Humans can truly only focus on one thing at a time. While this is both a blessing and curse, scientists are still unsure of why this happens exactly. Yes, some people would like to be able to multitask better than they are currently able but this might not always provide the desired benefits. Studies, like from Psychology Today, have shown that multitasking causes stress and makes your mind less effective. The more divided and distracted the mind is, the more likely it will get stuck or go off track.
Now imagine a dog chasing after balls that are being thrown in three different directions. She goes a few steps in one direction, then runs three more steps elsewhere before turning around to go back for the first ball again. In this analogy, you can think of the dog as your mind and the balls as thoughts or distractions. Your ability to focus on a task is reduced the more constantly you shift your attention.
But that’s not the whole story. Worrying about non-present events falls into the category of micro thinking, and can actually drain your mental and emotional resources. It is not worth the time and effort, so it may be best to avoid the conflict of multitasking that cannot be won. Others might argue that if they can’t use their conscious mind to multitask, then why not employ the power of the subconscious instead? While it may not be obvious, people rely on their subconscious more than they realize. Remember: It’s one of our most powerful tools.
When answering a question about a past event, people don’t usually have to consciously search through every minute of the past. Instead, the subconscious mind takes over and provides your answer before you’re consciously aware of it—much faster than a conscious search would take. Memorizing facts and actions requires a lot of energy. It doesn’t just take up space in the brain, it also takes a toll on emotions.
The conscious mind is like the user interface of a computer because it can be manipulated with touch, whereas the subconscious resembles the processor. As automated as your subconscious is, it still needs to obey certain orders. The more complicated the order or task, the more likely it will lock up and freeze.
For example, after a fight with your significant other, it can be hard to focus on work or sleep. This happens because your subconscious mind continues to think about the past event, sometimes even more so than during the time it happened. The emotional response of your brain then takes up all of your brain’s processing capacity and colors every other thought you have.
In addition to the present, future time is important too. However, there is a glaring caveat to this statement that needs to be added. While it is important to think about the future, we should really only ever contemplate it on rare occasions. It’s not something we should spend much time thinking about, because just like the past, our future cannot be changed by thinking about it. But what we do in the moment will change it.
One of the worst things you can do when stressed is to think about what could go wrong in the future as the future is out of our control. We only have now. And what we do now, impacts the future. Furthermore, if you break your tasks and challenges into smaller chunks, it will be easier for your mind to deal with them and not just see the larger ones as more stressful. This is a great way to cure procrastination.
When we focus on one task, even for a short period of time, it has a therapeutic effect. Every single person is probably familiar with the feeling of being so absorbed in an activity that they forget temporarily about everything else. They’re in the zone. This state of “zone” emphasizes maximal attention and enjoyment or pain, depending on the nature of the activity.
The body uses this principle to reduce pain. When an individual suffers from a cut, burn, or another painful injury, the pain can be reduced by massaging the area around the wound. By causing the nerves to send pulses to the spine region, doctors can often lessen the feeling of pain from injured areas. The psychological effect in the brain is similar. By engaging in what’s going on right now, we can block out other thoughts that might cause us stress.
The sensation of “diversion”—in some languages, a synonym for “fun”—is the soul of finding peace through focusing on the present moment and not anything else that might cause you stress. The activity does not need to be pleasurable. A simple, mundane task like scrubbing the bathtub will work just as well. Many people find activities like gardening, jogging, sports, or painting therapeutic. Even engaging in their work without any pressure can make them more relaxed. Instead of engaging your physical senses, meditation uses conscious thought.
Regardless of the method or activity you choose, diversion tactics can be a singularly effective way to live in the moment and achieving peace of mind.