Mindfulness, Multi-tasking and Practicing Golf

Zen golf teeThe computer I hold in my hand is better known as a smart phone.  The promise is that if I use it correctly – using the most appropriate applications and monitoring all the tasks I set for myself – I will be more productive.  The challenge of the age of productivity seems to be finding out how many things I can do at once.  This challenge is in fact an illusion.

Most times we are attempting to multi-task, we need to think, analyse, make decisions and carry out actions.  If the same part of our brain is needed to carry out more than one of these tasks at any one time, our brains will simply be overloaded.  If we do attempt to multi-task using the same part of our brain for two separate activities, the ensuing neural overwhelm actually causes our brain function to diminish.  That means that neither task is done very well.  That is part of the reason why road safety campaigns implore us not to use our phones while driving; it really is incredibly dangerous.

Studies have been undertaken with people who claim to be excellent in multitasking.  The results show that those who are most adamant that they are brilliant multi-taskers, are in fact the worst.

There are two ways you can effectively do two things at once: the first is where one of the tasks is so well learned that it can almost be done on automatic.  The other way is where the two tasks require different parts of the brain.  I can listen to classical music played quietly while reading or writing.  If the television is on or songs are being played, then the same part of my brain is required to process the words I’m hearing (in the song or on television) and those I am either trying to create or read.  My brain can’t take care of both tasks simultaneously.  Now I understand why I can listen to classical music while reading, but not songs.

In the workplace it takes an average 15-25 minutes to become fully re-engaged with an activity once you have been distracted.  With the barrage of interruptions that the average worker faces on a daily basis it’s a wonder anyone is productive.

There are medical consequences to multi-tasking attempts.  According to Dr Clifford Nass from Stanford University, chronic multi-taskers have diminished powers of mental organisation difficulty switching between tasks and more social problems than their low-multi-tasking peers.  Attempts to multitask also generate stress hormones, contributing to health issues such as memory dysfunction.

Mindfulness could be the antidote to multi-tasking.  It is also the antithesis of multi-tasking: acting mindfully is holding your attention on one thing to the exclusion of all else.  Even more than just attention, it is bringing full sensory awareness to whatever you are doing.  It has been described as “keeping one’s consciousness alive to the present reality”: Thich Nhat Hanh.  It is also described as the capacity to direct and maintain receptive awareness, and sustaining an accepting attitude towards all experience.

Mindfulness has its origins in Buddhism.  While it is most popularly associated with meditation, mindfulness can be carried out with activities such as eating, walking, washing dishes, driving and practicing golf.  In fact mindfulness can be used in any situation where you bring your awareness in a non-judgemental way to whatever activity you are doing.  Its health benefits have been widely studied and recorded, making it an increasingly popular intervention for illnesses such as stress, anxiety and depression.

Studies where subjects have undertaken mindfulness training, even for periods of eight weeks, show results that include higher trait mindfulness, greater tolerance of ambiguity, a greater tendency to adopt a Heuristic rather than Algorithmic thinking style, greater complexity in thinking style, greater positive affect, and less negative affect.

If you practice your golf listening to music then your attention won’t be fully on the task of practising.  This also means your attention is being applied differently to what it will be on the golf course.  If you believe that you can effectively practice and listen to music at the time, then it is likely you fit into the group studied by Dr Nass.

The greatest service you can do to your golf game in practice is to do so mindfully.  This means completely attending to the task at hand; listening to the sound of your shots, checking your technique, feeling the movement of your golf swing, building a high performance routine and mental state, as well as adding variety and competition to your practice.  If you think you can do this effectively with distractions all around you, then you are deluding yourself.

In one of the many letters he wrote to his son in the 1740s, Lord Chesterfield offered the following advice:
“There is time enough for everything in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once, but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time.” 

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