How much of the time do you spend living in the present moment?
If you're like most of the people who attend my lectures on mindfulness, your mind wanders a lot. The To-Do list... What's for lunch?... Last night's argument... Pick up the dog at the vet... How's Mom doing?
An endless stream of thoughts flows through our minds. And if your mind is wandering right now — come on back and wrap your mind around this: Trying to develop better focus is a more important goal than you might think.
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A study published in the journal Science revealed how distracted most of us are, and the price we pay for it. The research, done at Harvard University, found that people in the study were thinking about something other than what they were doing a whopping 47% of the time!
The researchers, led by Matthew A. Killingsworth, PhD, and Daniel T. Gilbert, Ph.D, surveyed 2,250 iPhone users (ages 18-88; average age 34) by calling them at random moments and asking them what they were doing, what they were thinking about and what they were feeling.
When subjects were paying full attention to what they were doing, they were more likely to report feeling happy. In fact, paying attention or not paying attention to what they were doing had more of an impact on reported happiness than what particular activity they were engaged in. However, there were a few activities that people enjoyed (and paid attention to) a lot more than others.
Yes, topping the list of 22 activities in terms of attention was making love, followed by talking to other people, and then exercising. At the bottom were resting, spending time on the computer (uh oh!), and working. The type of distracted thinking the subjects engaged in also had an influence on their happiness.
Not surprisingly, entertaining unpleasant thoughts made people especially unhappy. Brooding thoughts, obsessive thoughts, worry thoughts, "what if?" thoughts—these are the food that unhappiness feasts on. These thoughts fuel anxiety, depression, and other negative mood states. How to be caught the happiness bug.
This research highlights the powerful emotional impact of flow, the state we are in when we are deeply absorbed in an activity. The concept of flow was first described and popularized by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Ph.D.
Whether we're making love or making a meal, painting a portrait or painting the house, running our business or running a marathon, when we are in a state of flow, we tend to feel happy. We barely notice the passage of time or the outside world; we are in the moment and totally into the task at hand. The better focus we have, the easier it is for us to enter a state of flow.
The research also points to the importance of mindfulness, an intentionally generated state of focused attention that also boosts happiness. In the last decade, neuroscientists have discovered how living mindfully in the present re-wires our brains for joy. Over time, practicing mindfulness increases activity in the left-prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain most active in happy people. We all have the potential for clear-minded happiness, but in our high-distraction culture, many of us have to work at developing it.
If you tend to have a wandering mind, there are several ways you can enhance your ability to be more present:
Get into the flow. In your free time, choose activities that bring you fully into the present: Walking in nature, stimulating hobbies or crafts that require focused attention, exercise or sports, or simply spending with other people for conversation and camaraderie. When you are working, give yourself opportunities to be fully absorbed in each of your activities — to the extent that you can, arrange your schedule so you can work on single tasks for long periods of time.
Uni-task, don't multitask. Avoid the temptation to multitask — studies show that it's not an efficient way to get things done. If you get restless doing just one activity, move between two or three activities, giving each one your full attention for 10-15 minutes at a time, rather than trying to do multiple things at once. Take a walk — mindfully.
Usually we walk with the intention of getting somewhere. Walking mindfully is about being somewhere, and developing your capacity to be fully present. As you walk, let your attention focus on the sights, sounds, scents, and sensations of the world around you. Notice what you feel in your body as you move.
Intentionally tuning into your present moment experience helps you improve your ability to focus.
Allocate separate blocks of time to plan, problem-solve, create, and strategize. Use a journal and to-do list to keep track of your ideas. If you dedicate a specific time each day for planning, problem-solving, and even worrying, you'll be less likely to be distracted by those mental activities at other times of the day.
If you spend too much time brooding or obsessing, set a time limit. Most brooding is unproductive and just makes you miserable, but it can be hard to break the habit. If you notice yourself worrying or ruminating over something, give yourself 5-10 minutes of worry time. If you haven't worked the problem out in 5-10 minutes, additional time brooding is not likely to help.
When the time is up, simply get up and do something else. You could call a friend, take a walk, read a book or magazine, or do a chore. In time, you'll find yourself overthinking less, and enjoying life more.
Jeffrey Rossman, PhD, is a Rodale.com advisor and director of life management at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, MA. His column, "Mind-Body-Mood Advisor," appears weekly on Rodale.com.