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Holly Erskine

Sunday, January 10, 2016

If you must perform an unpleasant chore, wouldn't distracting yourself make your task more enjoyable? I've always listened to NPR, podcasts, or audiobooks while I do household chores, for example. But a recent study published in Science contradicts this notion.


Spaceship Portal Prop Fabrication

The movie crew at work on Koyper's spaceship portal


Cellphone technology was used to quiz 2,250 adults during the day, at random times, about their mood, what they were doing during that instant, and whether they were focused on it, or something else. Here is what they concluded:


"Surprisingly, the nature of people’s activities had only a modest impact on whether their minds wandered and had almost no impact on the pleasantness of the topics to which their minds wandered. Second, ...people were less happy when their minds were wandering than when they were not and this was true during all activities, including the least enjoyable." (For you statisticians, it was significant to P < 0.001.)


Reading this study changed how I go about my day, for the better. OK, I still turn the radio on. A lot. Just not as often as I used to.


I have, personally, a problem with those people who admonish us to "always, always be in the present moment!"


Don't you set yourself up for failure if you attempt that? I think it's not possible to always be in the present moment, and for good reasons. Multicellular organisms can't live that way because:


It's essential to review the past--otherwise you can't correct your mistakes.

It's essential to anticipate the future--you can plan and be prepared.

It's essential to let your mind wander--it fosters creativity and experimentation.


These three modes of thinking are highly evolved human survival modes! So much so, that we overdo them. That's the problem! I think the real trick is to do them just enough, but not too much.


People who are depressed report spending excess time reviewing past misfortunes to no avail.

People who are anxious (hello!) report spending excess time anticipating future problems that never happen.

People whose minds wander excessively have trouble following conversations, consume entire package of cookies without tasting any, and walk into mailboxes.


So, if you are not going to be here now, just be aware of that, and let it be for a really good reason. Make it intentional. "I'm planning for that lecture tomorrow morning" you can say to yourself, and write down a list of things you will need to do to get ready. Done. "I'm going to review why that conversation didn't go so well," you can say, and when you are done figuring out what you would do differently next time, let it go. Done.


One trick is just to practice noticing which mode you are in. Past? Future? Daydreaming? I find I rarely think about past events, but other people do. I think Tim daydreams a lot, but then he's got a load of patented inventions and stories, too. Each mode has its pros and cons. I think we all have our favorite default modes.


My new trick is catching myself throughout the day, and asking myself, "Hey! Are you focusing on this?" It is reinforcing, because when I do stop to focus on the litter box, the laundry, the bills, I find I get into a groove; a flow. It becomes...dare I say it?...it becomes almost fun. Or at least more fun than being in two places at once with my head. It's hard to have fun when your head is in two places at once.


Let me know if you have a practice related to this. What is your dominant mode? What works to keep you focused?