How often do you find yourself doing one activity and thinking about another? Perhaps you check email while you’re on the phone or talking to someone? Or you read the paper (or browse the web) while your partner or child is trying to tell you something?
It’s so common to do this, and when we do, we generally think we’re making good use of the time by multitasking. And yet, most of us have also had the experience of getting “busted”: the person who’s talking realizes we aren’t listening, or we make an error because we’re juggling two (or more) tasks simultaneously. At a minimum, our stress level goes up because the brain isn’t wired for multitasking.
Instead, try being fully present with what you’re doing. If you’re in conversation, close your email and put your phone on “do not disturb” so you can direct all of your attention to the discussion. Conversations tend to go more quickly when you’re fully present because you’re at full attention, and you’ll notice that you catch not only what’s said, but also what is going unsaid that should perhaps be explored.
For instance, imagine that a colleague is briefing you on an expert witness deposition prep session and the words say all is well. If you are fully present to your colleague, you might notice tension in his face that you would miss if you were looking at papers or email while he’s talking. Seeing the tension, you’d have an opportunity to inquire and learn that although he can’t put his finger on the issue, something isn’t right about the testimony or the way the expert is presenting it. That’s valuable information that could go undetected. (Should your colleague raise the concern without being asked? Absolutely. However, many of us are uncomfortable bringing up a concern without any evidence to back it up, and so he might well not mention it.)
How to become fully present? I recommend a quick centering exercise, which can be as simple as taking 3 or 4 slow, deep breaths. Bring all of your attention to the present activity, and if you find your attention wandering, breathe deeply again and bring it back. This level of focus will allow you to be more effective and less stressed.
As Malcolm Forbes said, “Presence is more than just being there.” Being fully present focuses all of your senses on the task or person at hand. It’s a learned skill. Try an experiment: resolve to be fully present for a couple of hours a day and see what you notice. I’d love to hear your feedback!