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There's evidence they're correct. Researchers have found that multitasking leads to lower overall productivity. Students and workers who constantly and rapidly switch between tasks have less ability to filter out irrelevant information, and they make more mistakes. And many corporate workers today find it impossible to take breaks. According to a recent survey, more than half of employed American adults check work messages on the weekends and 4 in 10 do so while on vacation. It's hard to unwind when your boss or employees know you're just a smartphone away. Says Marturano: "The technology has gone beyond what we are capable of handling."
It might seem paradoxical, then, that Silicon Valley has become a hotbed of mindfulness classes and conferences. Wisdom 2.0, an annual mindfulness gathering for tech leaders, started in 2009 with 325 attendees, and organizers expect more than 2,000 at this year's event, where participants will hear from Kabat-Zinn, along with executives from Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Google, meanwhile, has an in-house mindfulness program called Search Inside Yourself. The seven-week course was started by a Google engineer and is offered four times a year on the company's Mountain View, Calif., campus. Through the course, thousands of Googlers have learned attention-focusing techniques, including meditation, meant to help them free up mental space for creativity and big thinking.
It makes sense in a way. Engineers who write code often talk about "being in the zone" the same way a successful athlete can be, which mindfulness teachers say is the epitome of being present and paying attention. (Apple co-founder Steve Jobs said his meditation practice was directly responsible for his ability to concentrate and ignore distractions.) Of course, much of that world-class engineering continues to go into gadgets and software that will only ratchet up our distraction level.
But lately there's been some progress in tapping technology for solutions too. There are hundreds of mindfulness and meditation apps available from iTunes, including one called Headspace, offered by a company of the same name led by Andy Puddicombe, a former Buddhist monk. Puddicombe, 40, co-founded Headspace in the U.K. in 2010 and opened a new office in Los Angeles in 2013 after attracting venture capital. The company offers free content through an app and sells subscriptions to a series of web videos, billed as a "gym membership for the mind," that are narrated by Puddicombe and explain the tenets of mindfulness and how to meditate.
"There's nothing bad or harmful about the smartphone if we have the awareness of how to use it in the right way," says Puddicombe. "It's unplugging by plugging in."
THE SCIENCE OF DESTRESSING
Jon Kabat-Zinn, the father of MBSR, doesn't look like the kind of person to be selling meditation and mindfulness to America's fast-paced, stressed-out masses. When I met him at a mindfulness conference in April, he was dressed in corduroys, a button-down shirt and a blazer, with wire-rimmed glasses and a healthy head of thick gray hair. He looked more like the professor he trained to become than the mindfulness guru he is.