Our early ancestors led relatively simple lives that revolved around hunting and gathering food, together with eating, relaxing and socialising. With easy access to a wide variety of food, a group of hunter-gatherers could easily meet the basic needs of its members. So much so, that anthropologists have called the early hunter-gatherers the first affluent society. Ironically, it was only in the last ten thousand years, when people began cultivating crops and farming animals that life became really hard work. In the last three hundred years, we discovered science and mastered the material world, which led to the industrial and technological eras that we now inhabit. Although some commentators say that we’re an affluent society today, many of us lead complex and stressful lives that are out of balance.
Apart from leisure and socialising, for most of us, our daily routine revolves around carrying out tasks of one form or another, either at work or at home. In a typical workday in a busy office environment, people plug into technology, attend calls and meetings, while one task blurs into another.
One challenge is that all of the mental, emotional and physical noise and activity are not always released at the end of each task, so accumulate in the background over the day. Mentally, we may have a head full of busy, swirling thoughts, emotionally, there may be unacknowledged feelings and emotions, and physically, we have probably taken on stress and tension in our body over the day.
If we have too many tasks, maybe multitasking is the answer? Although some people are proud of their ability to multitask, the research shows that, rather than carrying out tasks in parallel, what we’re really doing is switching our attention between tasks. This can reduce our productivity by up to 40%. Multitasking distracts our focus so we’re more likely to make mistakes and increases our stress levels.
So, how can we work more effectively and avoid taking on agitation and stress? Here are three suggestions for maintaining focus and being more productive when working:
- One thing at a time: A more productive option is to focus on one thing at a time. In our multi-tasking world, this almost sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s how sports professionals, musicians, and artists achieve peak performance.
- Focus where the work gets done: A useful way to maintain your attention on the task is to focus on where the work gets done. Obviously, this varies depending on what you’re doing. For example, if you’re washing-up, try holding your attention on where the scourer pad touches the saucepan, or if painting, where the brush and paint touch the wall. If you notice your attention wander off, gently bring it back to the task at hand in the present moment. This is a useful informal practice that can be used just about anywhere, that helps to improve your attention and focus.
- Mark task boundaries: Another tip is to top and tail each task, by establishing a clear beginning and end-point for each task. When you complete a task there are many things you can do to create a task boundary. This could be to take a short break, maybe away from your screen somewhere that allows your eyes to rest by looking outside. If it’s possible; where you rest your eyes on something natural and open, like the trees and sky. The 20-20-20 rule of thumb is a useful guide, which is about looking at something 20 feet away, for twenty seconds, every 20 minutes. Take a few mindful breaths and really bring yourself into the here-and-now as you let go of the previous mental and emotional activity while relaxing and letting go of any tension that may have built up in your body. If you can’t find the time to take a break, a simple mindful breath will do. Then begin your new task with an aware and open attitude. If it helps, you can experiment by saying internally to yourself, “begin” and, “end and let go” and see if this helps establish this practice.
It’s no surprise that when you look at what you do in your life with curiosity and openness you’ll see that it’s full of tasks, often for other people. Sometimes tasks can seem like a burden, especially when we build resentment about other people and situations. Remember that every moment offers the opportunity to respond skilfully and with ease, rather than limit ourselves in automatic patterns of reaction. By working skilfully with open awareness and kindness, by maintaining focus on whatever tasks you engage in, you’ll do a better job, get more done and experience a real sense of satisfaction and ease.
Find somewhere undisturbed and sit in a comfortable, dignified and upright posture, where you can remain alert and aware.
There are two guided practices for this session. You can close your eyes, or lower your gaze while the meditations play.
- Play the first settling practice, then read through the session content, which you can print off if that helps.
- Then play the second practice to explore an extended approach to the working skilfully on a task by focusing on one thing at a time and resting your attention on where the work gets done.
Suggested weekly practice
- Notice the beginning and end of each task and when a task is complete, take a moment to let go of thoughts and emotions that arose during the task
- Watch out for unnecessary multitasking and bring your attention to one thing at a time. For instance, you may be distracted by an email and start replying while writing a report that you need to complete.
- Focus on where the work gets done – resting your attention on where the action is taking place. A good way to try this out is on tasks at home like peeling vegetables or washing up.
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