Our attention is pulled in multiple directions, likely more than ever before in history. Think about a normal day, if it is anything like mine, this would seem typical: responding to a text while watching my favorite show, quickly checking emails, scrolling through Facebook, thinking about what I am going to cook for dinner, wondering if my presentation went well last week, then hollering down the hall to my husband to bring something from the kitchen. I am not going to make the argument that there isn’t a time and place for multitasking, but I am going to suggest that this division of attention pulls us from being completely focused on one thing.
Why should you care? Well, the more divided our attention is, the less likely we are to be attuned to our most basic needs. For example, research shows that doing anything other than eating, while eating, leads to overeating and a failure to recognize your internal cues telling you “stop, you’re full”. It also shows that diffusion of attention leads to simple tasks taking much longer, and doing them less effectively than when done alone. But perhaps most importantly, when we are constantly only paying “half attention” to the things in front of us, we lose the details and beauty of the experience.
In order to be fully in the present requires us to put down distractions and focus on whatever it is that is in front of us. Whether it is a movie, conversation, a walk, or just laying in bed contemplating life. Distractions can take multiple forms, like the obvious ones such as phones, to the more obscure ones like our very own thoughts. The obvious distractions are a little easier to come up with behavioral strategies to avoid; for example in our household we don’t allow any technology besides continuous glucose meters and insulin pumps at the dinner table. It makes it so that we can all converse, enjoy, and listen to our bodies about our hunger. There are probably a number of strategies you use to limit distractions for obvious intrusions.
For the less clear distractions, like our thoughts or moods, it’s a little harder to figure out what to do about them. At times, we can detract from being in the moment by thinking about things that happened some time ago, or wondering what might happen in the future. Or maybe we have a long to-do list and as our doctor is explaining something, we find our mind wandering away. Other times, a feeling is so strong, like sadness or anger, and the feeling can make it so that we don’t stay focused on what is happening in front of us. In those moments, sometimes just acknowledging that you are “out of the present” can make you put distracting thoughts aside. Or, practicing shifting your attention and focusing on all five of your senses (sight, taste, touch, hearing, smell) in that moment can bring you back. The practice of meditation and relaxation strategies that are used in a number of therapies are built on this type of exercise and the fundamental point is to ensure that you are present, aware, and able to handle what is right in front of you.
Dr. Diana Naranjo is a Clinical Psychologist who works at the Madison Clinic for Pediatric Diabetes at the University of California, San Francisco.