Thanksgiving has always been one of my favorite holidays. Its historical origins aside, for me, it’s a day spent with family, some of whom I don’t see as often as I’d like. When I was a kid, the hosting duties rotated among my mom and her four siblings, and a crowd of 20-30 of my aunts, uncles, and cousins gathered together for a delicious potluck-style meal, followed by hours of card games, laughter, and enjoying each others’ company. The gatherings have become smaller over the years and the format has changed a bit, but I still look forward to this holiday more than any other.
The last month and a half has been challenging for me. I traveled to Greece for two weeks, which disrupted my usual routines, though I still managed to do some meditating and blogging while I was there. Then my dad was hospitalized and died, and for a while it seemed nearly impossible to focus on anything else. I still think about my dad constantly, and my mom and I are doing our best to figure out this new normal. To top it off, I am pregnant with my first child, making me both excited and exhausted. Simple tasks like eating and exercising have become much more difficult than they once were.
Lately, I’ve been trying to grow my attention span. I get distracted easily, and having the internet at an arm’s length most of the day does not help. But to be as productive as possible in my job, and to enter flow states and do good creative work, I need to be able to focus on one task for an extended period of time.
Like many people today, I’m a chronic multitasker. In my free time, you’ll rarely find me doing just one thing. I’m talking on the phone while driving, listening to an audiobook while gardening, watching a TV show while cooking, texting a friend while listening to a podcast while putting away laundry. Though always doing two (or more) things at once may make me feel more productive, I know that it reduces the amount of attention I’m devoting to each activity. I think multitasking too much can lead me to feel less calm, too. My brain sometimes needs silence, and the chance to devote itself to just one thing. So I’m making a conscious effort to do more unitasking (also known as monotasking).
It isn’t an easy change to make, and I frequently slip back into bad habits. I wrote down some rules for myself, and I review them regularly to help me stay on track. Here are a few things I’m doing to try to minimize distractions and increase my focus.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how I’ve cut back on the amount of time I spend scrolling through social media feeds and reading articles online in order to free up more time for writing in the mornings and evenings. I’m also attempting to replace mindless phone-checking throughout the day with other more meaningful tasks — things like mindful breathing, short bursts of physical activity, and reading books. My overarching goal is to use my time more deliberately instead of impulsively reacting to whatever is aiming to capture my attention. Time, after all, is a scarce and non-renewable resource. To riff off Annie Dillard, how we spend our minutes is how we spend our hours, how we spend our hours is how we spend our days, and how we spend our days is how we spend our lives.