Since I started dental school, the biggest habit I picked up is being a chronic maximizer. As a first year, I was presented with so many new opportunities that I found myself overwhelmed with a desire to take on everything. But, when you’re trying to balance a personal life, academic obligations, extracurriculars and taking care of yourself, time becomes your most precious commodity. Efficiency became the name of the game and before I knew it, every little pocket of time was spent trying to tick off yet another item on my to-do list. Waiting in line at the supermarket? Perfect time to send out an email or two. Got out of class early? Time to call up those vendors for that event we’re planning next month.
Multitasking like this is common and can be fairly innocuous when it comes to efficiently optimizing a busy schedule. The problems, however, emerge when it becomes a habit that extends into your personal life. Our cognitive ability to mentally stray, also known as stimulus-independent thought (SIT), is an important evolutionary development that allows humans to think, plan and reason simply by focusing on something other than the present moment. In fact, SIT appears to be the brain’s default mode of operation.
A 2010 study published in Science confirmed mind-wandering to be a common cognitive phenomenon, occurring at approximately 47% of the time in a given day. However, all of this comes at an emotional cost: participants reported increased levels of unhappiness when this occurred, indicating a correlation of “mind-wandering” with unhappiness. Even when we step back from the science, it’s easy to see how translatable these findings are to our personal lives. By spreading myself too thin across many personal and professional obligations, I found myself trying to be in two places at once. My habits appeared to produce productive results, but I wasn’t any happier or satisfied with what I was doing.
Earlier this year, after cutting down my involvement to a more manageable level, I chose to prioritize my well-being by acting on this principle. Whether it meant sitting through a three hour lecture on the finer details of a buccal pit preparation, or simply spending time with friends, I’ve decided to live by a simple rule: be present.
Take a look around you, listen more closely, and absorb the present moment. While we can never completely escape SIT, practicing increased mindfulness can help you take the first steps towards mitigating its negative emotional impact. After all, each moment you spend thinking about something else means missing out on a potential emotional connection with your patients, classmates or loved ones. So the next time you’re bogged down by a never-ending to-do list, remember to take a step back and focus on what’s in front of you. It’s not just about maximizing your time, but learning to do so in the right places–I promise you’ll be happier for it.
Are you interested in practicing mindfulness but don’t know how to go about it? ASDA is holding a free webinar called “Staying Present: Mindfulness in Health Care” on June 21 at 7:30pm CST. Dr. Dzung X. Vo is a pediatrician specializing in adolescent medicine who co-developed an 8-week training program on mindfulness. Click here to register.
~ Sharlene Cam, Los Angeles ’18, electronic editor
About Sharlene Cam
Sharlene is a third-year dental student at the University of California, Los Angeles. She currently serves as chapter Vice President and as an Electronic Editor on the national ASDA Editorial Board. In her free time, she enjoys graphic design and crafting.