It's impossible to avoid technology in the 21st century. Television, smartphones, the internet, iPods — it all demands attention. Those who scour multiple media outlets at once such as texting while watching a movie or listening to music while surfing the internet often struggle to focus on one task. Getting these people to pay attention, however, could be as simple as breathing. Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison have demonstrated that a short meditation exercise can help media multitaskers sharpen their senses.

“In general, people perform better after this mindfulness task,” the study's first author Thomas Gorman said in a statement. “But we found a significant difference for heavy media multitaskers. They improved even more on tests of their attention.”

But, as technology becomes more and more ubiquitous, it gets harder for people to juggle the many sources of media available to them.

“Many people have had the experience where they’ve felt a phantom phone ring or vibration in their pocket,” said senior study author C. Shawn Green, a UW-Madison psychology professor. “That means part of your attention is actively monitoring your leg, even while you’re trying to do other things.”

Green added that that constant monitoring of potential sources induces a lot of stress, and in turn messes with a person’s attentional state. Studies have suggested those who let several types of media distract them at once score poorly on attentional tests even when the media sources are gone. These results are bad news for media junkies, because that means their attention to work and relationships suffers, too.

However, previous research has shown that a simple, guided meditation exercise is helpful for those who struggle to maintain their attention. Participants simply count their breaths: nine inhales and exhales.

“We thought this mindfulness task might be particularly useful to media multitaskers because it is, conceptually, somewhat the opposite of media multitasking,” Green said. “It’s deep focus on a single thing, and that single thing is not actually very demanding of your attention.”

The practice does require focus, since minds are bound to wander during such a simple exercise.

“No one can stay focused on it indefinitely,” Gorman explained. “When you notice your attention slipping away, you bring it back over and over. You’re practicing that skill, refocusing your attention.”

The study’s participants self-reported they were guilty of media multitasking much of the time, and researchers compared them to a control group that rarely combined media. Both groups took tests to measure their attention: First when interspersed with browsing the internet, and on a second day preceded by the meditation exercise. The media multitaskers, unsurprisingly, scored worse on the attention tests. Both groups, though, scored better after the breathing exercise.

“We know that the beneficial effects aren’t long lasting in this case, as they didn’t carry over across days,” Green said. “However, one thing the presence of short-term effects suggests is that attentional system in heavy media multitaskers isn’t intractably affected. It is possible for heavy media multitaskers to adopt a more focused attentional state.”

Source: Gorman T, Green C. Short-term Mindfulness Intervention Reduces the Negative Attentional Effects Associated With Heavy Media Multitasking. Scientific Reports. 2016.