It almost goes without saying that doing a task while being focused is better than doing a task while only half-focused, or not focused at all. In fact, focus seems to be a very coveted ability in today’s busy, ADHD world, where it’s all too easy to find something to distract us.
One of the most effective and scientifically supported techniques to help increase focus is the practice of mindfulness meditation. During mindfulness meditation, an individual tries to fix their attention on an object of focus; for example, their breathing. When their attention drifts off somewhere else (maybe to a sound outside, or the sensation of being hungry), mindfulness requires that we make note of that distraction and then return our focus to the object of our meditation.
(For more details on how to do such a meditation, a good starting point that I often recommend is the 100 Breaths Meditation).
The paradoxical thing about this practice is that mindfulness is not only our ability to remain attentive to our object of meditation, but also to be aware when our attention moves somewhere else. It is ultimately this mindfulness of our non-mindfulness (or mindlessness) that helps us cultivate a truly mindful practice.
Clinical psychologist Elisha Goldstein, who is a co-author of A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook, recently wrote about this phenomenon on his blog at PsychCentral:
“There’s a very common misunderstanding in the practice of mindfulness that the practice is to stay focused on whatever we’re paying attention to and deviation from that is “bad” mindfulness. In my personal experience in session with a client or out of session in my own life, it is these moments that I wake up to recognize that I’ve been drifting that seem the most valuable to me. Why? It is this precise moment that I wake up to the fact that I have a choice to intentionally practice cultivating a sense of presence once again and this, in my mind, is the foundation to mindfulness and psychotherapy.”
From my experiences with mindfulness, I definitely agree with Dr. Goldstein. The benefits I have received from practicing mindfulness on a daily basis have just as much to do with maintaining focus as it does with knowing how to re-focus after I’ve already been distracted. The two concepts go hand-in-hand. The more you are aware of your distractions and mindlessness, the better you are at re-focusing on the present.
In my experience, it is unrealistic to expect oneself to hold extreme focus on the present moment during everything one does. Our attention spans, while certainly malleable, are limited. Our brains aren’t wired to do everything consciously, and there are times where our brains seem to take a mind of its own and go off thinking about whatever. It isn’t always bad, some distractions may even be good, because our minds bring something to consciousness that we may have been previously neglecting. Paying attention to where our minds “drift off” can often be insightful. So, in fact, there may be some sanity to our mindlessness.
(If you want to practice a meditation that allows the mind to drift wherever it may go, try learning about Objectless Meditation. Although I don’t recommend this as a beginner’s exercise in mindfulness).
So I definitely agree with Dr. Goldstein that being distracted isn’t necessarily a sign of “bad” mindfulness; but, in fact, being aware of our distractions is one of the fundamentals to “good” mindfulness. In other words, knowing when we are engaged in “mindlessness” is in-itself a kind of mindfulness.
Learn more about psychology and self-improvement in my new e-book The Science of Self Improvement (bonus meditation guide included).