The other day while I was visiting a friend, she offered her dog a bone. The dog wanted the bone, but didn’t want to drop the toy animal in his mouth to get the bone.
“Jack, you can’t have both at the same time,” my friend said.
Most of us are like Jack: we want more than one thing at once. We’re not willing to let go of one thing in order to do another.
We’re doing one work task while trying to stay on top of email, text messages and social media. We’re talking with a friend while seeing what we’re missing on Facebook and Instagram. We’re eating while planning. Making love while thinking about work.
Like Jack, we think can hold two things in our mouths at once, but actually that’s a fantasy. We can’t taste the food while thinking about what we need to do later. Our mouths may be moving and the food might be swallowed, but there’s no awareness of how the food tastes. Instead, we’re switching back and forth between the planning and the tasting, like a dog going back and forth between a bone and a toy, not content to do just one thing at a time.
I’d like to offer, as an alternative, full-screen living.
What’s full-screen living? It’s a life where we allow one thing to take up the entirety of our attention — going into full-screen mode, like a video on your computer — while allowing everything else to fade into the background.
Let’s take a look.
Full-Screen Computer Work
I prefer full-screen, distraction-free text editors like WriteRoom, OmmWriter, or Q10. They fill up your screen so there are no distractions as you write — it’s just you and your text. No notifications, no other tabs open, no other programs showing, no clock or icons.
But full-screen work on the computer doesn’t have to stop there. You can do almost anything in full-screen mode. I watch videos in full-screen mode — online videos on YouTube or Vimeo, or ones saved on my computer in iTunes. If I’m working in a browser tab, I’ll pull that tab out into a new window, so that it hides any other tabs that might be open. Or I’ll close all other tabs — save things I want to read later in Instapaper and close them, or make note on a to-do list of tasks I need to do that are represented by open tabs, and close the tabs.
When you bring whatever task you’re working on, or video you’re watching, or article you’re reading, into full-screen mode, everything else fades into the background. You just have the one task in front of you, the one thing to read or write, and you aren’t switching back and forth between bone and toy.
This means you can fully focus, can fully savor the article, can fully give your attention to your work. You do better when there’s only one thing in your mouth, or in your attention.
That’s fine for computer work, but what about life in general? You can live exactly the same way.
If you’re going to spend time with your child, don’t switch between the child tab and the work tabs in the browser of your mind. Put your child into full-screen mode, and let him take up all your attention, and let work and everything else you need to do later fade into the background.
You’ll still get to the work, when you’re done with what you’re doing with your child, but for now, be fully in this one activity, with this one person. When you’re done with that, you can bring your work into full-screen mode, and let the rest of your life go into the background for the moment.
If you eat, let the food fill up the screen of your attention, not your thinking about other things. If you’re showering, let that fill your attention, instead of planning. When you’re brushing your teeth, let the “conversation” (read: argument) you had earlier fade away and just brush your teeth.
When you work, do one task at a time. And don’t just do one task at a time, but do that task with all your attention (or as much as possible), and don’t be thinking about the other tasks.
Ah, easier said than done, right? How do you let other things go when you are doing one thing? How do you focus on your child, or your food, instead of your work?
It takes practice. As with anything, when you first start practicing, you won’t be great at it, but you’ll get better with practice. Start today.
A great practice is sitting meditation, where you do nothing but sit, and maybe just pay attention to your breath. That’s difficult, as our minds tend to throw thought after thought at us, but noticing those thoughts can be a useful practice that is carried into all other activities in our lives.
Beyond sitting, try mindful cleaning. What you learn in sitting and cleaning will be applicable in every other full-screen activity you do each day.
Full-screen living isn’t necessarily easier than one where you’re constantly switching between the tabs of your mind. It takes constant practice, and in fact that practice is every waking moment.
But if we realize we can’t have the bone and the toy in our mouth at the same time, then we realize that by giving up the toy, we’ll enjoy the bone so much more. It will be fully tasted, instead of stuffed into a mouth that can’t taste it.