended itself from distraction rather than seeking it. And, in doing so, rewarded me with the best moment of my day.
Perhaps we could all benefit from applying the practice of mindfulness. For my part, I will do my best to resist distraction, and remember that life can only occur in the present moment. We might also heed the words of John Lennon… life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans. ■