Why has it become so hard to do simple tasks without a simultaneous audio entertainment track? I’m sure I’m not the only one to see this trend in myself and my family. There are five of us—me, my husband, and our three teen boys. We have eight pairs of AirPods between us, and we get our money’s worth from them. But I don’t think this trend is our friend.
Collectively, I believe we are developing an intolerance for silence or any gaps in our stimulation over the course of the day. Doing the dishes, cutting vegetables, shaving, working out, taking a walk, and folding laundry seem increasingly incomplete without a podcast, music track, or audiobook. For some people, even doing work tasks or schoolwork requires a soundtrack.
This particular form of escapism is worthy of deeper exploration and caution.
The Hidden Cost of Ever-Present Entertainment
I love audiobooks and podcasts. I have an insatiable interest in personal development and transportive fiction, both of which I consume in audio form. But this endless desire to be plugged in feeds into the multitasking norm all around us. Consequently, we’re forgetting how to be with our own thoughts, how to enjoy simple things—and we’re often running from feelings and realities of our lives that need attention.
What is very clear to me from my experience as both an escaper and one watching the escape is that our “presence” is not where our bodies are but rather where our minds are. There is a name for this phenomenon of leaving the room without leaving the room. It’s called “absent presence,” a concept generally originated by Swarthmore psychology professor Kenneth Gergen. Absent presence is what happens when you’re physically in the room but not “in” the room. It affects our relationships and can have an impact on our enjoyment of life and clarity of mind.
The famous Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, who I was lucky enough to go on retreat with, once said: “While washing the dishes, one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes, one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes.”
Sound boring? Actually, it’s not. I know because when I was on that retreat, we were asked to do everything mindfully. The pleasure of each activity increased to the degree we were successful. When I’m in a Buddhist state of mind and can wash the dishes with full attention, I experience a tremendous amount of satisfaction in the process, from the warm water to the soapy suds to the act of transforming a dirty thing into a clean one.
When it comes to listening to music, or really any audio content, the personalisation aspect introduces another factor—with multiple family members begin plugged in separately to their own devices at the same time. When sitting around on a Saturday, why are we not listening to one thing altogether? Because the bounty of entertainment choices before us has made group compromise seem unnecessary. Why try to agree on a musical genre when I can listen to the Beatles at the same time my husband listens to his Aerosmith favourites, and my kids enjoy Imagine Dragons?
In addition to separating us, the endless soundtrack habit also affects how well we do the task at hand. We all know that multitasking affects our performance at work, making our IQs go down and our mistakes go up. But interestingly, the University of Cambridge found that mental multitasking can even diminish our performance in non-cognitive activities such as athletics. In a study of elite rowers from the university’s boat club who took a recall test while rowing, their rowing power fell by an average of 12.6% due to a phenomenon called the “selfish brain,” where the body directs glucose to the brain over the muscles when both are simultaneously taxed.
Discover: The 5 Ingredients of Mindful Living
And the constant auditory input that many of us now indulge in can have severe implications for our capacity to focus and maintain attention. The mind, continuously toggling between various stimuli, finds it challenging to settle into a state of deep focus, necessary for the cultivation of creativity and complex problem-solving.
Committing to More Mindful Time
I’ve learned over the years that I can only influence my family so much, but our screen-free Sundays (which will be the topic of the next newsletter) have helped, as I can count on at least one day per week where we can’t plug into anything. For course correction beyond this one communal agreement, I’m going to begin with these commitments to myself, adhering to them as best I can:
1) I commit to becoming aware of all the entertainment and stimulation I “grout” into my day. “Grouting” is the tendency we have to see an open moment in our day as something to fill in, like grout that fills in the spaces between the tiles. I’ll watch my craving to “fill in” as it appears and I’ll try to sit with the craving without giving in.
2) I commit to alternating entertainment time with white space. With more awareness and building willpower around my grouting tendency, I’ll try to consciously alternate time for mindfulness and being fully present, time for multitasking entertainment, and time with others (without distractions and devices).
3) I commit to using history to remind myself of what’s possible. I'm grateful for every modern tool that fuels our society today. But the very recent advent of portable entertainment has meant that silence is now a choice, not a fact of life. I will bring to mind the centuries of people who walked through the activities of life with only nature’s soundtrack and be inspired by this contemplation. By imagining the farmer, the baker, the lighthouse keeper, or even the mother of the past, I will inspire myself to step into the uncomfortable silence and trust its gifts.
What we truly value is reflected in what we actually do. If I value thoughtfulness—which I wholeheartedly do—I need to value and re-prioritise the time I give to it. And I know that you do as well. Being present to ourselves, to others, to our purpose is a gift we can give ourselves, our colleagues, and the people we love. I hope you make your own commitment to entertain yourself less and just “be.”
You may like this: 5 Ways To Use Mindfulness For Your Benefit
Here’s to the challenge before us. To embrace the glorious landscape of entertainment being gifted to us without losing our presence and connections in the process. I believe that with one small act of mindfulness at a time, we can do exactly that and perhaps even eventually inspire our loved ones to follow suit.
Are there specific activities or times of day when you consciously choose to unplug from audio entertainment? What are they, and what has your experience been like?
This article was also published on Juliet Funt's LinkedIn.
This article is also available in Chinese.