Mindfulness or multitasking?

It continues to baffle me, the power of being mindful. I’m was the kind of guy who, if I wasn’t doing at least two things at the same time, would feel as if I were ‘wasting time’. I now see the error of my ways.

The topic I want to rant about today is the seductive allure of multitasking and why it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

Multitasking is the norm today. It’s almost considered lazy to do only one thing at a time.

When I was a teenager, I loved playing electric guitar. I started playing at around sixteen or seventeen. I played mostly rock, with a majestic emphasis on Slash’s guitar work in Guns ‘n’ Roses. I would play all day, every day.

Okay, maybe not all day, I still had to go to school and whatnot, but I would skip every class I could get away with skipping, I would skip meals, I would even call in sick for work (I worked in the meat section of the local supermarket at the time). All so I could go back home, lock myself in my room, and play.

I became incredibly proficient in a very short time frame. A friend of mine who had played for years by then was awestruck. I was shredding and soloing like nobody’s business.

Then I discovered the concept of multitasking, and it was pretty much downhill from there. I applied it to guitar practice. I started to watch documentaries, listening to audio-books, sometimes even reading physical books (I had to contort into some pretty weird positions to make that work), while practicing riffs and scales and all that stuff you do to get good.

And mysteriously, inexplicably, I stopped getting better. Well, I was still getting better to some extent, I was just improving at a snail’s pace.

Except it’s no mystery to me today. I’ve long since lost interest in electric guitar, though I still play acoustic every now and then, but I often go back to that time mentally to see what lessons can be learned.

At first I thought I must have been practicing less, but that’s nonsense, because I had finished high school by then and could practice without worrying about homework or cramming for tests.

Then I reckoned maybe I had just lost interest, but that explanation’s no good either. I remember distinctly that my interest first started to fade after I realized that I wasn’t getting any better.

Pretty recently, though, I started applying mindfulness to drawing, which is a great passion of mine. Specifically I started being mindful in model drawing sessions. And the results went way beyond what I expected.

To be clear, when I speak of applying mindfulness to something, I simply mean focusing fully on the task at hand without distraction. No radio, tv, eating, talking, or anything else to split my attention.

As you may already know, mindfulness-based stress reduction, or MBSR, is an approach to reducing stress and anxiety through present awareness. That’s what got me interested in trying out mindful model drawing.

I always used to listen to podcasts or audio-books while drawing, and I was consistently absent minded, unfocused and stressed. All of that was gone in the first few minutes, but what really struck me was the quality of focus I attained and the results of that first mindful model drawing class were very good. My best work so far. And then I had an epiphany.

The above are from my first mindful model drawing class, all in ink.

The epiphany was simply this. A skill will improve in direct correlation to the quality or amount of focused attention directed to that particular skill.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been improving steadily in model drawing even though my attention has been divided. It’s just that I could quite simply feel the improvements, the learning, when I focused solely on what I was doing in the present moment.

When we divide our attention, we think we’re spending our time wisely, when in fact we are missing out on the incredible power of fully focused attention.

This is what happened to my guitar playing as a teen, I’m sure of it. When I started playing, I was focused on my practice and nothing else. I made incredible progress in record time. As soon as I started to divide my attention between practice and *insert distraction here*, my progress effectively halted. Beautiful in its simplicity.

I’ll bring this to a close now.

What can you learn from my mistakes? There is no such thing as wasted time. We do what we do. That is what time is. A measurement of change. When eating, eat. When sleeping, sleep. When practicing or working on your passion, do that. There is no need to try to ‘improve’ any activity with anything else.

That’s not to say that every activity is equal, far from it. Practicing guitar is way more fruitful than watching TV, for example. But if you do decide, consciously, to watch TV every now and again, just do that. It’s pretty simple, really.

Where attention goes, energy flows. That’s the essence of this post.

So since I realized this, I’ve been applying this principle to all aspects of my life. I still feel the weird need to ‘make full use of my time’, but consciously decide not to multitask. I hope you will too.

Until next time, much love.

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