Breathing Exercises Can Help Multitaskers Focus

By Temma Ehrenfeld  @temmaehrenfeld
June 21, 2016

People who tend to do two things at once get the most benefit from a meditation exercise. 

The more often we see our kids texting while wearing headphones or watching TV the more we worry that they’ll lose the ability to focus. 

We are all adapting to a world with conflicting demands on our attention. Carrying phones around, for example, implies that we’ll be monitoring them. “Many people have had the experience where they’ve felt a phantom phone ring or vibration in their pocket,” says C. Shawn Green, PhD, a psychology professor at University of Wisconsin–Madison who studies attention. “That means part of your attention is actively monitoring your leg (phone), even while you’re trying to do other things.” The effect may be similar when you work at the computer and keep checking your email or instant messages.


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That can be easier for some people than others. Research suggests that heavy “media multitaskers” — people who like to divide their attention between different kinds of media — are different from light media multitaskers, who do this much less often. The first group may be more impulsive. Some studies show that they have trouble switching between tasks, because they fail to focus, and they may have other attention problems. But the research is mixed. Other studies have been positive, finding that people who like to double up on media are better at switching between tasks and shine on tests that require absorbing information from multiple sources simultaneously — just as you’d expect.

It’s an important issue, since being distractible hurts performance in school, can weaken social ties if you never seem to be listening, and can make it harder to set and pursue goals.

Now the good news: Green’s group has shown that 10 minutes of a breathing exercise can help anyone focus. You can try it out yourself at their website. The exercise: count nine breaths, including the inhale and exhale. Then count nine breaths again. 

For the study, the researchers had nearly 1,700 undergraduates answer question about their media use, and culled 22 who spent appreciably more of their time taking in two or more kinds of media and 20 on the other extreme. 


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The participants came for research sessions on two different days. One day they took attention tests with 10-minutes breaks for browsing the internet. On another day, they instead did 10 minutes of the breath-counting exercise between tests.

Heavy media multitaskers scored worse than light media multitaskers all around. Both groups posted better attention scores right after counting breaths. But the heavy multitaskers showed more improvement after breath counting. 

Other research on meditation backs up the idea that a brief session can have immediate benefits.

In fact, eight sessions of mindfulness training boosted scores on a standardized test and improved working memory in one study. This time, researchers randomly assigned 48 college students to a mindfulness class or a nutrition class. The classes met for 45 minutes, four times per week, over two weeks. Both groups took the verbal reasoning section of the GRE, a test to get into graduate school, before and after the two weeks. 

The results: mindfulness training resulted in about a 16 percentile-point boost on the GRE test, on average.

Besides meditation, people can sharpen their focus by listening to music, and absorbing nature even in photos

What if your daughter likes to play video games? It’s possible that mastering a challenging game enhances learning ability, but much of the research suggests that she’ll mostly learn how to play games better. So try to encourage her to take off the headphones, turn off the TV, put down the phone, and count her breaths in nine-breath chunks for 10 minutes. If she really wants to use her phone, there’s an app for that! She can browse these:


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April 02, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN